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Doctor’s Order: Have Family Dinners

Posted on: August 23rd, 2012 by Anne Fishel, Ph.D

Pediatricians provide a voice of authority with children, and parents often try to ride the doctor’s coattails. For instance, when my children’s pediatrician used to ask them if they always wore helmets while biking, I would smile with gratitude, knowing that it would be easier to enforce this safety rule with the doctor’s words supporting me.

Recently, The Family Dinner Project sat down with two groups of pediatricians to find out how doctors think about family dinners. In our discussions, we discovered that all of the doctors believe in the benefits of family dinner for their young patients and parents. Many doctors make a point of routinely asking about food and family mealtimes, but others told us that they didn’t always have enough time to ask. We believe that when pediatricians ask about dinners, they lend tremendous credibility to the importance of eating together.

We spoke with about 10 doctors from the Boston area, who had both suburban and inner-city practices. Over the course of two meetings (which, of course, included dinners), their helpful advice came pouring out.

Here are some of the pediatricians’ family dinner recommendations:

  • A colorful plate is a healthy plate. Colors are better for you, while white foods tend to be dangerous.
  • Follow the “2-1-1 plate plan,” which means that half your plate should be fruits and vegetables, one-fourth should be protein, and one-fourth should be grains or other starches.
  • Encourage kids to grow their own food, even if it’s on a windowsill.
  • Take your kids to a farmers’ market and have them point out the vegetable that looks most interesting. Then, take it home and cook it.
  • The primary goal is not the meal—it’s the time as a family.
  • Read labels. If you see a lot of names you don’t know, it probably isn’t a healthy food. If every ingredient you see is a food, it’s probably OK, but be careful about foods with a long list of ingredients. If sugar is the first ingredient listed, don’t buy it.
  • Don’t use “separator plates” for young children because it makes them grow up thinking that foods cannot touch. They will not eat things like stew, and will want only plain pasta.
  • By eating with your children, you model good behavior. If you eat healthy foods like broccoli and cauliflower, those foods become the norm.
  • Have fun, play games and make up silly questions at the dinner table.
  • Don’t let your kids graze or drink juice all day. A child who snacks won’t be hungry for dinner.
  • One doctor told us that he gives parents a quiz. For example, he might ask, “Which has more sugar? An 8 oz. glass of Pepsi, a glass of orange juice, or a 6 oz. non-fat blueberry yogurt?” The answer is yogurt! Most parents get it wrong because they’re focused on fat, which makes them forget how pervasive sugar is in children’s diets. Keep in mind that what we think of as “healthy foods” might not necessarily be so. Get in the habit of reading labels in order to check how much sugar is in a food. If something has more than 15 grams of sugar in it, you might want to think twice about purchasing it.

At The Family Dinner Project, we are excited to think of pediatricians—along with parents and teachers—as advocates for family dinner. In the future, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a pediatrician pull out a prescription pad, and write:  “Have five family dinners a week.”

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