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This simple trick will get your children to eat more fruits and vegetables

[Apr. 20, 2023: JD Shavit, The Brighter Side of News]

Low fruit and vegetable intake has been identified as a risk factor for chronic noncommunicable diseases. (CREDIT: Creative Commons)

Low fruit and vegetable intake has been identified as a risk factor for chronic noncommunicable diseases. However, children worldwide eat considerably less fruits and vegetables than the recommended amount.

Family meals are central to children’s nutrition, with about two-thirds of their calorie intake coming from food prepared at home and most meals being eaten in the family setting. Family meals thus serve as a formative learning environment that shapes the food choices and preferences of children.


A meta-analysis of observational studies identified several components of family mealtimes that were associated with better nutritional health in children. A longer mealtime duration was the most beneficial.

This finding may seem counterintuitive considering that longer mealtimes were reported to be associated with greater food intake. However, many of these studies focused on social occasions with an overabundance of festive foods or longer exposure to food and on adults rather than children.


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Everyday family meals, in contrast, are embedded in daily routines and typically involve more fruits and vegetables compared with meals eaten outside the home. As such, increasing the duration of everyday family meals may increase children’s exposure to, and potentially consumption of, healthy foods.

Researchers conducted a randomized clinical trial to examine the effect of extending the duration of family meals on the fruit and vegetable intake in children. They hypothesized that children eat more fruits and more vegetables when the regular family mealtime duration is extended.


They also explored when additional fruits and vegetables were eaten and whether longer meals led to increased consumption of other foods and beverages. In terms of secondary outcomes, they hypothesized that longer family meals facilitate a more positive mealtime atmosphere, decrease eating rates, and increase satiety that, in turn, will lead to lower intake of dessert.

50 pairs of parents and 50 children participated in the study. The average age of children in the study was 8 years and the average age of parents was 43 years. An equal number of boys and girls participated. The participants were served a typical German dinner with sliced bread, cold cuts, and cheese, as well as fruits and vegetables cut into bite-sized pieces.


The results of the study show that children will eat significantly more fruits and vegetables if they on average stay at the table for only ten minutes more – 30 minutes in total. On average, they ate about 100 grams more fruits and vegetables. This represents about one of the five recommended daily portions of fruits and vegetables and is as much as a small apple or a small bell pepper.

Fruits were approximately 10 g per piece (6-10 g for grapes and tangerine segments; 10-14 g for cherry tomatoes; and 9-11 g per cut piece of apple, banana, carrot, or cucumber). Cold cuts include cheese, cold cut meats, butter, and sweet spreads. Error bars represent the SEs of the means. (CREDIT: JAMA)

“This outcome has practical importance for public health because one additional daily portion of fruit and vegetables reduces the risk of cardiometabolic disease by 6 to 7 percent,” explains Jutta Mata, professor of health psychology at the University of Mannheim. “For such an effect, a sufficient quantity of fruits and vegetables must be available on the table – bite-sized pieces are best”, the health psychologist adds.


The study also shows that longer family meals did not lead to the children eating more bread or cold cuts; they also did not eat more dessert. Researchers assume that the bite-sized pieces of fruits and vegetables were easier to eat and thus more enticing.

“The duration of the meal is one of the central components of a family meal which parents can vary to improve the diet of their children. We had already found hints of this relation in a meta-analysis on studies looking at the qualitative components of healthy family meals. In this new experimental study, we were able to prove a formerly only correlative relationship,” says Ralph Hertwig, Director at the Center for Adaptive Rationality of the Max Planck Institute for Human Development.

The results of this study have practical implications for parents and caregivers looking to improve their children’s diet. By simply extending the duration of family meals by ten minutes, children can significantly increase their intake of fruits and vegetables, reducing their risk of chronic noncommunicable diseases in the long run.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), low fruit and vegetable intake is a leading cause of preventable deaths worldwide. In fact, the WHO estimates that inadequate consumption of fruits and vegetables is responsible for approximately 2.8 million deaths each year. Furthermore, low intake of fruits and vegetables is linked to an increased risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease, stroke, and certain cancers.


The findings of this study are especially important considering the current trends in children's dietary habits. A report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) revealed that only 1 in 10 children in the United States eats the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables. This lack of adequate nutrition can have severe consequences for their health, including obesity, diabetes, and high blood pressure.

Therefore, encouraging families to spend more time together at the dinner table and providing healthy food options can make a significant impact on children's health.

According to the study, longer mealtime durations may create a more positive atmosphere for children, which can lead to better food choices and preferences. Moreover, it can also help reduce the speed at which children eat, leading to improved satiety and lower overall food intake.

"The findings from this study can be implemented in practical ways to encourage families to eat together and make healthier food choices," says Jutta Mata, the lead author of the study. "By increasing the duration of family meals, parents can help their children develop healthier eating habits and reduce their risk of chronic diseases later in life."

Researchers have made significant progress in understanding the factors that influence eating behavior. However, the majority of studies have taken place in laboratory settings, where the conditions are controlled and may not reflect the complexities of real-life eating environments. To address this limitation, this study used a within-dyad manipulation design using video observation to draw causal inferences.


The study's major strength was its ability to draw causal inferences using video observation within a dyad. This approach allowed researchers to control for situational factors and sample characteristics. However, the findings cannot be generalized to natural eating environments due to other limitations.

One limitation of video observations is that they can increase socially desirable behaviors. The sample used in the study also had limited ethnic and socioeconomic diversity, which may affect the generalizability of the findings. Additionally, it remains unclear whether the effect of the intervention can be maintained over time.

The study's results have also prompted calls for policymakers to implement policies that encourage families to eat together and provide access to healthy foods. "This study highlights the importance of family meals in promoting healthy eating habits and reducing the risk of chronic diseases," says Ralph Hertwig, the Director at the Center for Adaptive Rationality of the Max Planck Institute for Human Development. "Policymakers must prioritize programs that encourage families to spend more time together at the dinner table and provide access to healthy food options."

For more science news stories check out our New Discoveries section at The Brighter Side of News.


Note: Materials provided by The Brighter Side of News. Content may be edited for style and length.


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