Shared meals nourish family health

A recent study by Unilever on "The Power of Shared Mealtimes: Health, Convenience and Enjoyment", once again underlined how important shared mealtimes are for most aspects of physical and mental health. The aim of the study (among more than 6 000 adults worldwide, living in 12 countries, which included South Africa) was to determine what changes in social behaviour, time constraints and expectations have occurred and how these changes impact on shared mealtimes.

A lost pleasure

The results of the Unilever study indicate that up to 70% of the interviewed subjects felt that the loss of shared mealtimes had also led to a loss of family traditions (Unilever, 2012). If you think about this, it is evident that once couples and families no longer sit down around a table or a shared dish for a meal, a great many desirable aspects of human life 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 a good manners, the art of caring, listening and even humour which at the end of the day is what makes life more bearable.

When we are so busy or so alienated from our families that we no longer have the time to sit down together to share a meal, we lose our identities and in many cases also our health.

The burden of business

Nowadays everyone is so busy rushing around that we just don’t get the chance to share mealtimes anymore. Up to two thirds of the respondents in the Unilever study said that they were less likely to talk to each other and share experiences and were thus more isolated. Horrifyingly, TV was classified as a "new family member" at mealtimes by up to 59% of participants worldwide and 50% cited work as the prime reason for not sharing mealtimes with their families (Unilever, 2012).

People are so busy that the average time spent on preparing food has shrunk to just over 40 minutes per meal and 17% of the respondents spent less than 15 minutes cooking a meal (Unilever, 2012). It is evident that a very large number of people in our modern world either purchase ready-to-eat foods, eat out, eat on the run, or cut open packets and cans to source their meals.

The overwhelming use of processed food

Two findings of the Unilever study (2012), that scare me as a nutritionist are that up to 60% of all respondents used processed foods and up to 75% of certain nutrients were exclusively obtained from foods that had in some or other way been processed. In Europe, for example, processed foods provide more than 50% of the average intakes of 26 nutrients and in the USA salad dressings make the highest contribution to the intake of alpha linolenic acid or ALA (one of the essential fatty acids which is converted to omega-3 in our bodies) (Unilever, 2012).

The responsibility of food manufacturers is, therefore, critical to ensure that our populations do not suffer deficiencies because they have become so reliant on processed foods. 

Impact on child and adolescent health

Most older members of the public probably understand that people long to eat together in big happy families, but I suspect that the majority of children and teenagers who have not had the opportunity for this kind of joyful "communion" and who eat a hamburger while playing video games, would think any attempts to unify family eating are "dumb" or worse "not cool".

So what physical impact does this isolated eating have on our children and adolescents? A number of international studies have found that children and teenagers who eat dinner with family members are more likely to eat fruit and vegetables and are less prone to eating fast foods and sweets, and less inclined to drink large volumes of fizzy, sweetened drinks (Mahan et al, 2011). Consequently such children and teenagers are less likely to suffer from obesity and all its attendant ills.

We tend to forget that the childhood and the teenage years are essential learning curves and that humans need to learn by watching and copying significant adults such as parents and other family members like older siblings. How on earth will children learn how to cook food if they don’t watch their parents prepare, cook and serve it? How will parents get to know if their child is turning into a bulimic or an anorexic if they never share a meal together?

In South Africa we are probably paying as a nation in terms of overweight and obesity for the fragmentation of family life that started with apartheid and is now being accelerated by the demands of work and the modern lifestyle.

Teenagers are hardest hit

Irregular consumption of meals, excessive snacking, eating away from home particularly at fast-food restaurants and street corners from food vendors, over-the-top dieting, eating disorders and skipping meals characterise teenage eating habits. The decreasing influence of family which is being replaced by the ever increasing influence of peer groups on adolescent food selection and eating habits, are factors that contribute to the vicious cycle of unbalanced food intake and produce future parents who have no skills in encouraging good eating habits in their own children (Mahan et al, 2011).

Other components that contribute to this deteriorating scenario of teenage eating habits, include the following:

  • overexposure to the media - young people are bombarded 24/7 by media messages relating to food, drinks and dieting
  • employment outside the home - teens who work to earn pocket money have less chance of spending time with their families
  • increased responsibilities including the burden of caring for younger siblings
  • pressure to perform at school and in sport
  • hectic schedules and long travelling times between school and home
  • inability to link present risky behaviour to future (long down the line) health risks

(Mahan et al, 2011)

Are There solutions?

Faced with the bleak results of the Unilever study (2012), it seems that our world is spiralling into disaster. However, if we keep in mind that 70% of the respondents felt that they had "lost" something valuable by not sharing family mealtimes together, then there is hope that we can persuade adults to do something about this problem.

I should like to encourage all parents or caregivers to call a meeting and to ask the members of your family to put forward ideas on how you as a group can get together for meals more often. Don’t ask for the moon - start off by suggesting at least one or two meals a week that you can share and get everyone to make contributions, even those bored teenagers who may initially think you’ve lost it! Get input on times that will suit everyone (or at least 70% of the group), ideas for menus (for example, taking turns to propose favourite dishes), ground-rules (this is important otherwise the process will start to disintegrate),  subjects for discussion and even for additional shared activities such as a family outing or a visit.

Hopefully such get-togethers over shared food and fun will grow in value until all the members of your family look forward to sharing mealtimes more regularly. Who knows, we could just cause a health revolution by sharing food and talking about our hopes and aspirations.

- (Dr IV van Heerden, DietDoc, June 2012)       

(Pic of family sharing a meal from Shutterstock)                   


(Mahan LK et al (2011). Krause’s Food & the Nutrition Care Process. Ed. 13. Elsevier, USA; Unilever (2012). The power of shared mealtimes: Health, convenience and enjoyment. Personal communication, May 2012)

Any questions? Ask DietDoc

Read more:

Family meals might help kids keep a healthy weight
Does dinner make a strong family?
Eating in front of TV bad for your health

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