11/13/2014 03:13 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Family Meals That Work: Keep Calm and Carry a Conversation

Gathering around the dinner table and sharing a meal is a cornerstone of healthy living. Families that eat together not only eat better, but are also reaping many psychological benefits. There's also some evidence that family meals are associated with lower risk of obesity

Sharing a communal meal -- any meal -- is better than grabbing something in front of the TV, but if we could identify what's most important, most protective, in a family meal, this could better guide families towards family meals that work. 

The Family Meals LIVE study is a two-year study that looks at key risk and protective factors for childhood obesity in the home, and it recruited 120 low-income kids and families from the Minneapolis/St. Paul area and recorded family dinners at home for eight days. The participants all came from families that normally ate family meals together, and were told that the study's aim was to look at "modern day" dinner and that they should just eat normally. The recordings were then analyzed for interpersonal and food related behaviors, and the findings were published in the Pediatrics journal.

Keep calm and eat in pleasure

The study, led by Jerica Berge, found that the atmosphere around the table mattered. Families that enjoyed the meal, and had warm, calm and positive conversations had a higher tendency for normal weight.

On the other hand, hostility, frequent criticism, shouting, food lecturing ("children in other countries are starving...") and indulgent and inconsistent parenting were associated with heavier kids.

Overweight kids also had significantly shorter meals -- they were shorter by about five minutes.

These results held true even after they were adjusted to the parents' weight.

And a few more observations about how the modern family eats: Almost two-thirds of families had an electronic screen on (TV, cell phone, computer, electronic game) during the meal. In most families parents pre-plated kids' dish, rather than let the kids fill his own plate or ask him what he wants.

The take home message from this study is simple: Serve a good meal and enjoy it. Dinnertime should be an event we look forward to at the end of each day, a joyful time to reconnect, listen, and be stimulated by food and talk. Although the results of the study are not in any way surprising, I think that too many parents are sidetracked by the belief that if they just reasoned with the kid a bit more, just pushed a little, made a bigger effort, their kids would eat better.

Instead, let's try this: Once a healthy meal is on the table consider your job done; you're now a guest at your own dinner party, there to appreciate good food in good company.

I'm pretty sure that when a family has a good time at the dinner table, they'll tend to linger. 

Dr. Ayala