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Dinner Rituals That Correlate with Child and Adult BMI

Van Kleef, Ellen and Brian Wansink. (2014). Dinner Rituals That Correlate with Child and Adult BMI. Obesity, 22(5), E91-95. doi: 10.1002/oby.20629

Previous studies have shown that family consumption norms, such as portion size and taste preference, have an impact on adult and child Body Mass Index (BMI). While those studies focused on foods and eating behaviors, this study explores how common family dining rituals correlate with BMI. Three rituals were examined in relation to BMI: the social dynamics of the meal, involvement in meal preparation, and the environment where the meal is eaten. The objective of this study was to determine if these non-food-centric rituals influence adult and child BMI.  

The data used for this study was collected from 190 parents and 148 children entering the 3rd to 6th grades in the Chicago Metro area. While the children in small groups watched TV, parents in a separate room completed a questionnaire about their family dining behaviors and activities. The survey included a broad scope of questions that either used the 9 point Likert scale or were answered based on frequency, such as, “how many times in the past week did you or your family eat at in the kitchen or at the dining room table.” Information on age, gender, and level of education was collected from participating parents. To determine BMI, height and weight was measured for all participating parents and children after completion of the survey. To determine correlation between reported dining behaviors and BMI, Pearson correlations were calculated.  Regression analysis was used to test the effect of each of the three rituals being studied and the education level of parents.

Results showed that the following family dining rituals were associated with a lower relative BMI among parents: talking meaningfully about children’s day, eating in the kitchen or dining room table, and remaining at the table until everyone is finished eating. Frequently watching TV during family meals was associated with a higher relative BMI among parents. For children, eating in the kitchen and dining room was associated with a lower relative BMI, especially among female children. Staying at the table until everyone is finished eating was associated with a lower relative BMI in the children, especially boys. Also statistically significant is that BMIs of female children who helped to prepare the meal were relatively higher.

The results of the regression analysis show that, after controlling for education levels of parents, eating in the kitchen or dining room was the best predictor of BMI for everyone except boys. The more they indicated eating in the kitchen or dining room, the lower their BMI. Also, the more frequently parents reported cooking with their female children, the greater the BMI for both parties. Saying grace or prayer was also associated with higher BMI among parents.

Although this study does not look at causality, it shows that there is a strong link between BMI and certain mealtime rituals. BMI is strongly related to where and for how long families eat. Based on the findings of this study we recommend that families try eating together at a kitchen or dining room with the TV turned off. Encouraging children to talk meaningfully about their day is also a good practice. These simple and easy to implement changes can make family meals about more than just eating. Meals can become healthy environments that promote social support and result in healthy BMI.