Deconstructing the Family Meal: Are Characteristics of the Mealtime Environment Associated with the Healthfulness of Meals Served?

J Acad Nutr Diet. 2019 Aug;119(8):1296-1304. doi: 10.1016/j.jand.2019.01.009. Epub 2019 Mar 18.


Background: Multiple studies and guidelines emphasize the benefits associated with family meals. However, family meals are not well defined and little research has been conducted to determine whether mealtime characteristics are associated with the healthfulness of foods served.

Objective: The objective of this study was to define and measure specific mealtime characteristics and examine whether these characteristics are associated with the healthfulness of meals served to young children from low-income families, as measured by the Healthy Meal Index (HMI).

Participants/setting: Study participants included 272 young children from low-income families residing in southeast Michigan during 2011 to 2013.

Design: For this cross-sectional study, parents videorecorded 757 mealtimes that were coded for four mealtime variables and meal healthfulness using the HMI. Mealtime characteristics included Eating at a Table (vs not), Served Family-Style (vs not), TV Off (vs not), and Parent Partakes (sits and eats or drinks with child) (vs not). A Family Meal was defined as a meal that had all four measured mealtime characteristics.

Main outcome measures: All meals were scored using the HMI, which has two components: the HMI Adequacy score (based on the presence of foods that are recommended for a healthy diet) and the HMI Moderation score (based on the absence of foods recommended to be consumed in moderation). The scores are summed to obtain the HMI Total score.

Statistical analyses performed: Generalized estimating equations tested the associations of mealtime characteristics with HMI scores, controlling for child sex and age, and parent education and race/ethnicity.

Results: In adjusted models, Family Meals were positively associated with HMI Adequacy (P=0.02) and Total (P=0.05) scores. Eating at a Table was positively associated with HMI Moderation (P=0.01) and HMI Total (P=0.01) scores. Served Family-Style was positively associated with HMI Adequacy scores (P=0.04). TV Off was associated with higher HMI Total scores (P=0.05). Parent Partakes was not associated with HMI scores.

Conclusions: Family Meals were associated with greater healthfulness of the foods served. Characteristics of mealtime that are commonly utilized to define Family Meal were differentially associated with meal healthfulness.

Keywords: Diet quality; Family meals; Family-style; Meal observation; Television.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Child, Preschool
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Diet, Healthy / psychology*
  • Diet, Healthy / statistics & numerical data*
  • Environment
  • Family / psychology*
  • Feeding Behavior / psychology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Meals / psychology*
  • Michigan