Family Mealtime's Disappearing Act

Another factor at the heart of the nation’s struggle with weight gain and obesity is family mealtime.

Psychotherapist and nutrition expert Ellyn Satter, the author of several books on children’s eating, once treated a 6-year-old boy who weighed well over 100 pounds. His parents wanted her to put him on a diet, but Satter discovered that the boy was overeating primarily because he was afraid he might not get his next meal. Both of his parents worked different shifts and were having a hard time providing balanced, sit-down meals for the child. When they did manage a meal, Satter says, the parents tried to restrict the child’s food intake because he was overweight.

“This fat child was very afraid that he was going to have to go without,” she says. “His solution was to make the rounds in his small town, going from one set of relatives to another, arranging to show up at mealtimes so they would feed him.”

While this is an extreme example of how today’s rushed lifestyles – and parents’ concerns about children’s weight issues – can interfere with eating right, it illustrates a point that nutrition experts often make about the importance of family mealtimes.

“I’ve had parents in my office with their kids eating chips and drinking soda, and the parents are saying, ‘Sorry, we didn’t have time to eat breakfast,’” says Keith Ayoob, Ed.D., R.D., a professor of pediatrics and a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association (ADA). “That’s a red flag that we need to change our priorities. You cannot have no time to feed your kids.”

Make Mealtime a Family Affair
Satter’s approach is to treat childhood obesity as a behavioral problem. Children are born with internal regulators that let them know when they’ve eaten enough, she says. Often, kids with excess weight actually grow into that weight if given well-balanced meals in a pleasant, positive way that emphasizes family acceptance and time together.

But when mealtimes are rushed, stressed or fragmented, or when parents constantly try to restrict or force what their children eat, kids often respond by eating more, Satter points out. “The idea is that eating and feeding your kids is really more than meting out grams of fat and carbohydrates. It really has to do with our relationships and satisfying our emotional needs.”

When families take the time to create meals, sit down together to eat, discuss the day’s events and touch base with each other, children look to mealtime as a pleasant, secure experience – not a battleground or a rushed, high-stress event, Satter says. They get a well-balanced meal, they eat until they are satisfied, and there is no pressure to either eat more or less. Once families make this “back-to-basics” approach a habit, she says, they can start to look at what and how much they’re eating.

Ayoob agrees: “It isn’t meant to sound like the burden is all on the parents. It’s an opportunity for parents – a change in lifestyle. And the payoffs are healthier eating patterns and stronger family bonding.”