A family sits at a dinning table eating potatoes and vegetables.
Even once or twice a week, family meals can help instill in your kids the value of healthy food choices. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

Want to help your child develop healthy habits that last a lifetime? The dinner table may be an ideal place to start.

Research abounds on the benefits of family time for children of all ages.

The American Academy of Pediatrics published a study that found positive family dynamics at the dinner table are significantly associated with a reduced risk of childhood weight problems.

Similarly, scrutinizing a variety of factors in childhood obesity, a study in the Journal of Consumer Research noted that family meals are a “straightforward means of influencing a child’s diet.”

With a hint of concern, the study added: “The trend is away from family meals, with greater reliance on eating separately, convenience foods and restaurants.”

A report by German economic researchers, meanwhile, sussed out a correlation between the work habits of parents and the waistlines of their children. The more hours parents spend at the workplace, the greater the likelihood their children will be overweight or obese.

While eating together as a family isn’t a guarantee that kids will be healthy, it is a good start, said Adelle Cadieux, PsyD, pediatric psychologist at Spectrum Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital.

You can start at any time, no matter what your child’s age.

“Starting the practice of family meals at a young age for your child can be helpful, but families can start this healthy habit even if they have adolescents,” Dr. Cadieux said.

Those who long for family dinners each week don’t have to pull out all the stops.

It’s wise to take small steps.

If you’re not eating together as a family now, begin by identifying one meal each week that all family members can attend, Dr. Cadieux said. As this meal becomes more of a habit, work toward scheduling a second meal together.

Most importantly, make it fun.

Try to involve your kids in the meal planning or preparation. When they help cook or prepare the food, they’ll take more interest in eating the meal.

Choose colorful, in-season vegetables and display them in fun and exciting ways. Social media is teeming with great ideas to make mealtimes fun.

Family mealtime is a solid first step in helping children build healthy habits, there are other easy steps you can take on that path.

Dr. Cadieux offers these additional tips:

  • Design healthy meals. Focus not only on the types of food, but the amount, too.
  • Be active as a family. Go for walks and play sports. In the fall, rake leaves together. Winter should bring snowball fights and sledding, not long evenings on the couch.
  • Get adequate sleep. Children of all ages should have a good bedtime routine that allows for sufficient sleep. Even on the weekends, keep bedtime consistent with weekday sleeping schedules.
  • Reduce screen time. Provide alternatives to TV, computers, tablets and other electronic devices.