HealthDay News — Positive, calm, friendly family meals may be the key to preventing childhood obesity or overweight, according to researchers.

“Family meals have been found to be associated with a number of health benefits for children; however, associations with obesity have been less consistent, which raises questions about the specific characteristics of family meals that may be protective against childhood obesity,” wrote Jerica M. Berge, PhD, MPH, LMFT, CFLE, of the University of Minnesota, and colleagues in Pediatrics.

To examine the association between family-level and interpersonal food-related dynamics and child weight status, the investigators conducted a cross-sectional study involving 120 children and parents from low-income and minority communities.

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Over the course of the eight-day direct observational study, family meals were video-recorded in their homes and family meal characteristics, such as length of the meal, types of food served, were described.

Normal-weight children were more likely to have family meals during which parents offered encouraging statements and everyone seemed to enjoy each other’s company. Negativity at the table seemed to be associated with obesity.

Children who were overweight had shorter meal times and ate more often in rooms other than the kitchen. However, the meals of overweight children were not that much shorter than the meals of children at a healthy weight, an average 13.5 minutes compared with 18.2 minutes.

The researchers also reported that healthy-weight children were more likely to have both parents present at family meals. Three out of five families had some type of screen on during the meal, including a television, cell phone, computer, or hand-held video game. Both overweight and healthy-weight children were equally likely to have a screen intruding on the family meal.

For health-care providers who work with families and children, the researchers have highlighted three ways to implement their findings into well-child visits:

  • Ask parents about family meal routines for an opportunity to highlight the importance of family meals
  • Share concrete suggestions regarding the characteristics of family meals (they can be as short as 20 minutes), so that parents feel they are more manageable
  • Discuss how specific positive behaviors influence family meals and attitude toward food


  1. Berge JM et al. Pediatrics. 2014; doi: 10.1542/peds.2014-1936