RESEARCHERS have debunked the widespread belief that children who eat with their parents grow up to lead healthier diets and lifestyles.
Experts have claimed the “family dinner hour” cuts back on eating of unhealthy foods and can even reduce alcohol and cannabis abuse in later life.
But a Scottish study of more than 2,000 youngsters found there was no evidence to suggest eating with parents had an impact on good diet or healthy living.
Instead the best long-term results were found when youngsters ate the same food as their parents rather than separate “child friendly” dishes.
There are now calls for mums and dads to go back to a “like it or lump it” attitude and feed children “grown up” food.
Dr Valeria Skafida, medical sociologist at the Centre for Research on Families and Relationships at Edinburgh University, examined the eating habits of 2332 children under five-years-old in Scotland.
The data was then collected by the Scottish Government’s Growing up in Scotland study.
Dr Skafida analysed the quality of the food by examining how often they ate fruit and vegetables compared with crisps, sweets, fizzy drinks and whether they snacked between meals.
The 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.”
Dr Skafida also suggested children would be healthier if they ate the same foods as their parents because ‘child-friendly’ alternatives aren’t as nutritional.
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 agreed with the benefits of feeding children the same food as themselves.
Their two youngsters – five-year-old Iliana and two-year-old Oscar – have had joint meals with their parents since they could handle solid food.
Mrs Hughes – an environmental scientist from Glasgow aged 40 – said: “”Food is important to both Joseph and me.
“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.”
In December last year, Azmina Govindji, of the British Dietetic Association, said: “Eating habits developed in childhood die hard, and eating at a table with the family instead of in front of the TV helps reduce chances of mindless eating, which an increase the likelihood of obesity.
“This study reinforces the view that children learn more from what we do than what we say, so it’s the role modelling that helps shape their future habits.”
Research in 2004 by the Royal College of London said the earlier children are introduced to fruit and vegetables the more frequently they eat them in later life.
And a study by the National Centre on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University in the US (CASA) said when families dine together they eat more vegetables and fruits and fewer foods with trans fats.
They claimed children are less likely to become overweight, they are more likely to stay away from cigarettes, school grades will improve and they are less likely to try cannabis or alcohol.
But Ryan James, chairman of Glasgow Restaurant Association, agreed with the findings of Dr Skafida.
He said: “In my restaurants we offer smaller portions to children rather than children’s menus and I think there is a move towards this.
“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 separate research paper – the Family Meal Panacea – explored how different aspects of family meals including habits and enjoyment relate to children’s diets.
It found Scottish children have among the worst diets in the developed world with around 35% of teenage girls being overweight or obese.
According to 2012 data from the International Association for the Study of Obesity this is more than anywhere else in Europe.
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.”