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Parents, if you’re worried about your kids eating enough fruits and vegetables, try spending an extra 10 minutes with them at the dinner table.

When families took about 10 minutes to eat dinner, children ate “significantly” more fruits and vegetables, an additional seven servings of fruits and vegetables — one more portion — according to a new study by German scientists.

Also, the researchers said that the availability of fruit and vegetables in bite-size pieces made the children eat more during their free time.

The extra portion was 100 grams — 2/3 cup — or the equivalent of one medium apple, the study said. In this experiment, 10 extra minutes gave the participants a 50 percent increase over the usual 20 minutes, the researchers said.

“We need to consider new ways to extend the family meal,” said Jutta Mata, professor of health psychology at the University of Mannheim and associate research scientist at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin. The study, a collaboration between both institutions, appears in JAMA Network Open.

This increase in nutritional intake “could have significant public health implications,” Matta said. Low fruit and vegetable consumption increases the risk of diseases including cancer and cardiovascular disease.

“This study helps to counter the myth that kids don’t like fruits and vegetables,” said Bonnie Liebman, director of nutrition at the Science Center, who was not involved in the research. “Children are very happy to eat fruits and vegetables.”

Longer meal times lead to healthier eating

The new study, which builds on the authors’ previous research, reviewed dozens of previous studies to determine what factors led children to eat more healthy foods during family dinners.

The analysis suggested that turning off the television, parents modeling healthy eating, serving high-quality food, including children in cooking and serving, creating a “positive” climate and increasing time at meals helped.

Mealtime duration had the strongest effect. But “it wasn’t clear whether increased family meal time actually had an effect on healthy eating, or whether that effect was due to something else,” Matta said.

The current study, which was conducted between November 2016 and May 2017, focused only on the effect of the additional period.

Fifty parent-child “dyads”—one child, one parent—with children ages 6 to 11 ate twice a week in a “neutral, friendly” room with a table, two chairs, food and video equipment, and a ceiling focused on each of the two participants. at night

They were not told the exact purpose of the study, only that the researchers were interested in “better understanding of family meals”, Mata.

A typical German dinner consisted of sliced ​​bread, cold meats and cheeses, and bite-sized vegetables and fruits. Dessert was either chocolate pudding or fruit yogurt and cookies. The children had water and a sugary sweet drink.

Each family ate dinner in both conditions – 20 minutes and 30 minutes – and the researchers compared the experience in each family. “The only difference between the two lab diets was the duration,” Mata said.

The participants did not know the specific purpose of the study, so the researchers did not tell them how often they should eat. Instead, at the start of each meal, the participants were only told when they brought dessert, which reduced the time difference.

The simplicity of bite-sized portions

Bite-sized portions made it easier to eat healthy foods, but the main reason for overeating was time, the researchers said.

The children do not eat extra bread or cold food during extended meals, only fruits and vegetables. Bite-sized pieces make these foods more appealing to children, but they tend to eat them only during long meals, Mata said. The meat and cheese are not cut.

“One way to think about it is that healthy eating is a product of opportunities to do so,” she said. Researchers have created these possibilities in the study. They provided the time and food, including fruits and vegetables, in an easily edible form.

“Bite-sized servings of fruits and vegetables increase fruit and vegetable consumption relative to the family diet,” the researchers emphasized. “It’s unclear whether a child sitting alone at a table for 10 minutes increases fruit and vegetable intake,” Mata said.

Interestingly, the children ate more vegetables at the beginning of the meal, and fruit at the end. According to the scientists, the children may see vegetables as the main food and fruits as sweets.

Results may vary from laboratory to laboratory. “We don’t know how long this effect will last at the family dinner table,” Mata said. She also said, “The mealtime atmosphere in the lab was very positive, which may not always be the case outside the lab.”

Promoting a healthy diet

Girls and boys ages 4 to 8 need 1 to 1½ cups of fruits and 1½ cups of vegetables each day, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Girls and boys ages 9 to 13 need 1½ cups of fruit. Girls ages 9 to 13 should eat 2 cups of vegetables each day, and boys their age need 2½ cups, according to the CDC.

In the study, children who ate more fruits and vegetables at dinner ate a total of 350 grams — or four portions — per night. In an apple, that amount is about 2⅓ cups, she said.

“The study suggests a very useful and practical way for parents to encourage healthy eating with their children,” said Ann Fishel, founder and executive director of the Family Dinner Project, which aims to promote health and social well-being. Benefits of family dinner time.

Marlene Schwartz, director of the Rad Center for Food Policy and Health at the University of Connecticut, said the results of the study point to the need to develop healthy eating habits early.

“The way you eat as a child sets the stage for how you eat throughout your life,” said Schwartz, who was not part of the study. “This study supports the idea that time together and eating together definitely has an effect on nutrition, and many other positive effects as well.”

What’s more, says Donald Hensrud, MD, a nutrition and weight management specialist at the Mayo Clinic, “Longer eating periods may give the brain more time to recognize that we are full.” He was not part of the study. “The extra servings of fruit and vegetables can promote satiety,” he says, leading children to eat unhealthy foods.

How to make mealtime better

Research shows that regular family dinners are good for the mind, body and spirit of young and old. Other studies show that longer school lunches lead to children eating healthier foods and wasting less food.

However, not everyone can extend the meal time. Busy schedules, conflicting work shifts, and the pressures of homework and extracurricular activities make this challenging. Still, if families can achieve longer mealtimes, they’re worth it, Mata said.

Fishel suggests several ways to spice up mealtime.

  • Parents can play games with the youngsters and aunties can allow “sticky” toys on the table.
  • Children can help with cooking, serving and cleaning.
  • Prepare the vegetables in a way that children like. For example, roast them so they don’t become thin, or slice or dice them.
  • And if you are against healthy things, don’t deny yourself sweet foods. This makes vegetables less desirable and sweet foods more so, she said.

“When the atmosphere is fun, relaxing and playful, kids want to stay longer,” she said. “If everyone is having a good time, a longer dinner can be its own reward.”

Have a question about healthy eating? email EatingLab@washpost.com And we will answer your question in the next column.

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