Public Health Nutrition

Research Papers

Behavioural nutrition

How we eat what we eat: identifying meal routines and practices most strongly associated with healthy and unhealthy dietary factors among young adults

Melissa N Laskaa1 c1, Mary O Hearsta1a2, Katherine Lusta3, Leslie A Lytlea1a4 and Mary Storya1

a1 Division of Epidemiology and Community Health, University of Minnesota, 1300 South Second Street, Suite 300, Minneapolis, MN 55454, USA

a2 Department of Public Health, St. Catherine University, St. Paul, MN, USA

a3 Boynton Health Service, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, MN, USA

a4 Gillings School of Public Health, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, NC, USA


Objective (i) To examine associations between young adults’ meal routines and practices (e.g. food preparation, meal skipping, eating on the run) and key dietary indicators (fruit/vegetable, fast-food and sugar-sweetened beverage intakes) and (ii) to develop indices of protective and risky meal practices most strongly associated with diet.

Design Cross-sectional survey.

Setting Minneapolis/St. Paul metropolitan area, Minnesota (USA).

Subjects A diverse sample of community college and public university students (n 1013).

Results Meal routines and practices most strongly associated with healthy dietary patterns were related to home food preparation (i.e. preparing meals at home, preparing meals with vegetables) and meal regularity (i.e. routine consumption of evening meals and breakfast). In contrast, factors most strongly associated with poor dietary patterns included eating on the run, using media while eating and purchasing foods/beverages on campus. A Protective Factors Index, summing selected protective meal routines and practices, was positively associated with fruit/vegetable consumption and negatively associated with fast-food and sugar-sweetened beverage consumption (P<0·001). A Risky Factors Index yielded significant, positive associations with fast-food and sugar-sweetened beverage consumption (P<0·001). The probability test for the association between the Risky Factors Index and fruit/vegetable intake was P=0·05.

Conclusions Meal routines and practices were significantly associated with young adults’ dietary patterns, suggesting that ways in which individuals structure mealtimes and contextual characteristics of eating likely influence food choice. Thus, in addition to considering specific food choices, it also may be important to consider the context of mealtimes in developing dietary messaging and guidelines.

(Received July 09 2013)

(Revised October 08 2014)

(Accepted October 15 2014)

(Online publication December 02 2014)


  • Young adult;
  • Dietary intake;
  • Meal practices


c1 Corresponding author: Email