Television in the 1950s and 60s painted a rosy picture of familial bliss. Happy, well-behaved children crowded around a table while mother served up a piping hot dish made with love. All the while, dad looked on approvingly.
That perfect, Leave it to Beaver world set a standard quite far from reality, according to a recent study in the sociology journal, Contexts. Researchers examined the impact of family meals on mothers, spending 18 months following nearly 200 low- and middle-income families.
According to the authors, “time pressures, tradeoffs to save money, and the burden of pleasing others make it difficult for mothers to enact the idealized vision of home-cooked meals advocated by foodies and public health officials.”
Before damning the family meal as a ‘perfect-but-elusive’ dream imposed on poor and working-class families by elitist foodies, it is worth examining the mounting research that reinforces the health benefits of family meals. A week after the dour Contexts study, another study in The Journal of Pediatrics extolled the positive effect of family meals on the weight of children.
Over a 10-year period, researchers showed that family meals during adolescence protected children against becoming overweight or obese in young adulthood. The suggestion, then, is that even sporadic family meals provide some measure of protective effect against becoming overweight or obese.
Aside from the very immediate conclusion that studies can sometimes be misleading, biased, or even contradictory, there are some basic-but-important lessons and inferences that can be taken away from the two studies.
The subjects of the Contexts study reported feeling excessive pressure to cook meals for their families every evening. That stereotype – that women bear the responsibility to cook for the household – is antiquated at best, but continues to weigh heavily on today’s mothers.
In this day and age, family meals should be exactly that: a family affair, from start to finish. Every member of the household should have a hand in preparing the ingredients, whether after work, an evening before, or on days off.
One simple and immediate benefit is that children are more likely to eat and enjoy foods they have had a hand in preparing. But there are some deeper and more profound impacts to this approach.
Helping in the kitchen provides children with essential life-long cooking skills. Meals don’t have to be multi-course, ‘Cordon Bleu’ affairs. Try to prepare meals from scratch, but know there is absolutely no shame in using store-bought items if it is convenient. For example, a home-made sandwich can be accompanied with a ready-made salad from the crisper aisle. Go ahead and use low-sodium packaged broth in your soup, rather than making your own stock. And don’t feel guilty about it.
Home-cooked meals can be quick and simple. Frittatas, for example, are a fast way to use up those vegetables that have been tucked in the deep recesses of your fridge. Stir-frys are super-simple, quick and nutritious, too. Want great flavour with zero effort? The slow cooker is your best friend: toss ingredients into the pot in the morning, set the time and temperature, and supper’s ready when you get home from work. It’s really that easy.
(And yes, every now and then, a take-away meal is not the end of the world.)
Just how beneficial are family meals on the weight of children? According to The Journal of Pediatrics study, quite.
Of the children who reported never having family meals together, 60 per cent were overweight and 29 per cent were obese at the 10-year follow-up. Compared to children who reported having family meals from once or twice, to five or more during a week, these children were 47-51 per cent overweight and 19-22 per cent obese.
The lesson is simple: the family that cooks together and eats together, stays slimmer and healthier together. And that’s food for thought.
As a dietitian and well being counselor, Diana Chard aims to help people relearn how to have a healthy relationship with food. She blogs at bitemywords.com.