Family Meals Can Reduce the Risk of Eating Disorders
While it may seem like an impossible task to find time to schedule family meals when you’re juggling work schedules, school commitments and after-school activities, families shouldn’t underestimate their importance. A study published in Pediatrics found that children and adolescents who ate three or more family meals together each week were 12 percent less likely to be overweight, 35 percent less likely to have an eating disorder and 24 percent more likely to eat healthy foods. But just how do family meals help?
Parents need to be cognizant of their attitudes and relationships with food. “It can be harmful if a parent is on a diet or struggling with disordered eating,” says Hannah Beaver, LCSW, team leader at The Renfrew Center in Radnor, PA, and alumni coordinator for the Renfrew Centers’ 18 locations where they provide treatment to females with eating disorders. It’s important for parents to eat a proper amount of healthy food with their children.
“Family meals give parents the opportunity to model appropriate behavior during meal time,” says Beaver. “Without family meals, children have no basis for normal eating, and they are more likely to give in to behavior picked up online and elsewhere.”
Family meals give parents the opportunity to teach children what’s included in a well-balanced meal. “Families who eat together are more likely to have protein, vegetables and whole grains. Otherwise kids are more likely to eat processed foods or just snack,” says Sharon Collison, licensed, registered dietitian nutritionist at the Nutrition Center at STAR Health at the University of Delaware.
The most common eating disorders are anorexia nervosa, wherein individuals restrict their calories to dangerously low levels; bulimia nervosa, wherein individuals consume large quantities of food and then vomit, take laxatives, fast or engage in excessive exercise to compensate for the binge; and binge eating disorder, wherein individuals eat excessive amounts of food but do not engage in activities to compensate.
Beaver says, “If families aren’t eating family meals on a regular basis and a child is struggling with an eating disorder, it’s easier to get away with it since no one is watching him or her.”
College student Alexandra Chekouras, a Renfrew alumna from Medford, NJ, says her parents and sister noticed she was restricting her food intake and got her help. “My family was very big on family meals,” she says. “If they hadn’t been, it would have aided in my eating disorder because it would have been easier to hide.”
“For people struggling with an eating disorder, meal times are some of the hardest parts of the day,” says Beaver. “They can really use support at the table to push through their eating disorder thoughts and urges.”
Beaver recommends engaging in normal conversation and avoiding conversations about food, calories and weight. At the Renfrew Center, Beaver says staff members eat with patients and talk about movies, TV shows and other light topics. Chekouras says her family used to distract her at dinner time by playing memory games that helped take her mind off eating.
How to find time
Fitting family meals into busy schedules is a challenge. Beaver says, “Be realistic. At the beginning of the week, look at the schedule and see when you can make family meals happen. Aim for at least two or three nights to start, and if the whole family can’t be there, it’s OK.” As long as part of the family is eating together, children can still benefit.
Dinner doesn’t have to be a gourmet meal cooked from scratch either. Collison says, “Picking up subs and serving them with carrots and celery and dip is a well-balanced meal. So is a rotisserie chicken with microwaved frozen vegetables and potatoes.”
Parents can also make double batches of food on the weekend and freeze half for another day or set the crockpot in the morning to save time and provide a healthy family dinner on busy nights.
Signs of an Eating Disorder
If your child exhibits any of the following signs of an eating disorder, talk to your child’s doctor. Eating disorders can lead to serious health problems and can be fatal if not treated.
- Significant weight loss or gain
- Avoiding meal time by hiding in his bedroom or elsewhere
- Preoccupation with food and/or body weight and size
- Repeatedly visiting the bathroom after meals
- Evidence of vomiting in the bathroom
- Mood changes around meal time, including irritability or anxiety
- Food wrappers or hidden food in the bedroom
- Loss of menstruation in females
Susan S. Stopper is a freelance writer.