Children who have meals with their families are less likely to be fat than those who eat alone, research has found.

A comparison of studies from countries, including New Zealand, reveals children who share meals at least three times a week are more likely to have healthy foods and be a healthy weight.

Those who don't are more likely to reach for fizzy drinks, fast foods and lollies, skip breakfast and eat fewer fruits and vegetables.

The findings were released by a US team that reviewed 17 studies of more than 180,000 people from around the world.

They concluded teenagers were more likely to develop eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia if they didn't regularly eat with their family.

One study was by Auckland University health lecturer Jennifer Utter, who surveyed 3000 people in 2008.

She found almost two-thirds ate family meals at least five times a week and said they enjoyed healthier lifestyles.

"Homecooked meals are simply healthier than most takeaways and young people generally appreciate spending that time with their families," she said.

"The more often families prepare and eat foods together the better."

The findings were backed by nutritionist Claire Turnbull from Mission Nutrition, who believed fewer families were eating together.

Children left to get their own food often "wolf it down in front of the TV" and were less aware of what and how much they were eating, she said.

If eating dinner together wasn't practical, Turnball advised parents to find a routine that worked for them, such as making breakfast the shared meal or scheduling mealtimes in advance.

Almost a quarter of New Zealand children aged 2-14 are overweight and one in 12 obese.

Victoria University of Wellington sociology lecturer Allison Kirkman said it was worth making the effort to eat together.

"It's a way of interacting with other people and not emailing and texting or Tweeting," she said.


Dinner are family time for Jan and John Balderston and their teenage children Ashley, James, Rachel and Seth.

Despite their busy schedules, the Auckland family sit down almost every night to share a meal and talk about their days. "It's a time to debrief, especially with teenagers because they're so busy," says Jan.

The couple, whose three other children have left home, decided to make family meals part of daily life when their children were young.

The weekly menu is planned in advance and each family member cooks once a week. Roasts and homemade pizza are favourites, and the grocery list always includes lots of fruit and vegetables - better than pies and noodles the teens would reach for if they were on the run, says Jan.

"And because we're a large family we're on a budget so we can't afford takeaways every night."