Children who regularly eat breakfast and dinner with their parents are considerably less likely to be overweight, according to a new European study.
Experts said that parents who ate with their children were not only more likely to be ensuring meals were nutritious and healthy, but that togetherness at mealtimes was a marker for “family cohesion”, which carried other health benefits.
In a study of nearly 8,000 children living in eight European countries, researchers found that those who ate breakfast with their parents five to seven times per week were as much as 40 per cent less likely to be overweight, than those who had a family breakfast just two to three times a week.
The effect was similar, but slightly smaller, for dinner. Children from families which ate together more regularly were 30 per cent less likely to be overweight than those who sat down for dinner less often.
Intriguingly, the same effect was not seen in children who regularly ate lunch with their parents, who were in fact more likely to be overweight, said researchers from the University of Adger in Norway.
The study did not look at the dining habits of children in the UK, but experts said the findings carried particular lessons for British families, because UK workers tend to work longer hours than their European counterparts – meaning parents often have even less time to spend with children.
Dr Gavin Sandercock, senior lecturer in clinical physiology at the University of Essex, said that even eating together “occasionally” would be of benefit to UK families.
“It seems to have a big impact,” he said. “So, while doing it every day would be ideal, maybe just encouraging people to have breakfast or dinner as a family a couple of times a week would be helpful.”
The health benefits of eating breakfast are well-established, with studies showing that people are much less likely to indulge in unhealthy snacking throughout the day if they eat in the morning.
In the UK, around a third of children often go to school without breakfast, according to Dr Sandercock’s own research. Sitting down to a family breakfast was an effective way of ensuring children ate something in the morning, he said.
However, evidence of the benefits of a family dinner were new, he added.
“Eating dinner together is probably a marker of family cohesion and family organisation,” he said. “Dinner doesn’t make you thin… but if a family is organised they are more likely to do organised, physical activity. It’s also a likely indicator of parental rules, which could be rules on snacking, rules on things like television time, and rules on what children are eating.”
Dr Frøydis Vik, from the University of Adger’s Department of Public Health, said that the findings suggested families who ate together generally had a healthier lifestyle, but admitted that evidence of the negative associations of a family lunch were “unexpected”.
She said they might be due to children in some countries returning home from school for lunch, and having a “rushed meal”, which might be less nutritious because parents had little time to prepare.