It could also be that dining together allows parents to set a better eating example for their kids. And mealtime is often the only chance parents have to actually look over their busy teenagers, catch up on their lives and visually assess behavioral or physical changes that might signal problems.160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set! AD Quality Auto 360p 720p 1080p Top articles1/5READ MOREGame Center: Chargers at Kansas City Chiefs, Sunday, 10 a.m.The importance of the family meal has been shown mainly in studies from the University of Minnesota, Harvard and Rutgers that have looked at family eating habits of nearly 40,000 middle-school students and teenagers. The research has shown that those who regularly have meals with their parents eat more fruits, vegetables and calcium-rich foods, ingest more vitamins and nutrients, and consume less junk food. Some of the research has shown that kids who regularly sit down to eat with their families are at lower risk for smoking and drug and alcohol use. But, as is the case with all studies in which people are observed over time, the big question is whether the family meal really leads to healthier habits. Could kids from happier, more health-conscious families simply be more likely to sit down to a family meal? University of Minnesota researchers have sought to answer that question by looking at “family connectedness,” which essentially measures the psychological health of a family. Children from highly connected families have been shown to eat healthier foods, get better grades and have lower risk for smoking and drug and alcohol use. But in the Minnesota research, whether the family was connected or troubled was less important than whether family members regularly dined together. One study, published in The Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine in 2004, found that even after controlling for family connectedness, kids who had seven or more family meals a week were far less likely to smoke, drink alcohol or use marijuana than those who had just one family meal or none. Why a family meal can make such a difference isn’t entirely clear. Parents might simply put better food on the table when everyone gets together. People dining alone tend to eat pizza, for instance, while families who order pizza together tend also to put vegetables or a salad on the table, Feldman noted. Television viewing has long been linked to poor eating habits. So when University of Minnesota researchers embarked on a study of family meals, they fully expected that having the TV on at dinner would take a toll on children’s diets. But to their surprise, it didn’t make much difference. Families who watched TV at dinner ate just about as healthfully as families who dined without it. The biggest factor wasn’t whether the TV was on or off, but whether the family was eating the meal together. “Obviously, we want people eating family meals, and we want them to turn the TV off,” said Shira Feldman, public-health specialist at the university’s School of Public Health and lead author of the research. “But just the act of eating together is on some level very beneficial, even if the TV is on.” The research, published this month in The Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, is the latest testament to the power of the family meal. While many parents worry about what their kids are eating – vegetables or junk food – a voluminous body of research suggests that the best strategy for improving a child’s diet is simply putting food on the table and sitting down together to eat it.