A study published in the August 2019 Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (JAND) looked at how mealtime characteristics were associated with the healthfulness—or not—of the foods served.
The study measured four variables, which included: Eating at a Table, Served Family-Style, TV Off, and Parent Partakes. In order for a meal to qualify as a ‘Family Meal,’ the meal had to have all four variables. Each meal was scored using the ‘Healthy Meal Index (HMI),’ which is made up of two parts: Adequacy and Moderation. The Adequacy score is based on recommended foods for a healthy diet, i.e. fruits and vegetables. The Moderation score is based on the absence of foods recommended to be consumed in moderation, i.e. fast foods or those with added sugars. The study took place in Michigan using families with young children and analyzed 757 mealtimes.
The results of the study showed that three out of the four mealtime characteristics were positively associated with HMI scores. Family Meals (i.e. those that included all four characteristics) were positively associated with both Adequacy and Total HMI scores. Eating at a Table was positively associated with Moderation and Total HMI scores. Food Served Family-Style was positively associated with Adequacy scores, and TV Off was positively associated with higher Total scores. Parent Partakes was not associated with any score. While the individual characteristics of the meals were differently associated with the HMI scores, the Family Meal was associated with increased healthfulness of the foods being served.
Bottom Line: Keep the TV off, serve food family-style at a table, and bonus points for eating with your kids. It’s not hard to believe that meals WITH those characteristics tend to be healthier than meals without them. While these things don’t change the foods themselves (obviously), what it is indicative of is a parent or caregiver’s planning and expectations of mealtimes. When we actually take the time to plan meals, prepare foods and sit down together to eat, it’s more likely we’ll have a balanced meal and won’t eat mindlessly. During this pandemic, I’m sure many families have noticed a change in their eating habits now that the whole family is home for every meal, and I’m guessing it’s for the better.
Kasper, N., Ball, S., Halverson, K., Miller, A., Appugliese, D., Lumeng, J., & Peterson, K. (2019). Deconstructing the Family Meal: Are Characteristics of the Mealtime Environment Associated with the Healthfulness of Meals Served? Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 119(8), 1296-1303.
Holly R. Layer is a Registered Dietitian and a freelance writer. She teaches fitness classes at the Southtowns YMCA and leads nutrition tours at the East Aurora Cooperative Market. She lives in the village with her husband, Andrew, an East Aurora native. She blogs at www.thehealthypineapple.com. Questions can be emailed to Holly at firstname.lastname@example.org.