(HealthDay News) -- Devoting just a few extra minutes to regular family mealtimes can help children in poor families achieve and maintain a normal weight, according to a new study.
"Children whose families engaged with each other over a 20-minute meal four times a week weighed significantly less than kids who left the table after 15 to 17 minutes. Over time, those extra minutes per meal add up and become really powerful," study author Barbara Fiese, director of the family resiliency program at the University of Illinois, said in a university news release.
The researchers observed 200 family mealtimes to assess how socioeconomic factors and mealtime behaviors of families affected the weight of children in elementary school. They noted things such as the importance families placed on sharing a meal, the efforts they made to schedule family meals and how much interaction there was between family members during meals.
Factors that increased the risk of obesity in children in poor families included: being in a single-parent family, having a mother with little education and living in a neighborhood without easy access to healthy foods.
But even with these risk factors, children who had regular high-quality family mealtimes were less likely to have weight problems, according to the study in the December 2012 issue of the journal Economics and Human Biology.
"Three to four extra minutes per meal made a healthy weight more likely," Fiese said.
She noted that teaching poor families how to make the most of family mealtimes is a workable way to reduce children's risk of being overweight or obese.
"This is something we can target and teach," Fiese said. "It's much more difficult to change factors such as marital status, maternal education or neighborhood poverty."
The Nemours Foundation has more about children's weight.