If you’re struggling to get your children to eat healthy foods, then you might try this simple trick — spend just a bit more time together at the dinner table.

A new study underlines, yet again, the importance of family dinners by showing that as little as 10 extra minutes at the table results in children eating “significantly more fruits and vegetables,” researchers said.

And this effect seems specific to healthful foods — researchers found that, during the extended mealtime, children did not eat more of the different foods (such as bread and cold cuts) that were also on offer, but the more nutritious ones.

Small change, big results

The study was conducted in Germany and included 50 families with children between the ages of 6 to 11 who were brought into a “family meal laboratory.”

Participants were randomly assigned to one of two groups: either the group that would receive the intervention of an increased mealtime of 50%, which averaged 10 minutes, or a control group, which did not spend extra time at the table. During the longer meal, children ate, on average, an additional seven pieces of fruit and vegetables — an amount, researchers noted, that corresponded with one serving, or a medium-sized apple.

What to do when your child won’t eat anything but Ritz crackers
Family dinner: How much time should you spend at the table?

“Participants were served a typical German evening meal of sliced bread, cold cuts of cheese and meat, and bite-sized pieces of fruits and vegetables,” the report said.

Researchers found that children in the extended mealtime group ate more slowly and reported feeling more satisfied; longer family meals were also linked to a lower risk of obesity. The study’s authors speculated that increased fruit and vegetable consumption had something to do with the fact that fruits and vegetables were presented in bite-sized pieces.

“Inconvenience or friction may explain why children did not consume more of the main components, such as bread or cheese, during longer meals; grabbing a bite-sized piece of fruit seemed more convenient than topping a slice of bread with cheese,” the researchers wrote.

Previous research has also shown that increasing lunchtime at schools pays similar nutritional dividends. During lunches that were extended from 10 to 20 minutes, children ate significantly more fruits and vegetables, a 2021 University of Illinois study found.

Staying at the table

How can you extend your mealtimes at home? Researchers offered a few suggestions as to ways to set your family up for success. First, don’t try to extend a meal like breakfast, when everyone is trying to get out the door. Rather, pick a meal that can realistically be extended and set clear boundaries ahead of time that articulate that “everyone stays at the table for a certain time,” they wrote.

And try to accommodate your children’s requests; researchers offered the example of letting the kids choose the background music.

In my home, we focus on chatting at the dinner table. I ask my children to share their highlights and lowlights of the day and to tell me about one thing they learned as well as something that surprised them that day. If you run into a wall with the dinnertime talk — as we sometimes do — try using conversation cards, which offer a stack of questions, prompts, or scenarios that provoke discussion (in my home, we use the Open the Joy Conversation Starters. For example, one says, “I like chatting with my friends abou t...”; another reads, “One of my favorite memories is ...”). Your kids will likely want to read conversation cards aloud themselves, so not only are we extending our mealtimes but we’re hitting some literacy work, as well.

And of course, as the researchers noted, “The effect of family meal duration on children’s intake of fruits and vegetables requires the availability of fruits and vegetables on the table.”

So to see these positive effects in your own family, load the table with a platter of bite-sized pieces of broccoli, carrots, apples and pears — or the vegetables and fruits of your choice.