Eating meals as a family is a proven way to get kids to follow healthier diets, but there are other tricks parents can try when there's no way to get everyone around the same table, a recent study suggests.
In homes where family meals were rare, children ate more fruits and vegetables when these items were readily available and they routinely saw parents consume them too, the survey of about 2,500 teens in Minnesota found.
"Interestingly, we found that in the absence of regular family meals these other parenting practices had a positive association with teen fruit and vegetable consumption, that their independent effect appeared to be greater than family meals alone, and that the combination of regular family meals and healthful parenting practices had the largest positive associations with teen fruit and vegetable intake," said lead study author Allison Watts of the University of Minnesota School of Public Health in Minneapolis.
"For parents, this means that the more of these positive things you can do in your home, the greater the benefits," Watts said by email.
"However, if you aren't able to have regular family meals, it's worth focusing on other positive practices like making sure fruits and vegetables are available and easy for your kids to access (cut up, on the counter), encouraging your kids to eat fruits and vegetables, and modeling this desired behavior as well," she added.
Researchers examined survey data from middle school and high school students in the Minneapolis and St. Paul metropolitan area in 2010.
Overall, teens reported eating 3.7 servings of fruits and vegetables a day, less than the minimum five servings recommended for a healthy diet.
With frequent family meals, teens got 4.2 daily servings of fruits and veggies.
Roughly one-third of teens reported infrequent family meals - meaning two or fewer a week - and they reported eating only 3.3 servings of fruits and vegetables a day.
Adolescents who had few family meals were more likely to be female, in high school, black and from low-income households than those who regularly dined with their parents and siblings.
Independent of family meals and other parenting practices, teens ate about half a serving more of fruits and vegetables a day when these items were cut up and left in easy to reach places on the counter or in the fridge, researchers report in the Journal of Nutrition and Dietetics.
How parents communicated with kids and talked about food was no longer a factor in fruit and vegetable consumption after researchers controlled for the frequency of family meals and other parenting practices.
The study is observational and doesn't prove that things like family meals or making fruits and vegetables readily available cause healthy eating habits in kids.
Still, the findings highlight an income disparity in how teens eat, noted Sarah Clark, a researcher at the University of Michigan's C.S. Mott Children's Hospital who wasn't involved in the study.
"Low-income families tend to have lower access to grocery stores with a broad selection of fresh fruits and vegetables, measured both in distance and in convenience of transportation, and the cost of fresh is higher than frozen or canned, which comes into play in terms of purchasing dollars and also related to waste if fresh fruits or vegetables go bad," Clark said by email.
Buying fresh produce when it's in season or on sale, and considering canned fruits and vegetables, can help with this, Melissa Horning, a researcher at the University of Minnesota School of Nursing who wasn't involved in the study, said by email.
"I think this study offers some hope that there may be some more subtle things that parents can do that matter - such as delegating one of your children to cut up fruits and vegetables so they are easily accessible in the fridge or making packaged fruits and vegetables available on the counter," said Nancy Zucker, director of the center for eating disorders at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.
"Finding simple ways for families to eat healthier without adding to their stress, particularly in families already low on resources, is critical," Zucker, who wasn't involved in the study, added by email.