A happier emotional climate at mealtimes may mean healthier food choices by children

October 4, 2017

URBANA, Ill. – Having more frequent mealtimes together is linked to greater healthy food consumption and lower risk for children of being overweight. But does the emotional climate of mealtimes play a role in what preschool-aged children choose to eat?

A new study from family studies researchers at the University of Illinois, examines what drives the mealtime emotional climate, how it affects a child’s food choices, and offers practices that may improve the emotional climate around the dinner table.

For parents struggling to get their kids to try new foods or eat more fruits and veggies, creating a positive mealtime environment may be the answer.

Jaclyn Saltzman, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies at the U of I, explains that past studies have shown the emotional responsiveness of parents to their kids is a key predictor of problematic eating behaviors, such as binge eating, in young kids. “There are many reasons why we think that is, but we wanted to explore this in families of children with more typical eating behavior.”

Saltzman says the study focuses specifically on early childhood to see what is happening with early eating behavior in the family mealtime climate. “The eating behaviors you have early in childhood can track later on. Preschoolers are unique because they are on solid foods with a diet similar to adults, but their food choices are still mostly under the control of their parents. We really want to see what effect parents are having, and this gives us that window of opportunity to see that,” she adds.

By observing children and moms, especially, in a real, mealtime situation, Saltzman says the emotional climate clearly had an impact on the child’s healthy food consumption.

“Having more positive mealtimes, where people are enjoying themselves, where there’s mutual warmth and engagement, makes it a little bit easier for children to approach healthy foods,” she says. “When you have a negative family mealtime, you don’t want to sit there and try a new thing, enjoy a new texture, or cajole your child into trying something new. You just want to get through it. So having more positive mealtimes, particularly for parents, might make it a little easier for them to help their children make healthier eating choices later on.”

For the study, parents of preschoolers, who were participating in the STRONG Kids study, completed two questionnaires about mealtimes over a 20- to 23-month period, at about ages 3 and 5. In between that time, a home visit to observe a family mealtime was completed.

From the mealtime observation, researchers used observational coding schemes to count the number of times moms and kids expressed positive and negative emotions. They then combined those observations to look at the ratio of positive to total emotions and negative to total emotions for both moms and kids.

“What we found was that there were two groups of families. We had families where moms were expressing a lot of positive emotion and very little relative negative emotion, and those were our ‘positive expressers.’ The other group was our ‘all expressers’ where moms were expressing about the same amount of positive and negative emotions. We did not find any significant differences between the positive expressers and all expressers on children’s emotions, which was really interesting to us.”

Saltzman explains that families with more positive emotions over the mealtime had children who ate about one serving, on average, more of healthy food—fruits, vegetables, and soy-protein products—than the all expressers. “We were happy to see that families who are more positive at their mealtimes have kids who seem to be eating a little more healthy food.”

After finding that emotional climate during mealtimes did have an impact on the children’s healthy eating behavior, they explored how to help parents deal with this. “We asked, ‘what can we do to promote positive mealtime climates’ because it might be really difficult for some parents to express more positive emotions overall. We don’t want to tell people how to feel necessarily.

“We wanted to see how feeding practices were related to mealtime emotional climates. Regarding feeding practices, the logic is that  families that use particular feeding practices—those that are linked to better eating behaviors in kids or less chaos during mealtimes, for example—are also those families that have more positive mealtimes.”

Saltzman explains that some feeding practices did come into play. Feeding practices are specific behaviors parents use when they are feeding their children, including anything from encouraging the child to eat a balanced and varied diet, rewarding them with food, involving them in food prep and grocery shopping, or even restricting their intake of certain types or amounts of food.

“Food involvement feeding practices where parents are involving their child in grocery shopping, meal planning, or meal preparation were related to lower likelihood of being in the all expressers group. “So those parents who were involving their kids in food preparation or meal planning had mealtimes that were a little more positive,” she says.

The findings can help parents find things they can do to improve the mealtime climate. “First of all, I wouldn’t tell parents to just be more positive—to just slap a smile on your face—because in the face of a picky-eating preschooler or any other mealtime challenge, that’s just not going to work.  But there are several things parents can do. Parents can engage in clear and direct communication with their child about what’s expected during mealtimes. Setting the rules and routines is another big thing, such as having meals about the same time when you are able to, in the same room or setting. And giving people specific roles. Maybe if you have an elementary-aged child, perhaps it’s time to teach them to help set the table and you get them into that routine.”

Another thing Saltzman says parents can do if they are struggling with regulating emotions during mealtimes, is to practice emotion regulation techniques for themselves. “Breathing exercises are really great, counting to 10 in your head, or taking a step back from the mealtime are all really important but difficult things for parents to do.

“You also can encourage your child to express themselves with words rather than screaming. It’s perfectly fine and normal for kids to have negative emotions, particularly when they have to eat a food they don’t necessarily feel like eating that day, or if they’ve just had a hard day. Encouraging your child to use their words, to try a bite and move on, may help. It’s important not to force the issue too much. And in regards to food introductions, it’s important for your child to try new foods, but equally important not to force it on your child if they’re really not liking it after about seven to eight different exposures to the food.

Although the study only focused on mothers, Saltzman says she would like to replicate the study and include fathers and other family members to see their impact on the mealtime climate, as well.

For parents who want to have positive mealtimes, the Family Resiliency Center at the University of Illinois created a series of videos—called Mealtime Minutes—with creative strategies for managing some of the challenges of mealtimes. These videos are available for free on the FRC’s website at http://familyresiliency.illinois.edu/resources/mealtime-minutes.

The paper, “Predictors and outcomes of mealtime emotional climate in families with preschoolers,” is published in the Journal of Pediatric Psychology. Co-authors include Jaclyn A. Saltzman, Kelly K. Bost, Salma Musaad, Barbara H. Fiese, Angela R. Wiley, and the STRONG Kids Team at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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