Jan. 10, 2001 -- June Cleaver would pitch a fit, but in the real world more and more of us eat parked squarely in front of a TV set. So what's the harm in that? Well, maybe to kids' diets, according to a new study that finds that children who watch television during meals tend to eat more junk food -- pizza, salty snacks, and soda -- and fewer healthy fruits and vegetables than do kids in families that take the TV out of TV dinners.
But not all of today's nutrition news is bad: School lunches are leaner and more nutritious these days then they were a decade ago, according to a government report released Wednesday.
It's well known that a lifetime of healthy eating habits begins in childhood and that diets high in fat and low in fruits and vegetables are linked to risk of heart disease, certain cancers, and obesity. Poor eating habits and lack of exercise are the main reasons that childhood obesity is at an all-time high. The number of overweight children between ages 6 and 17 has doubled in the past 20 years.
In the study on TV habits -- published in the Jan. 8 issue of the journal Pediatrics -- researchers looked at the eating habits of 91 fourth, fifth, and sixth graders who watched television during two or more meals each day and compared them with those of kids who either never watched TV while eating or who watched it during just one meal per day.
The diets of the TV-watchers were significantly worse, the researchers found -- but why?
"Those who have the television set on during meals may see more advertising for snack foods," guesses lead study author Katherine L. Tucker, PhD, an associate professor at Tufts University School of Nutrition Science and Policy in Boston. "Or, if the television is on during meals, the meals become a secondary activity, not a primary one, so the focus is off the foods that children consume."
This makes sense to women's health expert Donnica Moore, MD, mother of a 6-year-old girl and a 7-year-old boy. "Look at what we eat in front of the television as grown-ups," she says.
Moore says she does allow her kids to watch television while they eat breakfast, but is very careful about what she serves them.
That said, "there are times when it is entirely appropriate for children to decompress in front of the television -- such as after a long day at school or when it is raining out," she says. "That's when I make something called a 'pupu platter' -- a large serving plate with a different sections of healthy foods such as sliced-up carrots, cherry tomatoes, grapes, cut-up apples, and other easy finger foods which are a pleasure to eat in front of the television."
She will also toss in pretzels, mini rice cakes, or Ritz Bits as treats. "It's great because the kids get their fruits and vegetables so I don't have to stress about it during dinner," she says.
None of this is to say that mealtime TV is all bad, says Davida Kleinman, RD, a nutritionist in Doylestown, Pa., and also a mom.
"Television creates a diversion and sometimes kids need that," she says.
And some television shows such as Barney or Sesame Street actually teach kids about good nutrition, she points out.
"When it comes to eating right, kids need a good role model," she says. Parents make the best role models, she says, "but sometimes characters on television shows can also provide guidance."
Setting a schedule -- and sticking to it -- can also instill good eating habits, she says. "It's important to eat three meals a day and two to three snacks," she tells WebMD. " Eating on the run creates opportunities for fast food and fatty, sugary snacks."
Scheduling can be tricky when it comes to kids eating at school, Kleinman says. "A lot of schools have crazy times when kids are eating lunch, such as 10 or 11 a.m., and when the kids get home, they're famished," she says.
But even if the timing is not ideal, don't despair about the choices your kids are offered for lunch. A new study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture finds that more schools offer low-fat foods now then they did in 1992, and a majority of school districts have increased the number of fruit, vegetable and whole grain foods offered to students.
"School meals reach nearly 27 million children each day -- sometimes providing the most nutritious meal a child receives," Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman said at a press conference Wednesday in Washington, D.C. "Fortunately, more than ever before, these meals are hitting the mark in providing good nutrition and healthy selections."
But, as Kleinman points out, you can lead a horse to water but you can't make it drink.
"When faced with choices of what to eat, children -- especially younger children -- will choose the foods that they are used to," she says. "If those are low-fat meals and fruits and vegetables, then those are the foods your child will choose to eat when he or she is not with you. Good eating habits start at home."