According to a study from researchers at the University of Minnesota, calm and positive family meals keep children at healthy weights, while more tumultious conversations cause children to overeat.
The study found children who were not overweight have longer meals — about 18 minutes — and usually have a father present at the table.
Overweight children have quicker meals — about 13.4 minutes — and don’t necessarily have a father present.
“This finding may mean that when children have structure and more supervision at the meal, they have more protection against overweight or obesity, (meaning) maybe a less chaotic meal environment and more chances to connect,” said the study’s lead author Jerica M. Berge to Reuters.
The study also found that children with families who are more nurturing and loving during meals are more secure with themselves, have a stronger sense of self-control and eat less.
Children who are a part of a hostile and chaotic dinner setting are more likely to use food as a source of escape from their environment. Children who are ridiculed and feel insecure about their lives will also eat more at dinner, the study said.
“It is important for families to try and promote a positive atmosphere during family meals,” Berge said to Reuters. “For example, don’t use the family meal as a time to lecture children about their homework. Instead, take time to connect with each other such as asking each family member to talk about a ‘high’ or ‘low’ from their day to promote connectivity among family members.”
So what should parents do at dinner to keep their children from becoming part of the one in three American children who suffer from obesity? According to Boston.com, have a meal that lasts at least 20 minutes, engage in productive conversations with your children and think more positively.
In addition to positive conversations at the dinner table, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention suggests parents encourage healthy eating habits and cook healthy meals. Parents should also promote physical activity, less screen time with electronics and low-fat meals that taste good, according to the CDC.
That doesn’t mean parents should force their children to diet, however.According to Lois Collins, girls who are told to diet by their parents often suffer from other health problems — such as "misusing alcohol, eating disorders and being overweight or obese as adults.”