Families who frequently ate dinner in the kitchen or dining room had significantly lower body mass indices for adults and children, compared with families who ate elsewhere, the researchers wrote.
“Family meals and their rituals might be an underappreciated battleground to fight obesity,” the researchers wrote in the journal Obesity.
“The ritual of where one eats and how long one eats seems to be the largest driver,” said
Brian Wansink, a Cornell University professor and director of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab. He co-authored the study with Ellen Van Kleef from Wageningen University in The Netherlands.
Girls who helped make dinner had higher BMIs. However, the researchers wrote: “There is no effort to imply causality. We do not know if cooking leads girls to become heavier or whether heavier girls are more interested in learning to cook and helping with meal preparation.”
And boys who stayed at the table until everyone finished eating had lower BMIs, the researchers wrote.
Researchers decided to depart from looking at the food and consider the rituals around meals. They queried 190 parents and 148 children in grades three to six in the Chicago area. The height and weight of adults and children were measured.
The parents were asked about their habits around mealtimes such as what was discussed at the table, how frequently everyone sat together at the table, and how the meal was prepared. Talking meaningfully about the children’s days and saying grace before eating were associated with lower BMIs in the adults, and eating while watching a screen was associated with higher BMIs for everyone.
Perhaps, the researchers said, meals at the table were less distracted or more supervised.
Wansink and Van Kleef suggested that changing mealtime rituals is an easy experiment for families to try. They proposed families who need a nudge for meaningful conversation could start with getting each person to disclose four things: high point of the day, low point, who he/she most appreciates and the plan for tomorrow.
Previous research has shown links between mealtime conversations and literacy development in children, and between family eating habits and eating disorders.