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Posts Tagged ‘Eating’

4 Science-Backed Benefits of Eating Dinner as a Family

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Whether you’re munching on organic grain bowls or ketchup-drenched, defrosted, dinosaur-shaped nuggets, sharing a screen-free family dinner nourishes kids in life-changing ways. And wash away your guilt, working parents: If you can’t get home for mac and cheese at 5:30 p.m., don’t sweat it. Aiming to eat together at least three times a week—including breakfast and weekend brunch—is a worthy goal. When it comes to raising healthy kids, body and soul, prioritizing frequent family meals counts most.

It lowers the risk of substance abuse 
Family dinners not only lower the risk of depression in kids, they also guard against the impulse to self-medicate with drugs and alcohol. That’s because key communication takes place at these end-of-day parent-child debriefs. According to Columbia University’s National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, “Compared to teens who have frequent family dinners (5 to 7 per week), those who have infrequent family dinners (fewer than 3 per week) are more than twice as likely to say that they expect to try drugs in the future.” Teens who seldom eat with their parents are almost twice as likely to have used alcohol, and 1.5 times likelier to have used marijuana. “The magic that happens over family dinners isn’t the food on the table, but the communication and conversations around it,” explains the center’s marketing director Kathleen Ferrigno. “Of course there is no iron-clad guarantee that your kids will grow up drug-free, but knowledge is power, and the more you know, the better the odds are that you will raise a healthy kid.”

It leads to better academic performance
Writes Harvard Medical School psychology professor and author of Home for Dinner Anne Fishel: “Researchers found that for young children, dinnertime conversation boosts vocabulary even more than being read aloud to…Young kids learned 1,000 rare words at the dinner table, compared to only 143 from parents reading storybooks aloud. Kids who have a large vocabulary read earlier and more easily.” And as kids grow up, the intellectual benefits explode. “For school-age youngsters, regular mealtime is an even more powerful predictor of high achievement scores than time spent in school, doing homework, playing sports or doing art.”

It decreases obesity and eating disorders
Family dinners provide opportunities for parents to model—and regulate for their kids—healthy eating habits. According to a study led by eating disorder expert Dr. Jess Haines, “Compared to those who ate family dinner ‘never or some days,’ female adolescents who ate family dinner at least most days were less likely to initiate purging, binge eating, and frequent dieting.” An unrelated study conducted by University of Minnesota Family Social Science professor Dr. William J. Doherty found Americans (parents and kids) are significantly less overweight if they share family meals more frequently, and have fewer distractions at the table (like tech). Kids who eat dinner with their families often also eat healthier (more fruits and vegetables; less soda and fried foods), according to a study by Harvard Medical School’s Obesity Prevention Program. Family meals allow for both “discussions of nutrition [and] provision of healthful foods,” that study’s director, Dr. Matthew W. Gillman, told CNN.

It increases self-esteem and resilience
According to psychology researchers at Emory University, children who have frequent family dinners “know more about their family history and tend to have higher self-esteem, interact better with their peers and show higher resilience in the face of adversity.” When families who are close don’t sugarcoat life’s hardships (like the death of a relative or pet) their children exhibit “higher self-esteem and sense of control.” The communal table is where the stories of who we are, and who we come from, get passed down. According to Marshall Duke, a co-director of the study, which analyzed 120 hours of recorded family dinner conversations, “As the family talks about things, I think they are teaching the kids about assessment, about appraisal. How bad is this? How good is this? Resilience is nurtured when the child understands that negative events don’t define the family history.” 


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Picky Eaters

When children start learning to feed themselves, they can become picky about the foods they will try out. Here are a few ways to encourage picky eaters to try new foods.


  1. Have your children assist with cooking easy dishes; they will be more likely to eat it if they helped create it.
  2. Keep meal and snack times consistent. If your children eat a snack at the same time every day, they will get used to being hungry for dinner around the same time every day.
  3. Cook a variety of foods regularly. This way your children become accustomed to seeing new foods and trying them out will become a routine.
  4. Finally, be a role model. Your children will be more enticed to try new foods if they see you doing it.

Portrsit of a young Asian boy eating yummy burger with oozing facial expression

What are some ways you encourage your little ones to try new foods?

Pica: When Kids Eat (and Eat!) Non-Foods

Jack Maypole, MD
Contributing Writer and Goddard School Educational Advisory Board Member

Infants and toddlers are like wobbly ninjas, focused maniacally on tasting and mouthing items from coins to blocks to the odd flotsam and jetsam that lives on living room floors. Parents know to beware, to police an area well…as you never know what they’ll pop in their mouth next.  Infant  and toddler oral fixation is considered developmentally appropriate (if not entirely healthy) behavior.  Fortunately, most children outgrow this item-to-mouth impulse by the time they are closing in on their second birthday.

