Childhood Obesity and Family Meals


The importance of family meals was a recent topic here, because many health care professionals believe that having dinner together is a crucial piece of the childhood obesity prevention puzzle. Life is very complicated, and sometimes it’s difficult to separate the strands and understand the cause-and-effect sequence.

Sometimes it’s hard to know for sure where theory ends and certainty begins. One of the problems with the family dinner hypothesis is, there are no instant results. If a family dines together every night for a week, each child will not consequently weigh in a pound lighter the following week.

Doubt can always be cast, and clearly there are instances where family get-togethers are inimical. For instance, a family could sit down together for their evening meal seven days a week and still be a mess. If an authoritarian parent rules with an iron fist, taking every chance to correct and criticize, it does no one any good. Plus, when mealtime is nothing but a stress-fest, the digestion is demonstrably interfered with, and too many other things are already doing that.

Dr. Pretlow writes:

Evidence points to a serious dependence (addiction) on highly pleasurable foods as a significant cause of the childhood obesity epidemic.

Why are some children more prone than others to get hooked on highly engineered, hyperpalatable so-called foods? Because they have emotional difficulties that are temporarily soothed by comfort eating.

Regarded through the psychological food dependence-addiction lens, family meals are a great idea if the atmosphere is relaxed, friendly, cooperative, and otherwise stress-free. If you’re with your favorite people and everybody is cool, that’s the comfort right there. The presence of the clan, all on good terms with each other, is a primal need. People get their nurture from sources other than food. If comfort is coming from association with the nearest and dearest, there is no need to seek it from food.

What can parents do to put things on a better track? One of the secrets of life, we are told, is to take it one day at a time. Children take it one minute at a time. They balk at change when it’s presented as an ironclad program that must be followed forever. Or that’s how they hear it. It sounds oppressive. But when parents cultivate a good attitude, and the children are not already beyond reach, almost anything can happen if it’s presented as a one-time thing. Think up ways to spruce up the family dinner.

Tell a Funny Story About Cats Night. Suggest it a couple of days ahead of time, so people have time to think. A couple of ground rules: Everyone gets to tell their story uninterrupted. And each person thanks the person who has taken a turn before him or her.

Pretend We’re at a Restaurant Night. Use our indoor voices, and eat in a civilized way and act polite.

Tell Something Good About Broccoli Night. You don’t have to eat it, you just have to look it up and tell the rest of the family one good thing about it.

Pretend We’re on an Island Where There’s Nothing to Eat but Vegetables Night. Be sure to take requests.

For the family that wants to “go deep,” detailed instructions can be found on how to make meals that are described as ridiculous and diverting. The goal of food artist Bill Wurtzel is to discourage obesity by inspiring the creation of dishes that are both nutritious and fun.

The Funny Food book contains photos and how-to instructions, and its description says:

In Bill’s world, carrots turn into airplanes; boiled eggs into jugglers, and pears into guitar players. As gracefully as Picasso’s ceramic plates found endless form so do Wurtzel’s portraits which seem to grow out of almost anything — cheerios and bananas; lox and bagels; oatmeal, blueberries, and strawberries. Sometimes you think he is portrait artist and you could swear you just saw Sigmund Freud emerging from a pear or Shakespeare growing out of an apple.

For older kids, maybe a parent could get them interested in the science of why different kinds of vegetables are cut up in different ways for Asian cuisine. There are reasons for all those varied shapes. There are a lot of possibilities, and all it takes is patience, good will, and a little imagination.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Funny Foods,”
Image by evris28 (Yana Sedlak), used under its Creative Commons license.

2 Responses

  1. I have painfully watched as near family members do things that destroy their health and well-being. I am passing this information on to them in hopes that they will listen to someone if not me. Thanks for the post.

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OVERWEIGHT: What Kids Say explores the obesity problem from the often-overlooked perspective of children struggling with being overweight.

About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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