Also, having fruits and vegetables available in bite-sized pieces may have made it easier for the children to eat more during the extra time, the researchers said.
The extra portion was about 100 grams — 2/3 cup — or the equivalent of one medium apple, the study said. In this experiment, the 10 extra minutes amounted to a 50-percent increase over the usual 20 minutes the participants typically spent eating dinner, the researchers said.
“We need to consider new ways to extend family meals such that everyone enjoys it, and then nibbles their extra fruits and veggies during the extra time,” said study co-author Jutta Mata, a professor of health psychology at the University of Mannheim and an associate research scientist at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin. The research, a collaboration between both institutions, appears in JAMA Network Open.
This increase in consumption of nutritious food could provide “a substantial public health impact,” Mata said. Low fruit and vegetable consumption raises the risk for ailments including cancer and cardiovascular disease.
“This study helps counter the myth that children don’t like fruits and vegetables,” said Bonnie Liebman, the director of nutrition at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, who was not involved in the research. “Kids are perfectly happy to eat fruits and vegetables.”
Longer mealtimes led to more healthy eating
The new study built upon previous research by the authors, who evaluated dozens of earlier studies to determine what factors steered children toward more-healthful foods during family dinners.
Turning off the TV, parents’ modeling healthful eating, offering high-quality food, including children in cooking and serving, creating a “positive” climate and adding time to the meal helped, according to the analysis.
Mealtime duration had the strongest effect. But “it was not clear whether increasing family mealtime really had an effect on healthy nutrition or whether this effect was actually due to something else,” Mata said.
The current study, conducted between November 2016 and May 2017, focused only on the impact of additional time.
Fifty parent-child “dyads” — one child, one parent — with children ranging in age from 6 to 11, ate two meals a week in a “neutral, friendly” room with a table, two chairs, the food and video equipment in the ceiling that focused on each of the two participants, Mata said.
They were not told the exact purpose of the study, only that the researchers were interested in “a better understanding of family meals,” Mata said.
They ate typical German dinner fare of sliced bread, cold meats and cheeses, and bite-size pieces of vegetables and fruit. Dessert was either chocolate pudding or fruit yogurt and cookies. The children also had water and one sugar-sweetened beverage.
Each family ate dinner under both conditions — 20 minutes and 30 minutes — and the researchers compared the experiences within each family. “The only thing that was different between the two lab meals was the duration,” Mata said.
Participants were unaware of the specific intent of the study, so the researchers did not tell them how much time they had to eat. Instead, when each meal began, they told the participants only when they would bring dessert, which made the time difference less noticeable.
Ease of bite-size portions
Bite-size portions may have made the more-healthful foods easier to eat, but time was the key factor in eating more, the researchers say.
The children did not eat extra bread or cold cuts during the extended meals, just fruit and vegetables. Bite-size pieces may have made these foods more attractive to the children, but they ate more of them only during the longer meals, Mata said. The meat and cheese were not cut up.
“One way to think about this is that eating healthily is the result of opportunities to do so,” she said. Researchers created those opportunities in the study. They provided the time and the food, including the fruits and vegetables in an easy-to-eat form.
The researchers emphasized that “bite-sized fruits and vegetables in the context of longer family meals increases the consumption of fruits and vegetables,” and they stressed the importance of eating together for longer. It is unclear whether “sitting a child alone at a table for 10 minutes longer would increase their fruit and vegetable intake,” Mata said.
Interestingly, the children ate extra vegetables early in the meal and the extra fruit toward the end. The scientists speculate that the children may have regarded vegetables as part of the main course and fruit more like dessert.
The results might differ away from the lab. “We don’t know how long this effect might last at the family meal table,” Mata said. Also, “mealtime atmosphere in the lab was very positive, which might not always be the case outside the laboratory,” she said.
Promoting healthful eating
Girls and boys between the ages of 4 and 8 need between 1 and 1½ cups of fruit and 1½ cups of vegetables daily, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Girls and boys between 9 and 13 need 1½ cups of fruit; girls 9 to 13 should eat 2 cups of vegetables daily, and boys that age require 2½ cups, the CDC says.
In the study, the children who ate more fruits and vegetables at dinner consumed about 350 grams in total — or four portions — Mata said. In apples, this amounts to about 2⅓ cups, she said.
“The research points to a very usable, actionable way for parents to encourage healthy eating with their kids,” said Anne Fishel, the founder and executive director of the Family Dinner Project, a Harvard-based group that aims to promote the health and social benefits of family dinner time.
Marlene Schwartz, the director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Health at the University of Connecticut, said the results of the study underscore the need to develop healthful eating habits early.
“The way you eat as a child lays groundwork of how you eat throughout life,” said Schwartz, also not part of the study. “This study supports the idea that time together and enjoying a meal together definitely will have a nutritional impact, and a lot of other positive effects as well.”
Moreover, “a longer eating time may give the brain more time to realize the body is full,” said Donald Hensrud, a specialist in nutrition and weight management at the Mayo Clinic; he also was not part of the study. “More volume from vegetables and fruits may promote increased satiety,” causing the children to eat smaller amounts of less-healthful foods, he said.
How to make mealtimes better
Research has shown that regular family dinners are good for the brains, bodies and mental health of young people and adults. Other studies have shown that longer school lunch periods prompt children to eat more-healthful foods and waste less food.
Not everyone, though, can lengthen mealtimes. Pressures from busy schedules, conflicting work shifts, and homework and extracurricular activities make this challenging. Still, if families can achieve longer mealtimes, they are worthwhile, Mata said.
Fishel suggested several ways to enliven mealtimes.
- Parents can play games with the youngsters and let antsy ones have “fidget” toys at the table.
- Children can help with cooking, serving and cleanup.
- Prepare the vegetables in ways that children like. For example, roast them so they aren’t slimy, or dice or shred them.
- And don’t withhold dessert if they resist the healthful stuff. This only makes vegetables less desirable and dessert more so, she said.
“When the atmosphere is enjoyable, relaxing and playful, kids will want to stay longer,” she said. “If everyone is having a good time, an extended dinnertime can be its own reward.”
Do you have a question about healthy eating? Email EatingLab@washpost.com and we may answer your question in a future column.
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