Television viewing has long been linked with 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 versus junk — 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.

Researchers surveyed the eating habits of about 5,000 middle and high school students in Minneapolis and St. Paul. The data were collected during the 1998-99 school year but analyzed only recently. About two-thirds of the students reported that they ate dinner with their parents at least three times a week. But about half of that group said they also watched television during the family meal.

Overall, the children ate healthier foods if the television was turned off, but the differences weren't as big as researchers expected.

The biggest effect was seen among the kids who didn't eat regular family meals at all. Girls who dined alone ate fewer fruits, vegetables and calcium-rich foods and more soft drinks and snack foods than girls who ate with their parents. And girls who ate with their parents ate more calories — up to 14 percent more, suggesting that dining alone puts girls at higher risk for eating disorders. Boys who didn't eat with their parents had fewer vegetables and calcium-rich foods than family diners.