4 Family Meal Rituals for a Healthy BMI

family mealThe term “dining” implies a meal is more than just about the experience of eating; the atmosphere and social environment are equally important to the enjoyment of the meal.  Family can be as essential to a family dinner as eating is! A new study shows us ways in which the family dining experience can contribute to healthy lives for children and adults. The research looked at several dining rituals to see if any are related to weight status. Rather than focusing on the healthfulness of the food, researchers looked at elements of family dining environments, for example, do they eat together? Do they sit at the table? Is the TV turned off? Questions like these, combined with measurements of participants Body Mass Index (BMI), allowed the researchers to detect patterns between dining rituals and BMI. 

In total, 190 parents and 148 children from the Chicago Metro area participated in the study. All children were enrolled in 3rd to 6th grade. While their children watched TV programs in another room, parents filled out a questionnaire about their family’s regular mealtime habits. The questions asked about the occurrence and frequency of several common mealtime rituals. After the questionnaire was completed researchers collected all parent’s and children’s height and weight to calculate BMI.

Researchers found that in fact, many regular family dining behaviors are related to children and adult weight status! 

  • Findings indicate that watching television during dinner is related to a higher BMI in adults.
  • Eating at a table in the dining room or living room was linked with lower BMI in both adults and children.
  • Families that reported remaining at the table until everyone was finished eating and engaging in meaningful conversion had lower BMI, this was especially true for boys. 

This research did not delve into why these habits are related to BMI but they do provide a strong foundation by identifying positive and negative elements of family eating environments and behavior. Based on these findings researchers recommend that families:

  1. Engage in meaningful conversation. Encourage kids to talk about exciting things that happened in their day and what they accomplished in class by asking gentle open ended questions. To nurture a sharing, open atmosphere, adults can share positive events and ideas too.
  2. Make sure the TV is off. It is difficult to be attentive and engaged with others if the TV is on, so make sure it is off before everyone sits to eat.  
  3. Sit at the dining room or kitchen table. Sitting around a table creates a dynamic where conversation comes naturally. Also, the meal becomes central; all those participating will be actively involved in the experience rather than eating in the living room where attention is easily diverted elsewhere.
  4. Remain at the table until everyone is finished eating. It is easy to eat quickly and rush off to the next activity but saying at the table until everyone is finished enforces the notion that the meal is not just about eating but also an opportunity to enjoy each other’s company!


Katherine Baildon, Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Programs


Wansink, B., & Van Kleef, E. (2013). “Dinner Rituals that Correlate with Child and Adult BMI.”

For more information

How to Avoid the Dinnertime Fight

Family Meals Matter

Growing Strong and Healthy: How to Create and Maintain a Healthy Food Environment at Home

The Importance of Family Meals

Nutritional Gatekeepers: Begin a Journey to Healthy Eating