Days needed to characterize the healthfulness of a typical dinner meal in direct observational research: Mixed methods study

Allan Tate, Amanda C Trofholz, Michael Miner, Jerica Berge

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


BACKGROUND: Prior research around the home meal environment has demonstrated that family meals are associated with positive health outcomes for children and adolescents. Researchers have begun using direct observational methods to understand key aspects of family meals such as meal healthfulness and family meal frequency to explain the protective nature of family meals. Direct observational research, however, can be resource intensive and also burdensome for participants. Information about the number of days needed to sufficiently characterize typical meal healthfulness using direct observational research methods is needed.

OBJECTIVE: The current study aimed to produce guidance about the number of meals necessary to approximate typical meal healthfulness at the family dinner meal occasion in a direct observational, mixed methods study of the home food environment.

METHODS: Families were recruited between 2012-2013 from primary care clinics in the Minneapolis-St Paul metropolitan area (N=120). A total of 800 meals were collected as part of the Family Meals LIVE! mixed methods study. The Healthfulness of Meal Index was used to evaluate meal dietary healthfulness of foods served at 8 family meal occasions. Participating families were provided an iPad (Apple Inc) and asked to video-record 8 consecutive days of family dinner meals with a minimum of two weekend meals. After the meal, families completed a meal screener, which is a self-reported, open-ended measure of the foods served at the meal.

RESULTS: Weekend and weekday meals differed in their measurement of meal healthfulness, indicating that at least one weekday and one weekend day are necessary to approximate meal healthfulness. Single-day measurement mischaracterized the strength of the relationship between the quality of what was served and intake by almost 50%, and 3 to 4 observation days were sufficient to characterize typical weekly meal healthfulness (r=0.94; P<.001).

CONCLUSIONS: Relatively few direct observational days of family meals data appear to be needed to approximate the healthfulness of meals across 1 week. Specifically, 1 weekday and 1 weekend observation are needed, including a total of 3 to 4 days of direct observational meal data. These findings may inform future direct observational study designs to reduce both research costs and participant burden in assessing features of the meal environment.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere22541
JournalJMIR Pediatrics and Parenting
Issue number1
StatePublished - Mar 24 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This study is supported by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (no. R03HD084897 to JB) and the National Institute of Diabetes, Digestive and Kidney Disease (no. R21DK091619 to JB). The content in this study is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development; the National Institute of Diabetes, Digestive and Kidney Disease; or the National Institutes of Health.

Publisher Copyright:
© Allan Tate, Amanda Trofholz, Michael Miner, Jerica Berge.


  • Diet
  • Direct observation
  • Family meals
  • Food
  • Meal healthfulness
  • Well-being

PubMed: MeSH publication types

  • Journal Article


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