Children eat most of their meals in a family context, making family meals a key environment in which to learn about healthy food. What makes a family meal “healthy”? This diary study examined the practice of seven family mealtime routines (e.g., positive mealtime atmosphere, parental modeling, and longer meal duration) and their predictive value for children's healthier nutrition focusing on everyday family meal settings.
Over 7 consecutive days, parents from N = 310 families (Mage = 42 years) described their most important family meal of the day and food intake for an index child (Mage = 9 years) and indicated what mealtime routines were practiced during the family meal. On average, each parent responded to 5.6 (SD = 1.4) of seven daily surveys. Mean correlations between mealtime routines were small (rs between −0.14 and 0.25), suggesting independent and distinct routines. Creating a positive atmosphere and turning TV and smartphones off were reported most often (on average, 91.2% and 90.5%, respectively). Parent's fruit and vegetable intake and creating a positive mealtime atmosphere were the strongest predictors for children's higher nutritional quality (i.e., higher vegetable and fruit intake; ps < .001). Findings indicate that mealtime routines obtained from independent meta-analyses represent distinct routines. Families practiced these independent and distinct routines to different degrees. Parental modeling and a positive mealtime atmosphere were most predictive of healthier child nutrition in daily family meal settings. More experimental research is needed to better understand causality and provide a better basis for effective interventions.