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Families Eating Apart 2006-11-07

Posted by clype in Articles of Interest, Health, Scotland, Statistics.

So what’s for dinner then? Home-made stew perhaps? Ready meal from ‘Sainsbury’s’? Take-out from the curry house round the corner?

For most families, it depends on who’s coming to dinner, and according to a new report, the answer to that question these days has become an incredibly moveable feast.

The latest figures show that only 64 per cent of teenagers in Britain regularly sit down to a meal with their parents. The study, by ‘The Institute for Public Policy Research’, looking closely at youth behaviour and conducted over a number of years, is due to be released today 2006-11-06.

It compares the British figure with Italy, where a far higher 93 per cent of teens take the time to dine with mum and dad, and there are other disturbing figures that show just how much youth in Britain has changed.

In Scotland, 59 per cent of 15-year-old boys spend most evenings with their friends. In England the figure is 45 per cent. In contrast, in France it stands at just 17 per cent. At a time when ‘youth crime’ is on the increase and ‘binge-drinking’ among Scottish teenagers seems to be turning into an ever greater problem, these are worrying statistics.

So if teenagers aren’t sitting down at the dinner table, who is? Longer working hours, more mothers going back to work, increased activities for school children and flexible working all mean that quite often, no members of a family sit down to the traditional evening meal at 18:00. Nowadays you might be more likely to find one parent eating at 18:00, a child eating with a tray balanced on their knees in front of the television at 19:00, while the other parent, working late, grabs something at the office and doesn’t eat at home at all. It’s all a very long way from ‘The Oxo Family’.

But are the figures fair? And do parents care about where their teenagers eat their dinner — or do they just want to make sure they’re fed in the first place? It’s long been said that the dinner table is where a family really comes together — but is that just an outmoded stereotype not in tune with the modern world? In an effort to find out, we spoke to four Scottish families with teenagers about what time they eat, whether they all sit down together and who, exactly, makes it home in time for dinner.


Shona Dunn, a secondary school teacher, lives in Edinburgh with her husband Allan, a writer and life coach, and their two children, Carys, five, and Abigail, eight, and Shona’s two children from a previous marriage, Euan, 15, and Emily, 17

‘As the children get older it becomes more and more difficult to all sit down together. The little ones still need to be fed at 5pm because they’re early to bed, but the big ones have lots of things on now, so sometimes it’s difficult to get everyone sitting down at once.

‘We manage it during the week. It’s fairly regimented. During school days we eat between 5 pm and 6 pm. I prefer it to be as early as possible because the little ones are tired and grumpy. They eat better if you do it a wee bit earlier.

‘The older ones aren’t at home as much at the weekends. They’re out and about a lot, and, on a Saturday, the older two tend to go to their Dad’s, so we usually feed the little ones early and then my husband and I will eat later once they’re in bed.

‘My children never eat in front of the television. We have no TV in the kitchen and we all say “no telly on”. I just think it’s nice for everybody to sit and talk about what happened over the course of the day, be it good or bad.

‘It’s not good for children to be sitting with a tray on their knees in front of the telly; they watch enough as it is. I think it’s good to prise them away from that and have them sitting them around the table.

‘It’s always been part of our routine so the children never question it, they just accept it. They all sit and chat, and often one of them will have friends round. Quite often I’ll find myself asking: “How many children am I feeding tonight?”‘


Marie Primrose, a stay-at-home mother, is married to Robin, a self-employed consulting engineer. They have four children, Fiona, 16, Tom, 14, Rob, 11, and Kate, nine, and live in Glasgow

‘Dinner is the only time of day when we’re all in the same place at the same time. It gives us a chance to talk to each other, and it also helps us to keep a lid on the childrens’ table manners.

‘We’re trying to instil some sort of standard in them. The school tries, but I think really there’s no place like home for ‘you shouldn’t do that, it’d be better if you did this’.

‘We usually manage to eat around the same time most evenings, between 7 pm and 7:30 pm. That fits in reasonably well with other things all the children are doing, homework and what have you. They usually have something to eat when they come straight in from school, but we save the main meal until dinner time.

‘It has happened that the oldest has started to go out with friends for food. They don’t tend to go for chips; they get something a bit more interesting. If she wanted to go out every night then I would have something to say, but she doesn’t, so it’s not really an issue. It’s [no more than] one day a week when she makes arrangements to go out somewhere to eat.

‘I do think family meals are a dying tradition.

When parents work, it’s very hard to maintain that opportunity to all be together in the same place at the same time.’


Mary Rodgers is a primary school teacher. She lives in Haddington with her husband Glenn, director of education for the Borders, and their two teenage sons, Neil, 17, a member of the Scotland Under-18 rugby squad, and Stuart, 14

‘We try to eat together as often as possible, but it’s not as often as we would like. When the children were younger we managed it quite well, but with two teenage boys doing various activities in the evenings it does tend to prevent us all eating at the same time.

