The traditional family meal is rich with symbolism and nostalgia.
Mum and dad and children sitting down to a lovingly prepared meal, unpacking the day and strengthening the bonds of love.
Public health messaging promotes it as a straightforward solution to complex social problems such as childhood obesity, family breakdown and depression. It will improve your children’s behaviour, their school grades, too, and general health.
But does this health promotion of the "family meal imperative" set unrealistic expectations at a time of increasing diversity in families and family practices?
Is it rooted in an anachronistic and conspicuously old-fashioned notion of family that only serves to increase parenting guilt?
Monash University Professor of Sociology Jo Lindsay thinks so.
“Sitting down together every night is an unreasonable public health instruction on how to live,” she says. “It may provoke judgment and guilt rather than health and wellbeing.“Instead of reinforcing nostalgic and unrealistic versions of family life and requiring the performance of frequent family meals, we suggest it may be useful for public health practitioners to imagine and support diverse family food practices, multiple family eating arrangements, and flexible and healthy eating beyond the kitchen table.”
In research just published in the journal Critical Public Health, Professor Lindsay and her colleagues – Dr Claire Tanner, Dr Deana Leahy, Dr Sian Supski, Professor Jan Wright and Professor JaneMaree Maher – found that families are increasingly eating meals at the kitchen bench or in front of the TV while balancing busy lifestyles.
"Families are increasingly eating meals at the kitchen bench or in front of the TV while balancing busy lifestyles."
As part of the research, The family meals imperative and everyday family life: an analysis of children’s photos and videos, primary school-aged children in Victoria from 50 families compiled photos and video of family food consumption, providing a window into how busy lifestyles impact family mealtimes and create diverse eating habits.
Families interviewed by researchers revealed that working long hours, long commutes, conflicting schedules, children’s sports and parents’ commitments all impacted on evening meals, so families responded by eating in a variety of spaces and at different times, sometimes together, sometimes separately.
Family meals were more likely to be reserved for special occasions such as birthdays, and regular meal times were less formal and more practical.
Professor Lindsay said it was time to collectively challenge the dated and potentially harmful expectations of the role of sit-down family meals.She adds that the purported benefits and outcomes of eating structured family meals lacked strong scientific evidence. The evidence base is inconsistent and inconclusive, and shared family meals may just be a proxy for other social determinants of health.
“We’ve found the traditional sit-down dinner is not the reality we’re seeing in most busy Australian households. Instead, families configure meals in a variety of practical ways to provide nourishment and manage time pressures and relationships,” she says.
"Reinforcing nostalgic versions of family life is just not realistic."
“Reinforcing nostalgic versions of family life is just not realistic. We don’t want parents feeling like a moral failure or that they’re compromising their child’s health because they’re eating separately or in front of the television – it’s just not the case.
“We suggest that the promotion of numerous health benefits of frequent evening family meals around the dinner table mobilises a moral framework where doing dinner ‘the right way’ – harking back to a nostalgic version of family dinners – is prioritised and all other versions of dinner are viewed as improper.
“Rather than promoting meals of a bygone era, our research suggests that supporting flexible and healthy eating beyond the dinner table may be a more fruitful strategy for promoting public health, and could create a more peaceful and practical mealtime.”
The study draws on data collected as part of a broader study addressing school health messages, and the role of children as health advocates in school and family contexts.