Children in families that eat meals together, even if only once or twice a week, eat more fruit and vegetables than children who never eat with their families. The boost they receive from learning eating habits from parents and older siblings is enough to bring kids’ fruit and veg consumption close to the recommended “5 a Day”, say researchers at the University of Leeds in the UK.

The researchers, who examined how the home food environment and parents’ attitudes and values affect children’s fruit and vegetable intake in primary school children, report their findings in the 19 December online first issue of the BMJ’s Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health.

They found that parents’ consumption of fruit and vegetables and cutting up portions of these foods encouraged children to eat more of them.

Senior author Janet Cade, a professor in the University’s School of Food Science and Nutrition, says in a statement:

“Even if it’s just one family meal a week, when children eat together with parents or older siblings they learn about eating. Watching the way their parents or siblings eat and the different types of food they eat is pivotal in creating their own food habits and preferences.”

The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that children consume 400 g (5 portions) of fruit and vegetables per day.

However, Cade and colleagues found 65% of primary-school-aged children (aged around 5 to 11 years) did not reach this recommended level of “5 a Day”.

But, children who always ate meals at a table with their family ate on average 1.5 more portions (an extra 125 g) of fruit and vegetables than children who never ate with their families.

Even when children only ate with their family once or twice a week, they ate as much as 1.2 portions more (an extra 95 g) of fruit and veg than children who never ate with their family.

There was also a noticeable pattern of influence from parents to children. In families where parents said they ate fruit and vegetables every day, the children ate on average one portion more (80 g) than children whose parents said they rarely or never ate fruit and vegetables.

And children of parents who said they always cut up fruit and vegetables for their children, ate on average half a portion (40 g) more than children of parents who never did. Even kids of parents who said they did this sometimes but not always, ate a quarter portion more.

For the study, Cade and colleagues used data on 2,389 children attending 52 primary schools in Greater London.

The data was collected in a School Food Diary and a Home Food Diary that asked parents questions like, “on average, how many nights a week does your family eat at a table?” and “do you cut up fruit and vegetables for your child to eat?”

First author Meaghan Christian, says:

“Modern life often prevents the whole family from sitting round the dinner table, but this research shows that even just Sunday lunch round the table can help improve the diets of our families.”

Cade says family meals do more than improve family health:

“They provide conversational time for families, incentives to plan a meal, and an ideal environment for parents to model good manners and behaviour,” she adds.

Estimates suggest 1 in 10 of UK kids aged 2 to 10 years is obese.

The Department of Health funds a number of programs to encourage people to eat their 5 a Day, and improve lifestyle through healthy diet and exercise. In the last 4 years it has spent nearly £80 million on such initiatives.

Christian suggests there should be more emphasis on family meals in public health campaigns, because eating habits are established early in childhood.

“Future work could be aimed at improving parental intake or encouraging parents to cut up or buy snack-sized fruit and vegetables,” she urges.

The research was funded by the National Institute for Health Research Public Health Research (NIHR PHR) Programme.

In May 2012, the World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) released results of a poll that found only 1 in 5 adults in Britain consumes the recommended 5 a day.

In a study published in BMJ in June 2012, BMJ Group’s consumer health team report individuals who consume a Mediterranean type diet are less likely to suffer heart attacks, less likely to develop certain types of cancer, and more likely to live longer.

They also stress suggest maintaining a healthy weight, doing regular exercise, not consuming too much alcohol, and consuming less red meat, reduces the risk of developing cancer.

Written by Catharine Paddock PhD