London - Eating meals together as a family - even just once a week - boosts children’s fruit and veg intake to near the recommended five-a-day, a study has found.

Researchers from the University of Leeds found that even just Sunday lunch round the table can help improve the diets.

The survey of 2,389 children attending 52 primary schools in London discovered nearly two-thirds of children (63 percent) did not consume the World Health Organisation recommended amount of five portions (400g) of fruit and veg a day.

Children who always ate a family meal together at a table consumed 125g (1.5 portions) more fruit and veg on average than children who never ate with their families.

Even those who reported eating together only once or twice a week consumed 95g (1.2 portions) more than those who never ate together.

The research also suggests parents who eat fruit and veg themselves and cut up such food for them also boosted how much their youngsters’ ate.

Study supervisor Professor Janet Cade, of the University’s School of Food Science and Nutrition, said: “Even if it’s just one family meal a week, when children eat together with parents or older siblings they learn about eating.

“Watching the way their parents or siblings eat and the different types of food they eat is pivotal in creating their own food habits and preferences.”

In families where parents reported eating fruit and veg every day, children had on average one portion (80g) more than children whose parents never or rarely ate fruit and veg.

Meaghan Christian, who conducted the study as part of her PhD, said: “Modern life often prevents the whole family from sitting round the dinner table, but this research shows that even just Sunday lunch round the table can help improve the diets of our families.”

Children whose parents always or sometimes cut up fruit and veg for them ate, on average, half a portion (40g) and quarter of a portion more, respectively, than children of parents who never cut up their fruit and veg.

Prof Cade added: “There are more benefits to having a family meal together than just the family’s health.

“They provide conversational time for families, incentives to plan a meal, and an ideal environment for parents to model good manners and behaviour.”

It is estimated that one in 10 British children aged two to 10 is obese.

Dr Christian added: “Since dietary habits are established in childhood, the importance of promoting the family meal needs to be more prominent in public health campaigns.

“Future work could be aimed at improving parental intake or encouraging parents to cut up or buy snack-sized fruit and vegetables.”

The study includes dietary measurements from 2,389 children attending 52 primary schools from the boroughs of Wandsworth, Tower Hamlets, Greenwich, Sutton, Lewisham, Lambeth, Merton and Newham in Greater London.

Diet was assessed using a questionnaire separated into a School Food Diary and a Home Food Diary.

The Home Food Diary also included questions about the home food environment and parents attitudes to fruit and vegetables.

The study, funded by the National Institute for Health Research Public Health Research (NIHR PHR) Programme, was published in the British Medical Journal’s Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health. - Daily Mail