To examine maternal demographic characteristics and depressive symptoms as predictors of TV viewing during mealtimes, and to investigate how mealtime TV viewing predicts mothers' and toddlers' food consumption. A prospective, cross-sectional survey design was employed with 199 African American and 200 Caucasian, low-income, mother-toddler dyads enrolled in eight Early Head Start programs in a Midwestern state. Mothers completed the Toddler-Parent Mealtime Behavior Questionnaire to assess toddler mealtime behavior. Data were analyzed using a three-step multiple regression: (a) step one was to determine what characteristics predicted family TV viewing during mealtime; (b) step two was to determine whether TV viewing during mealtime predicted maternal food consumption, and (c) step three was to determine whether TV viewing during mealtime predicted toddler food consumption. Direct and indirect effects of TV watching were explored via path models. Maternal race, education, and depressive symptoms predicted 8% of the variance in TV viewing during mealtime (P < or = 0.001). African American mothers and mothers who had fewer years of schooling and exhibited more depressive symptoms tended to watch more TV during mealtime. More TV viewing during mealtime predicted mothers' intake of 'more' unhealthy foods. Mothers' food consumption was the single best predictor of toddlers' food consumption, while TV viewing during mealtime had an indirect effect through mothers' TV viewing. TV viewing practices affect mothers' food consumption and mealtime behaviors; this, in turn, impacts toddlers' food consumption. Practical interventions are needed to positively influence the nutritional habits of lower-income mothers. Reducing mothers' "unhealthy" food consumption while watching TV may offer one effective strategy.