A MAJOR new study has dispelled the traditional view family meal times should be enjoyed together around the dinner table if youngsters are to pick up good eating habits.
The research found there was no evidence to suggest eating together with parents had an impact on good diet. It did find, however, that what was significant was that children ate the same food as the older members of the family.
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As the study noted, it is common practice for parents to give different dinners to young children if they refuse to eat what is on offer that evening.
However, the research discovered youngsters who enjoyed the same as the rest of the family – even at different times – ate more fruit and vegetables, less fatty and salt-laden foods and fewer snacks, than those fed "child-friendly" alternatives.
Some 29% of children in the study never or only sometimes ate the same food as their parents for their main meal.
Dr Valeria Skafida, a medical sociologist at the Centre for Research on Families and Relationships at Edinburgh University, carried out the research, which examined the eating habits of 2332 children aged just under five in Scotland.
Data was collected by the Scottish Government's Growing up in Scotland study.
Ms Skafida analysed the quality of the four-year-olds' diets by examining how often they ate fruit and vegetables, as well as crisps, sweets and had fizzy drinks and whether they snacked between meals.
Her paper said: "When children refuse to eat adult food during the family meal, it is a common coping strategy for parents to create separate and different child-friendly food alternatives often of inferior nutritional value to the family meal.
"This seems to be a widespread phenomenon, also reflected in child menus offered at restaurants which are typically of poorer nutritional value than adult equivalents."
Ms Skafida also claimed eating the same food as parents is linked to better dietary quality in children because 'child-friendly' alternatives to adult food are likely to be nutritionally inferior.
The less often children ate the same food as parents, the poorer their diets were, she found.
The study added: "Children are nutritionally better-off by eating the same food as parents, and this holds independently of whether children eat meals together or not. Eating at the same time as the rest of the family or eating with parents, are not significantly associated with diet."
Parents Ivonne and Joseph Hughes, however, testify to the benefits of joint meals together with their two children.
Iliana, five, and Oscar, two, eat the same dishes as their parents, and have done so since they were about nine months old.
"Food is important to both Joseph and me," said Mrs Hughes, 40, an environmental scientist who lives in the south side of Glasgow. "I enjoy cooking and we wanted our children to eat a wide variety of food. It was a conscious decision to get them to eat the same as us and it also made sense on a practical level. I just have to make one dinner rather than separate dinners for the adults and children."
The Family Meal Panacea; exploring how different aspects of family meal occurance, meal habits and meal enjoyment relate to young children's diets, was published earlier this month in the journal Sociology of Health and Illness. It also looked at when and where children ate, whether meal times were enjoyable and the family's socio-economic characteristics.
Scottish children have among the worst diets in the developed world and improving what they eat is a key public health ambition.
Around 35% of teenage girls in Scotland are overweight or obese – more than anywhere else in Europe, according to 2012 data from the International Association for the Study of Obesity.
Ryan James, chairman of Glasgow Restaurant Association, and owner of the restaurants Two Fat Ladies and The Buttery, said the findings made sense.
"In my restaurants we offer smaller portions to children rather than children's menus and I think there is a move towards this," he said.
"When I was growing up it was a case of either 'liking it or lumping it' and there's maybe a good case for going back to that."
A spokeswoman for the Scottish Government said: "We are working with the industry and consumers to make sure food is as healthy as possible and it is easy to make healthy choices.
"Research shows that when a parent eats healthily and takes exercise it is more likely their children will too."
l Celebrity chefs are exacerbating the country's obesity crisis by encouraging people to eat fatty dishes, a new study has claimed.
Nutrition experts tested more than 900 recipes from 26 famous cooks and found 87% fell "substantially short" of the Government's healthy eating recommendations. Just 13% used ingredients to create "healthy" meals in line with the Food Standards Agency's guidelines, researchers from Coventry University said.
The study, published in the Food and Public Health journal, found many celebrity chef recipes contained undesirable levels of saturated fatty acids, sugars and salt which are linked to obesity, diabetes and heart disease.