Penn State research, programs and resources help families communicate and work together more effectively to meet their healthful eating goals.

Would this be the kind of conversation that might happen in your family? An eleven year old boy and his grandmother (primary caregiver) talk openly about how their family makes decisions about food:

  • 11 year old boy: "Usually, my grandma and me just sit down and make a list of the things we're going to make, like apple pie or mashed potatoes or something. And then we just go to the store and get the stuff that we're going to make and then we just make it."
  • Grandmother: "I started when they were little. You know, it's something that we prepare the meals together. And there are sometimes that they like to do that. I was laid up last year, I had surgery and my back was out, and I could not do anything. And they just took over everything. They did the cooking. I was really surprised. I knew they could cook, but I didn't think they could do it on their own without me being there. But they could."

Although this conversation actually did happen - the boy and his grandmother were part of a Penn State University study about how youth, their parents and grandparents discuss issues related to healthy eating - unfortunately, it was a rare conversation. Most of the other families in the study had far more difficulty implementing healthy eating practices in their households. Despite being quite knowledgeable about nutrition and health-related issues, members in some of these families communicated poorly with one another, and this compromised their ability to work together and make good decisions about food selection issues and family eating practices.

Some common intergenerational struggles relate to:

  • food choices
  • food portions
  • timing of family meals

Many families have picky eaters that are unwilling to try new foods. In other families, parents and grandparents may struggle with how much food constitutes the correct portion size. An exceptionally large "snack" after school may prevent someone from being hungry for the evening meal. Still, as families find themselves busier and busier trying to meet all the work, school, and social demands, finding a time to all sit down together may be difficult. When that time is 15-20 minutes versus 45-60 minutes, fast food is sometimes the meal of choice for the family on the run. Although some healthy options are more prevalent these days, fast doesn't always equal healthy.

Sometimes the family communication problem takes the form of a lack of communication. For example, in an effort to meet some kind of social expectation for weight, a daughter or granddaughter may simply not want to talk about food or nutrition with her parents or other caregivers. In her mind, she may believe that the best way to lose weight if she feels overweight is to not eat - end of story. No communication happens and healthy choices and behaviors are difficult to infuse into the family system. Coercion is another ineffective method. Whereas the goal may be to teach or pass down good eating habits, children who are forced or intimidated into eating in certain ways often exhibit low levels of competence and confidence and are less likely to feel empowered to make meaningful contributions to decisions about food selection and preparation.

Fortunately, there are some nutrition education programs (such as FRIDGE) that target entire families for training in how to communicate and work together more effectively to meet their healthful eating goals. Some Penn State Extension articles of interest include:

Family Mealtimes

Freezer Meals for Family Mealtime

Family Meals Have Positive Effects on Youth

Family Time in the Kitchen Builds Relationships and Skills

ABCs of Growing Healthy Kids: Good Times at Meal Times


Kaplan, M., Kiernan, N.E., & James, L. (2006). Intergenerational family conversations and decision-making about eating healthfully. Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, 38 (5), Sept., 298-306.

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Matthew Kaplan, Ph.D.
  • Professor, Intergenerational Programs and Aging

Contact Us

Matthew Kaplan, Ph.D.
  • Professor, Intergenerational Programs and Aging