The Demise of the Family Meal

Eating with others is a cultural practice with thousands of years of tradition, yet research shows that social eating is in decline among some industrialized nations. In his thought-provoking introduction to Feed Zone Table, Dr. Allen Lim explores the evidence for the many health and performance benefits of sharing meals with others.

by Dr. Allen Lim

One way to understand local and global cultural differences in social eating is to simply ask those who don’t have much of a choice in the matter—our children.

Feed Zone Table by Biju Thomas and Allen LimWhen youths from different countries were asked how frequently most or all of those who lived in their household (i.e., family) sat down to eat together, the results varied greatly depending on factors such as region and income.

In the United States, some studies show that only 45–50 percent of youths report eating with their family or people they live with at what’s considered to be a high frequency—five or more times per week.21 That said, depending upon how the question is asked, there may be a great deal of variability.

For example, in a group of 7,784 girls and 6,647 boys ages 9–14 who were surveyed across 50 states,

  • 16% reported having family dinner “never or some days,”
  • 40% reported “most days,” and
  • 44% reported “every day.”22

In a similar study conducted with 5,014 adolescents between the ages of 12–15,

  • 8.3% reported never having family dinner,
  • 7.3% reported having family dinner 1–2 times per week,
  • 13.4% reported a dinner rate of 3–4 times per week,
  • 28.1% reported 5–6 times per week, and
  • 42% reported every day.23

If we define a high frequency of family meals as five or more meals per week, then based upon the studies quoted above, 45–70 percent of children in the United States report a high frequency of family meals. Whatever the reality, this large range shows that family meals are not consistent.

[Related: The Demise of the Family Meal]

In the United States, most people who eat dinner with their families tend to eat breakfast alone and eat lunch with their classmates or coworkers.24 So from the perspective of an American nuclear family for whom breakfast or lunch is not considered to have much of a familial context, the statistics on family meal frequency may not seem that low or odd.

But considering the 21 distinct meals we might eat in a week, the fact that potentially half of American children eat less than a quarter of those meals with their family is striking if not at least interesting.

[Related: Sharing Meals Is Better for Your Health]

Writing about the demise of the family meal, Anne Murcott quotes an upset father who laments, “I ate only seven meals at home all last week and three of those were on Sunday.”25 While this father may not be happy about his situation, by a certain standard he’s still considered to be on the high side of family meal frequency.

It’s a little socioeconomic

More alarming is the fact that these numbers seem to be improving in the wealthiest and most educated Americans but declining in the poorest and lowest educated. In a study conducted to assess trends in family meal frequency in the United States from 1999 to 2010, a high family meal frequency of five or more meals per week held relatively stable at 48.2 percent for a population of 3,072 kids surveyed in 1999 and 48.5 percent for a population of 2,793 kids living in the same region who were surveyed in 2010.

When the data was analyzed based on socioeconomic status, the trend for high family meal frequency rose in the highest socioeconomic class from 55.8 percent in 1999 to 61.3 percent in 2010 and fell in the lowest socioeconomic class from 46.9 percent in 1999 to 38.8 percent in 2010.

On average, kids from low socioeconomic backgrounds ate with their families 4 times per week in 1999 and 3.6 times per week in 2010. Besides declines in low socioeconomic classes, declines were also seen in girls, middle school students (grades 6–8), and Asians.26

Anarchy in the UK

Although the outlook for family meals in the United States isn’t great (or is perhaps just inconsistent, especially in lower socioeconomic classes), the situation in the United Kingdom may be even worse. In one study assessing family meal frequency in Britain, only 33 percent of British youths reported a high frequency of family meals.27

The situation is quite different in other countries. In studies similar to the ones conducted on family meal frequency in the United States and Britain, 78 percent of Spanish youths report high rates of family meal frequency.28 Likewise, in Canadian provinces such as Ontario and Nova Scotia, 70 percent of youths report a high frequency of family meals.29

  • United Kingdom: 33% high frequency of family meals
  • Spain: 78% high frequency of family meals
  • Canada: 70% high frequency of family meals

The French Paradox

But it’s the French who seem to be excelling as a nation when it comes to creating consistent and structured meal patterns for their children. It’s possible that the way the French share social meals might explain their outstanding health despite a high fat diet.

For now, know that you can make dinnertime better right now. Inspire your dinnertime with family-style meals from Feed Zone Table. Feed Zone Table includes more than 100 all-new recipes to inspire family-style dinners in a way that nourishes life and sport.

Complete footnotes and references for studies cited above are available in the print edition of Feed Zone Table.

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