Family Mealtime Dynamics and Food Consumption: An Experimental Approach to Understanding Distractions

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Previous research in naturalistic settings has indicated that being distracted during meals may be related to risk for obesity and increased consumption of unhealthy foods. This study took an experimental approach by introducing a loud noise during a family meal to examine differences in behavior and communication, according to family role, and food consumption. Sixty families were videotaped during a family dinner in a research home that was constructed to resemble a family kitchen, dining room, and living space. The families were randomly assigned into a control group (n = 30 families) or the experimental group (n = 30 families). There were a total of 235 participants in this study, with 109 parents and 126 children. Those in the experimental group experienced a continuous loud noise adjacent to the dining room during the dinner, and the control group experienced no additional noise. Mealtime videos were coded using the ABC (Action, Behavior Control, Communication) mealtime coding scheme and food consumption was calculated from the videos by trained coders. Mealtime behaviors, communication, and food consumption were then analyzed across family roles and across experimental condition. In general, more cookies were consumed in the noisy condition. Children tended to engage in more activity and distractions overall. Parents engaged in more Behavior Control, Critical Communication, and Interpersonal Communication overall. Discussion focuses on how family dynamics may affect eating behaviors and the need to create calm mealtime environments.

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