I never cease to be amazed at how many people I know did not regularly sit down for family meals in their youth… nor now. This was such an important time for my family, where ideas and chitchat were exchanged and social and table etiquette were absorbed and/or pounded in. No wonder I see so many young girls picking at their shoes in restaurants, setting them on the table even, or scraping at the soles with silverware. Egad! Do they just not know any better?

Well, if you’re wondering how important family meals are… and how many corners you might be able to cut as a parent… see Susan Perry’s recent MinnPost piece.

You’ll find studies show that “children in families who regularly sit down together for meals have what is known in sociological parlance as ‘better outcomes’.”

They’re more likely to succeed at school and less likely to be depressed. Their food habits are healthier: They tend to eat more fruits and vegetables and have fewer struggles with extreme food behaviors like binging, purging and chronic dieting. Some research suggests that family meals protect kids from obesity, although those findings are inconsistent.

No wonder, then, that parenting — and nutrition — experts almost universally encourage regular family meals. Yet, according to a 2008 report [PDF] by the National Academies of Sciences’ Society for Research in Child Development (SRCD), only half of American families eat together three to five times a week. (And many of those meals fall far short of “quality time.” Most family meals, notes the SRCD, last less than 20 minutes — and half are consumed with the TV on nearby.)

Wow! Sitting in front of the television together doesn’t count, people! Who does this? Yes, a lot of people, I know. But a new University of Minnesota study takes a closer look at how parenting styles tie into quality time meals.

Why do some parents find the time and energy to gather their families together at meal times (let’s hope with the TV off) and others don’t? One factor may be their parenting style. According to a University of Minnesota study published in the July issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, “authoritative” parents average the greatest number of family meals — four to five — per week.

“Our findings support what we already know about parenting style,” said Jerica Berge, the study’s lead author and an assistant professor of family and community health at the University of Minnesota Medical School, in an interview last week. Other research, she noted, has found that kids raised by authoritative parents are more likely to eat healthful foods and tend to have a lower body mass index (BMI) than kids raised in families with other parenting styles.

But don’t confuse “authoritative” with “authoritarian.” According to the parenting-style classification system used by Berge and her colleagues, authoritative parents are both demanding and responsive: They maintain clear boundaries and expectations, but they’re also empathic and respectful of their child’s opinions. Authoritarian parents, on the other hand, are demanding (they insist on strict discipline) but not responsive (they show little warmth toward their child).

The other two parenting styles are permissive (“empathetic and indulgent without discipline”) and neglectful (“emotionally uninvolved” with no rules or expectations).

In the U of M study, authoritarian and neglectful parents averaged the fewest number of family meals: three to four per week. Permissive parents did slightly better, three to five per week. Those numbers may all sound similar, but they are statistically different enough to be significant.