Since the beginning of time, family mealtimes have been a time to share good food and stories, and to relax and unwind with the people you love most. Now research shows that shared mealtimes are critical in terms of each individual’s long-term physical and mental wellbeing – but that many of us opt for ready-to-eat meals in front of the telly instead.

In a study by the Unilever group, conducted among 6,000 adults in 12 countries, 70% of respondents felt the loss of shared mealtimes led to a loss of family traditions – many of which contribute to good health.

The researchers also discovered that:

    • Up to two thirds of the respondents in the Unilever study were less likely to talk to each other and share experiences, and were thus more isolated.

    • TV was classified as a “new family member” at mealtimes by up to 59% of participants worldwide.

    • In 50% of cases, work was the prime reason for not sharing mealtimes.

    • The average time spent on preparing food shrunk to just over 40 minutes per meal – in fact, 17% of the respondents spent less than 15 minutes cooking a meal.

The reality is that, once couples and families no longer sit down around a table for a meal, a great many things are lost. Think of conversation, shared ideas, learning by example, transmission of cultural values relating to food and also to other facets of behaviour such as good manners, the art of caring, listening and even humour.

Physical impact

Eating family meals can also have a very real physical impact on children and teenagers.

A number of international studies found that youngsters who eat dinner with family members are more likely to eat fruit and vegetables. They’re also less inclined to eat fast foods and sweets and drink large volumes of fizzy, sweetened drinks. Consequently, these children and teenagers are less likely to suffer from obesity and the medical conditions associated with it.

We tend to forget that the childhood and teenage years is an important learning time, and that young ones learn by watching and copying adults – primarily their parents, grandparents and older siblings.

Teenagers most affected

Irregular mealtimes, excessive snacking, eating away from home (particularly at fast-food restaurants and on street corners from food vendors), over-the-top dieting, eating disorders and skipping meals often characterise teenage eating habits.

In many instances, the influence of the family is replaced by the influence of peer groups. This affects food selection and eating habits, and often leads to unbalanced food intake. It also produces future parents who have no skills in encouraging good eating habits in their own children.

Other components that contribute to teenagers’ unhealthy eating habits include:

    • Employment outside the home – teenagers who work to earn pocket money have less time to spend with their families.

    • Increased responsibilities, including the burden of caring for younger siblings.

    • Pressure to perform at school and in sport.

    • Busy schedules and long travelling times between school and home.

    • Inability to link present risky behaviour to future health risks.

Are there solutions?

Faced with the results of the Unilever study, it seems that our world is spiralling out of control.

However, if we keep in mind that 70% of the respondents felt that they had "lost" something valuable by not sharing family mealtimes together, there’s hope that we can change the situation around.

To salvage the situation in your home, it could be worth calling a family meeting. Ask family members to put forward ideas on how, as a group, you can get together for meals more often. Suggest at least one or two shared meals a week, arrange times that will suit everyone, get ideas for menus, and set ground rules so that the process doesn’t disintegrate. And have fun discovering each other again!

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