Yvonne Wake discusses the importance of eating together – for health and family life.
The role of the family as it relates to nutritional intake in today’s society is becoming a fairly complex one. We seldom make use of a shared meal to punctuate the day and celebrate the great occasions of life, and gone are the days at home when we waited for everyone to come to the table before starting to eat. Unfortunately, family life as we know it has ceased to exist for a large majority of people. It has been suggested that family breakdown in the UK is ‘as big a threat to our society as terrorism, street crime or drugs’. Marriage is no longer fashionable for many, and figures show that weddings taking place are at their lowest level for 144 years. Indeed a recent news report suggested that fewer than two in three grow up in a traditional family compared to nearly three quarters of children when the current government came to power. Furthermore, the latest report on social trends suggests that 24% of children are growing up in one parent families, whereas in the 1950’s, 90% of children in Britain lived with both parents. Are these details relevant to nutritional intake? Well yes in many ways they are. Food is an integral part of our existence, and sociological literature relating to food suggests that factors such as preparing and sharing a meal at home are likely to be important influences in a child’s development, and that a meal is a physical event where everything is prepared and confined by social initiatives.
Dietary intake in the UK is a major cause for concern and there is much debate relating to obesogenic environments as well as the consumption of excess calories and exceeding recommended intakes of total fat, sugar and salt. The family environment is one of the strongest determinants of dietary behaviour which is expressed through a parent’s belief on good or bad food intakes, parents also influence a child’s exposure to certain foods as well as where the food is eaten, i.e. at the table, or in front of the television. A family environment is also where we learn to socialise with others and understand dietary disciplines such as not eating too fast, waiting for others to finish before leaving the table, and simple things like not speaking with a mouth full of food. From an emotional standpoint, studies have shown that children who frequently ate with their families have better results at school, are less depressed, less likely to drink alcohol, smoke, or use marijuana than children who ate with their families less than twice a week. Children thrive on routines which make them feel secure and loved. Regular meal times all together (regardless of whether the meal is a pizza or a freshly prepared roast dinner) give children the opportunity to discuss problems with family members; it relaxes and encourages them to wind down. They are better friends with their siblings and learn to respect others around the table. Talking to teenagers over dinner is a great way of gaining trust and they are more likely to talk about things that could sometimes feel uncomfortable.
Eating family meals is also associated with better intakes of fruit and vegetables and a lower intake of fried foods, and the influence on adolescent eating patterns is considerable, for example, when children do not eat around a family table, they are more likely to eat ready-made meals of poorer nutritional value.
The old adage of ‘the family that eats together, stays together’ is ringing in my ears, but in today’s hectic world, the family food environment must be seen within the context of our modern society of long working hours, working mothers, increasing numbers of single-parent homes, fewer meals shared as a family because of the growing trend to eat out, as well as modern family habits which are fundamentally different from those of the last generation. There is also an impact on family eating habits as it relates to culture, traditions, religious practices, race, and ethnicity. Our modern world of eating at our desk as we work, in the car, on the move, or just skipping meals because we are so busy, affects us all.
The good news however, is that a first date with that special person still usually means going out for dinner, so all good there. But even better would be to take mum out to celebrate Mothers Day. A sure way to score extra brownie points! You know it makes healthy sense!
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