To create a happy home, family members must be both emotionally and physically nourished. As The Family: A Proclamation to the World states, parents have a responsibility to provide for their children’s physical needs. Through small steps, such as encouraging nutrition in the home, families can flourish.
Elements of a Healthy Diet
A healthy diet is defined in the United States as one that “emphasizes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and fat-free or low-fat milk and milk products; Includes lean meats, poultry, fish, beans, eggs, and nuts; and Is low in saturated fats, trans fats, cholesterol, salt (sodium), and added sugars”6.
Health Canada5 recommends the following to enhance family dietary choices:
- Consume at least one dark green and one orange vegetable each day.
- Eat vegetables and fruit in their purest forms, with little or no added fat, sugar or salt.
- Choose primarily whole grain products.
- Drink 500 mL (2 cups) of milk daily.
- Instead of eating meat products for protein, occasionally substitute them for beans, lentils, and tofu.
- Eat at least two servings of fish each week, such as “char, herring, mackerel, salmon, sardines and trout.”
With the emergence of fast food restaurants and junk food factories, families have abandoned the regular home cooked meals widely embraced by previous generations, thus losing the nutritional benefits of foods. For example, the foods with the most nutrients are dark greens, such as romaine lettuce, kale, collards, Swiss chard, and spinach4. When fast food restaurants offer salads, the lettuce used usually has few nutrients. Salads are also often coated with dressings and toppings that are high in saturated fat and calories, lowering the overall health benefits of the salad. When parents did not rely on fast-foods for their meals, they were able to provide more wholesome meals made with fresh ingredients. Instead of fresh ingredients, restaurants now commonly rely on processed foods such as canned, frozen, or packaged goods with added chemicals to retain “freshness”. By lengthening the shelf life of foods through processing, many nutrients naturally found in the foods are lost.
The website http://www.fruitsandveggiesmorematters.org/ suggests “eating fruits and vegetables of different colors” to provide bodies with a variety of nutrients, including “fiber, folate, potassium, and vitamins A and C.” This principle can be applied to most eating habits: eat a variety of fruits, vegetables, grains, and proteins, as all offer different benefits. Eating more slow-food (or meals cooked in the home) rather than fast-food will automatically increase the health in a household.
Instead of trying to overhaul your family’s entire diet, pick one or two of these ideas that appeal to you. Perhaps add a vegetable to the dinner plate, or fresh fruit with breakfast; if your family is consuming primarily white bread, try introducing whole grain products to your household; begin celebrating “Meatless Mondays” or “Fishy Fridays.” If children do not initially seem to enjoy the new foods that are introduced, try again later. Studies show that “acceptance of specific food items increases with repeated, neutral exposure—typically 10 to 20 exposures. … Exposures include looking at the food; touching, smelling, and handling it; preparing it, and tasting it over and over”10 (p. 2). Parents should not pressure children into eating all food, but food should be available should they choose to eat it.
Beyond anything else, it is important to remember that “When the joy goes out of eating, nutrition suffers”10 (p. 1).
The Importance of Positive Parenting Surrounding Food
Positive parenting must precede positive outcomes in family health. From birth, a child knows how to respond to his or her body to receive proper nutrition. Only from outside influences may this innate ability be altered. It is the parent’s responsibility to offer the children food; it is the child’s responsibility to choose how much to eat if anything9. In the book The Surprising Power of Family Meals by Miriam Weinstein, a similar sentiment is shared. Weinstein shares the research of psychologist Paul Rozin, who believes that Americans worry too much about what foods children like and dislike. Rather, emphasis should be placed on enjoying the meal, as, for example, Italians do, when “everyone is just smiling and enjoying themselves. There’s no bargaining over what gets eaten. Dessert isn’t the big event”11 (p. 63). Parents should consider adopting the philosophy of joy to encourage not only physical health but emotional health at the dinner table.
Children cannot be expected to eat nutritious meals if parents do the opposite. Recent research has shown that a child’s diet is heavily influenced by the quality of the mother’s diet. An analysis of the research results states that when mothers have better health habits, their children are more likely to eat healthy foods as well8. A child’s diet is also influenced by the diet of his or her siblings, as well as the birth order of siblings, and the number of siblings one has8. Care must be taken to maintain a healthy lifestyle for the entire household, not merely a portion of the household. If older children or parents are eating foods that lack nutritional elements, younger children may follow that example.
While it is important to encourage health within a family, excess pressure can be hurtful to individual family members. For example, excess weight in children has been shown to be associated with parents who are controlling and restrictive with food2. Research has also shown that when a mother encourages her daughter to diet, the daughter is “five times more likely to engage in extreme weight control behaviors than girls whose mothers did not encourage them to diet”7 (p. 274). Additionally, when mothers engage in dieting themselves, similar negative outcomes appear in daughters7. Extreme dieting should never be encouraged within the home. Rather, healthy eating habits should be encouraged within the family unit.
If concern for the child’s health arises, parents should consult with a healthcare professional.
It’s easy for parents to forget good parenting while they are encouraging good eating in their homes. Here are some ideas to do both:
- Get children involved in planning and creating meals. When a child is involved in this process, not only are they more invested in the meal, but they also know what the meal is composed of. This goes back to the idea that children should have several neutral exposures to the foods they are introduced to.
