Tooth/Body Flashback: One Simple Change to Help Kids Eat Healthier

by | May 15, 2024 | Children's Oral Health, Diet & Nutrition | 0 comments

It’s hard to overemphasize just how much the food you eat affects oral health.

A diet that’s 1) centered on whole food with lots of fresh produce, lean meats and fish, and healthy fats, and 2) low added sugars and refined grains (think white bread, pasta, cookies – anything made from white flour) is one that contributes to a healthy smile and a vastly reduced risk of decay and gum disease.

As many a parent can attest, though, it can be tough to raise kids to eat healthfully in an environment that’s absolutely dominated by hyper-processed food. But “tough” doesn’t mean “impossible,” as you can see through some of the resources we’ve shared from a variety of parent-bloggers in past posts such as this one or this.

One more bit of advice comes courtesy of a recent German study in JAMA Network Open: If you want to encourage healthier eating, try having longer family meals.

Fifty pairs of parents and children (aged 6 to 11, and equal numbers of boys and girls) took part in the study. Each was randomly assigned to eat a regular family dinner or an evening meal that was 50% longer. One to three weeks later, each was assigned the alternate dining condition.

Participants were served a typical German evening meal of sliced bread, cold cuts of cheese and meat, and bite-sized pieces of fruits and vegetables. At the end of the meal, the table was cleared and participants were offered a dessert of chocolate pudding or fruit yogurt and cookies. Water and 1 sugar-sweetened beverage were provided throughout the meal. All foods and beverages served reflected the child’s preferences as reported in the online preassessment.

The research team found that kids ate more vegetables and fruit during the longer dinners without consuming more overall: 3.32 more pieces of fruit and 3.66 more pieces of veg.

During the longer dinners, kids also tended to drink more water – although consumption of sweetened beverages was slightly higher, as well. The kids chewed slower and also reported feeling more satisfied at the end of the longer meals.

“Higher intake of fruits and vegetables during longer meals cannot be explained by longer exposure to food alone,” the researchers wrote;

otherwise, an increased intake of bread and cold cuts would have occurred. One possible explanation is that the fruits and vegetables were cut into bite-sized pieces, making them convenient to eat. Previous studies found that longer exposure to accessible foods increased the intake of these foods. Inconvenience or friction may explain why children did not consume more of the main components, such as bread or cheese, during longer meals; grabbing a bite-sized piece of fruit seemed more convenient than topping a slice of bread with cheese. Explorative analyses showed that the longer the meal lasted, the more fruits and vegetables the children ate and that more vegetables were eaten from the start, whereas the additional fruit was consumed during the extra time.

They went on to suggest some ways for families to create new routines with longer mealtimes:

  • Make the change to dinnertime, rather than a family breakfast, say, when everyone’s more likely to be in a bit of a rush.
  • Incorporate children’s preferences (e.g., playing background music they like).
  • Set transparent rules (e.g., you can’t just get up and leave once you’re done eating but must remain at the table for a certain amount of time).

And, of course, you’ve got to include the fruit and veg: “The effect of family meal duration on children’s intake of fruits and vegetables requires the availability of fruits and vegetables on the table.”

For those of us who are older, this might sound a bit like the family dinners we remembered from our own childhoods. Certainly, sitting together around the dinner table at the end of the day has become something of a lost art – one that some may say that we’re the worst for. For family dinners aren’t just about eating but connecting with each other.

“A shared meal is no small thing,” as Michael Pollan has put it. “It is a foundation of family life.”

Originally posted April 19, 2023

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