"The groundwork of all happiness is health." - Leigh Hunt

Longer meal times help children eat more fruit and vegetables

April 19, 2023 – Deborah, a 34-year-old librarian from New Jersey, NJ, eats dinner along with her family – including her 3- and 6-year-old sons – several nights every week, in addition to lunch on Saturdays. In her Orthodox Jewish tradition, lunch on the Sabbath can also be a proper meal. Friday night and Saturday lunches are inclined to last more than regular weekday meals.

“I start Shabbat lunch with a salad,” Schranz said. “It helps my kids eat more vegetables when they're sitting there hungry and the first thing they eat is a vegetable.”

The longer meals on Friday night and the Sabbath also give children a bit of more time to eat healthier foods. A brand new study suggests that even barely longer meals can promote healthy eating in children.

A team of German scientists studied 50 parent-child pairs who were invited to 2 free dinners under different conditions in a video lab. The children were between 6 and 11 years old. The participants were aware that they were being filmed, but not that the researchers would measure how much fruit and vegetables they ate.

Both meals consisted of cold cuts (cheese and meat) and bite-sized pieces of fruit and vegetables. At the tip of the meal, participants were offered chocolate pudding or fruit yoghurt and biscuits for dessert. Parents had filled out questionnaires before participation, so all meals were chosen based on the kid's preferences.

One meal was defined because the “normal family meal duration” of 20 minutes, while the opposite meal lasted 10 minutes longer (half-hour). Which meal can be accomplished first was randomly determined.

The researchers found that children ate significantly more pieces of fruit and vegetables when family meals lasted ten minutes longer than usual, with no comparable increase in other, less healthy foods.

The cradle of eating behavior

Lead researcher Dr. Jutta Mata, professor of health psychology on the University of Mannheim, said she and her colleagues began the study because about eight years ago they asked themselves “why psychological interventions to change diet and eating behavior have not been as successful as hoped.”

One possible explanation they found was that “eating is often seen as the result of individual behavior – a person's individual knowledge, motivation or willpower determines what and how much they eat – but eating is a social behavior,” she said. “Most people regularly eat in company. In fact, the word 'companion' comes from the Latin words 'with bread' – the company in which one 'breaks bread' – and food has been shown to be the link between people.”

She said shared meals are “especially important for children because parents are not only the 'gatekeepers' of their children's diet (they decide what the child eats), but they also often eat with their children.”

In fact, shared family meals have been called the “cradle of eating habits,” she said, adding that some anthropologists have even called such shared meals the “cradle of civilization.”

Mata's group has previously reviewed studies showing that family meals are related to healthier diets in children. They also identified eating habits (including longer meal times) that, when applied to family meals, were related to healthier diets in children.

However, these studies were based on parental reports. The researchers desired to directly observe family meals, specifically to check whether meal length could help children eat more fruit and vegetables.

Creative ways to advertise healthy eating in children

The current study found that children ate seven more portions of fruit and vegetables when meal times were longer, or about one portion per meal.

“This finding has practical public health implications, as an additional serving per day reduces the risk of cardiometabolic disease by 6 to 7 percent,” the authors write.

Longer family meal times were also related to slower eating speed, increased satiety, and a lower risk of obesity – “possibly because increased satiety played a role in reducing snacking between meals.”

The researchers consider that along with the longer meal, chopping up vegetables and fruit can also have been helpful. However, this still must be “verified by empirical studies,” says Mata.

“One way to look at healthy eating is to think of it as an outcome of opportunity,” she said. “In the case of our study, we provided the time – extra time under extended conditions; the food – fruits and vegetables that the child liked were on the table; and an easy-to-eat format: fruits and vegetables cut into bite-sized pieces.”

The authors suggested that families could establish recent routines with longer meal times, including specializing in the meal that's more than likely to achieve success (not breakfast when everyone seems to be in a rush), catering to children's preferences (for instance, by playing music they select within the background) and establishing “transparent rules” (for instance, requiring everyone to remain on the table for a set period of time).

“These strategies may not always work,” the authors say. “Habit changes require effort.”

Deborah has “transparent rules” to show her children about healthy eating. For example: “The children have to try a piece of everything I serve,” she says. “They don't have to like it, and they don't have to eat it if they don't like it, but they have to try everything that's on the table.” This includes fruit and vegetables.

An opportunity for positive education

“This study was elegantly simple and creates a potential low-cost solution to a widespread problem – how to get your child to eat more fruits and vegetables,” said Ellen Rome, MD, MPH, director of the Center for Adolescent Medicine at Cleveland Clinic Children's Hospital and professor of pediatrics at Cleveland Clinic Lerner College of Medicine.

“The most important finding is not surprising and hopefully replicable at home,” Rome said. “Just 10 minutes more at a non-rushed meal allowed for a few more bites of the available food on the plate, which can help a child feel more full, reducing the need to snack on likely more energy-dense foods later.”

An necessary finding is that “family meals together are an opportunity to provide positive parenting and give your child a better chance of eating the right foods in the right balance,” Rome says.

“It's also a time to role model how to hold a conversation, how to reach out, how to share the memorable events of the day, both the sad and the happy, and how to laugh together,” she said. “All in all, worthwhile goals!”