‘My husband isn’t home at the same time every day either, so while we do try to have a meal time about 6:30 pm Monday to Thursday, that can really depend on the boys’ training, particularly Neil’s.

‘We make the effort because we feel it’s a very important part of family life. It’s often when you hear the stories, things that have happened at school, and the children can also hear what the parents have been doing during the day. We get a chance to communicate with each other.

‘I’m not surprised at the statistics. Talking to my own two it seems to happen a lot, but I do think it’s because of activities children are doing.

‘Both my boys would still feel it’s a priority to have their meal here in the house rather than with friends, and we tend to manage dinner together at weekends.

‘When they were younger they used to go to Cubs, which started at 6:30 pm, so we had to have early tea for the children and later tea for their father coming home. Then there was a point when they were in swimming club.

‘It’s the balance between doing healthy activities and sitting round for a family meal.’


Jan Rutherford is a book publicist. She lives in Edinburgh with her husband Caleb, a graphic designer, and their sons Aidan, 14, and Ryan, 11

‘We eat together most nights. It’s something we’ve always done. We’re in a very fortunate position in that we both work from home, which makes things easier. It’s a habit we’ve got into and one that we all enjoy.

‘It means if we eat late, we eat late, we hold off for each other rather than all eating at separate times. My oldest son, Aidan, loves cooking and he’ll cook for us at least once a week. He’s quite experimental — Indian dishes, traditional meals — it’s a real passion of his. We don’t eat homecooked meals every night, though: like every other family we’ll have carry-ins or stuff from Sainsbury’s, but even then we tend to eat together.

‘As both my husband and I are self-employed and have fairly high-pressure lives, sitting down for a family meal is a chance for us to spend some time with the children. They can tell us what they’ve been doing at school, and it also gives them an opportunity to find out what we’ve been doing during the day, which I think is important.

‘I think as they grow older they will start to do their own thing. This generation has brought its children up to be more independent. We have to accept they will start to lead independent lives at an earlier age than we did.’


Phillip Hodson, fellow of ‘The British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy’.

‘Breaking bread together’ is a civilising experience and permits the transmission of information down the generations. Parents and children have a common interest in being there — namely they get fed — and there is an opportunity which can be taken to share.

It is also part of a process of teaching social and generational manners. And if you do eat together you have to find compromises and a co-operativeness that allows you to get what you need: grunting at the ketchup bottle is unlikely to have the desired effect.

The current problem is partly based on the fact that the British have never truly had much respect for good eating and fine dining. And we have failed to recognise that food is packaged love.

The symbolism of food is very important; all forms of hospitality require the giving of food and drink, and food also defines one major aspect of motherhood.

The main job of parents is to provide food for their children, so the actual giving of food — which the parents have paid for — is a very symbolic act. It means the parents would like their children to grow up and survive them, and if push came to shove and there weren’t enough to go around, parents would go hungry in order that the children may eat.

Interactive time with children has also been sacrificed because we tolerate television, and that has been a major shift in the past 50 years. By allowing children to have television sets in their rooms you tacitly consent to an atomisation of your relationship, and the loss of that tradition is serious. Before television, people didn’t have quite enough to do and they weren’t over-stressed. You need to be a tiny little bit bored at times in life to be optimally functioning. And with all the toys — like PlayStations and so on — we are required not to work, but to concentrate in such a way that we might as well be working. We get adrenalised and hormonalised by that.

The issue of how this relates to drink and drugs is very complex, and you can’t simply say that A leads to B. But we can see that there has been a complete privatisation of experience which has, in some ways, gone too far. You can’t have a successful society in which people do not belong to groups or units. You can’t raise yourself, you can’t parent yourself and you cannot give affection to yourself in such a way that, as a child, you will grow up sane. In that context, we can’t blame children for trying to find solutions to the questions that face them because the adults are theoretically in charge of the rules.

The questions that every parent should ask themselves are these:

‘Who are my child’s closest two friends, and if they go out where are the five most common places to find them? And do I have a means of contacting my child 24/7?’ If you can’t answer those questions, you are not [being] a parent.



1. puddlejumper - 2006-11-11

Just a wee comment. I know we’re all more short of land-space (though not so much in Scotland) but has anyone else noticed that new housing -especially the social rented sector housing- rarely has a proper “dining space”. I think this impacts upon people’s eating habits. Family kitchens are sometimes no more than a few feet of worktop and a cooker and sink with no room to swing a cat never mind a table and chairs. I’m very fortunate in that I live in a much older “council house” where the living room is large enough to fit a table as well but friends in more “modern” houses seem to lack such an ammenity until you reach the higher end of the housing market.

Are there any studies on this or does anyone know if there are guidelines when building social housing. The only ones I’m aware of are those concerning prevention of fuel poverty.

(P.S this interests me as I’m a former housing advice worker as well as a mother of three)

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