- Be a good example of healthy eating. Parents can also concentrate on their own food choices outside of family meals. When parents maintain healthy eating habits, their children are more likely to follow suit.
- Avoid power struggles over eating. Parents should strive to keep peace, calmness, and happiness present at the dinner table. They should avoid forcing children to eat certain foods. They are likely to lose any power struggle; the relationship will also suffer.
For more information on how to plan and prepare nutritious foods, parents should consider taking classes from a local college, a community sponsored program, or grocery stores.
Mealtime as a Ritual for Healthy Eating
One of the easiest ways to encourage a healthier home is to make mealtime a ritual, by making mealtimes special and meaningful, and placing value on that time together11. Rituals have a set beginning, enactment, and end. In the case of a meal, a prayer could mark the beginning of the meal, the enactment is eating the meal, and the end could be gathering plates, or some other act done after a meal. Each family is different and should decide together how to organize mealtime as a ritual. By setting aside a time to eat together, a wholesome and nutritious meal can be shared and relationships can be strengthened.
When family members are all sharing the same foods at a meal, children have the chance to see what foods are good for the body and what foods are not good for the body2. Children are also shown how foods should be eaten, such as “what size portion they are given, …whether or not they are expected to finish, whether they should expect seconds or thirds, whether they will be praised for eating a little or a lot,”11 (p. 65). Children establish their eating habits from being a part of family meals. They not only learn what foods to eat, but how to eat them.
According to Dr. William Doherty in his book The Intentional Family, if the schedules of family members do not allow for regular mealtimes spent together, even beginning with one regular meal per week can be beneficial1. To establish a regular mealtime, parents should first consider the needs they want to meet and the values they want to promote within their home. Such values include strengthening familial relationships, service in the home, sacrificing for others, or showing love to one another in other ways. By concentrating on meeting such needs and strengthening the values a family shares, a family can become an “intentional family.” For example, by making the conscious (intentional) decision to have mealtime be a ritual, a family can thereby strengthen relationships and health.
In her book How to Get Your Kid to Eat… But Not Too Much by Ellyn Satter, she reaffirms the need to establish such habits in the home. “At home,” she states, “it’s important to continue offering meals and snacks and to keep good food around. It’s all right to say ‘don’t eat now, dinner is in an hour,’ and, ‘get out of the refrigerator—you’ve had your snack.’ Scheduled eating times are still important. It’s good to eat and then forget about it. When you can eat any old time, food becomes an issue all the time”9 (p. 26).
Regardless of where you eat or what you eat, it is important that a family face each other while eating meals. You may also choose one place to define as the eating space, such as a dining room table. In such a case, eating should be restricted to that one area. If the dining room table is used for other activities as well, make sure to clear it off for its dedication to mealtime11. This will help children associate the dining room table with mealtime, helping to further establish mealtime as a ritual.
To improve nutrition within the home, one should consider what kinds of foods will help the body flourish, how to positively guide children to eat such foods, and how to make mealtime a special time within the family. While nutrition is only one aspect of living a healthy life, making such improvements in this one area can lead to health in other areas as well.
What rituals have you already established in your home? How do such practices bring your family together? How can you ritualize a meal, if you have not done so already?
- Pollan, Michael (2009). Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual. New York: Penguin Books.
- Pollan, Michael (2009). The Omnivore’s Dilemma for Kids: The Secret Behind What You Eat. New York: Penguin Books.
- University of Utah Department of Family and Preventative Medicine (2009). Reshape Your Plate Nutrition Guide.
Written by Allison Barnes, Research Assistant, and edited by Christine Moore and Stephen F. Duncan, professors in the School of Family Life, Brigham Young University.
- Doherty, W. J. (1999). The intentional family. New York: Harper Paperbacks.
- Fiese, B. H., Schwartz, M. (2008). Reclaiming the family table: Mealtimes and child health and wellbeing. Social Policy Report, 22(4), 1-20.
- Furhman, J. (2005). Eat to live: The revolutionary formula for fast and sustained weight loss. New York: Little, Brown and Company.
- Neumark-Sztainer, D., Bauer, K. W., Friend, S., Hannan, P. J., Story, M., Berge, J. M. (2010). Family weight talk and dieting: How do they matter for body dissatisfaction and disordered eating behaviors in adolescent girls? Journal of Adolescent Health, 47, 270-276.
- Robinson, S., Marriott, L., Poole, J., Crozier, S., Borland, S., Lawrence, W., … Inskip, H. (2007). Dietary patterns in infancy: the importance of maternal and family influences on feeding practice. British Journal of Nutrition, 98, 1029-1037.
- Satter, E. (1987). How to get your kid to eat: But not too much. Boulder, CO: Bull Publishing.
- Satter, E. (2007). Eating competence: Nutrition education with the Satter Eating Competence Model. Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, 39, S189-S194.
- Weinstein, M. (2005). The surprising power of family meals: How eating together makes us smarter, stronger, healthier and happier. Hanover, NH: Steerforth.