And then, there are those children with pica.

Pica, of course, refers to the old typewriting term of 12 points of line space equal to 1/6 of an inch. However, that has nothing to do with the more intriguing medical definition we’ll discuss here: Children with pica (estimated to be about 10-20% of kids at some point) demonstrate a persistent tendency to ingest or mouth non-food items for more than a month, at an age for which it is not considered developmentally appropriate.

What are we talking about here? The items children and adults with pica may consume range from the everyday (ice, fingernails, batting from stuffed animals, pebbles, and chips of wood), to the unusual (erasers, talcum powder, coins, cigarette butts) to off-putting or dangerous menu items (feces, pins, lightbulbs, batteries, and burnt matches).

In some cultures and communities, family members may promote eating non-food items for health, well-being, or enjoyment.  For example, in Turkey and Rwanda, geophagia–the practice of eating soil–occurs in huge segments of the population. Dirt can be bought in marketplaces expressly for eating. In parts of the American South, particularly in African American communities, pregnant women may eat laundry starch, or bits of clay to allay the symptoms of morning sickness.  Children or parents who consume these items report it works, and pass it on down the generations.  But is it ok? More on that in a minute.

Even  after documenting this phenomena for centuries, we don’t have a full explanation for pica, and the compulsion to consume non-food items  in otherwise healthy individuals.   The pre-eminent  theory explains pica as a compensation for nutritional deficiencies–such as iron, zinc, or other minerals– in an individual’s or community’s diet.  Ironically, the consumption of clay and starch block the body’s absorption of iron, and can create or exacerbate a  low iron problem for a woman (not a good thing in pregnancy).

Even in a child who is progressing normally developmentally, pica may be associated with other complex factors. Children with histories of stress, economic hardship, trauma, depression, parental deprivation or frank hunger may consume non food items. Distraction? Boredom? Soothing? Perhaps.  In other situations, pica strongly correlates (for reasons unclear)  with certain mental disorders, such as schizophrenia, or developmental conditions, such as mental retardation or pervasive developmental delay (PDD ).  This can be an important heads up for caretakers, and another challenge in managing these kids as they go through their day.

Pica  behaviors in children and families may go on for years, undisclosed but in plain sight or in secret. For some children and families, shame or embarrassment may hinder discussion with their health care provider. Families may not perceive pica as a health issue, or consider the matter worth mentioning.  For the primary care doc, if there is a suspicion or mention of pica, this is a matter best approached with awareness, sensitivity, and the right questions.

The medical problems from pica derive from what gets eaten. Kids with damaged  or missing teeth from chewing or mouthing unusual materials may arouse suspicion and herald an unrecognized case of pica. Consumed items may exert poisoning effects when swallowed over days or weeks. Lead toxicity is most common, and may be subtle (anemia) or devastating (encephalopathy and brain damage).   Pica behaviors around eating paint chips or contaminated soil may be the source, and observations by parents or astute history taking by health care providers may prove critical in helping manage the acute symptoms and preventing recurrences.

Other children and teens with pica may present with GI discomfort caused by items they’ve eaten. Constipation, ulcers, perforations, and bezoars (wads of undigestible items, such as hair, that are unable to pass out of the stomach) may require special imaging, ER visits, or surgical intervention.

The ingestion of soil or fecal matter in some individuals can also cause bacterial or parasitic infections.   Toxoplasmosis, toxocariasis,  and worm parasites like ascaris can occur, cause havoc, and require prompt treatment and evaluation.  And, they are unpleasant.

Treatment of children and teens with pica requires a team effort.  When the diagnosis is made, the first priority is to determine the health status of the child in question.  Clinicians will perform complete physical and neurological examinations, with  laboratory  or imaging studies, or specialist consultation done as needed.  Medical treatment for pica will be tailored to address any acute problems (infection, GI issues, or toxicity) and longer term, applying a comprehensive and collaborative approach to the family.

Primary care providers, social workers, and mental health experts need to partner with a family to understand their cultural attitudes and health beliefs around pica behaviors to develop trust, communication, and a workabole plan. Ideally, family members learn about the potential risks of pica, and to recognized potential symptoms of ingestion.  With time, families can apply  individualized strategies to redirect and distract from unhealthy mouthing or munching. In most cases, the prognosis is good: healthy children will often outgrow pica by school age, while children with mental or developmental disorders respond well to intervention, but may relapse into the behaviors into their adolescence, and beyond.

So then, while kids may gnaw on this or nibble on that, be mindful. If you are concerned, be careful. And if necessary, talk to your child’s primary doc.