September 13, 2007 / 4:40 PM / in 10 years

Family meals may have lasting impact on kids' diets

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Teenagers who sit down to meals with their families may have healthier diets as adults, according to a new study.

The findings, say researchers, point up the importance of the traditional family dinner -- something that has fallen by the wayside in an age of hectic schedules and take-out food.

Some past studies have suggested that when parents and children regularly connect over dinner, children are less likely to take up habits like smoking and drinking. The new findings, which appear in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, suggest that children’s diets may also benefit in the long run.

Among the more than 1,700 teenagers researchers followed for five years, those who ate the most meals with their families tended to have a more healthful diet in young adulthood.

By their early 20s, these teens reported eating more fruits and vegetables, drinking less soda, and getting more fiber, potassium and magnesium than their peers who ate few meals with their families.

“Based on the findings, families should be encouraged to share meals as often as possible,” advised study chief Dr. Nicole Larson, a research associate at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.

Family meals probably teach teenagers how to make healthful food choices, she told Reuters Health, with parents serving as a “model” of healthy eating.

Of course, this doesn’t mean picking up fast-food on the way home each night. Instead, Larson said, meals should include lean proteins like grilled chicken, whole grains like brown rice, and plenty of vegetables. Water or milk should be the choice over soda, while fruit makes a healthful dessert, she noted.

If the current findings are any indication, regularly sitting down to such meals could have lasting effects on teenagers’ diets, the researchers conclude.

SOURCE: Journal of the American Dietetic Association, September 2007.

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