Inquisition, blazing rows - or just lunch?

So you think family meals are messy and quarrelsome? You're not alone. Is this goodbye to an important point of contact for children? By Jan Parker

AT ONE crescendo of chaos during last night's supper, my two- year-old was singing while standing on his chair, my seven-year-old son was doing Dracula impressions by jamming two chips under his top lip and his twin sister was moaning about broccoli. Again.

Later I read that the nation's eating habits have changed and that many families no longer eat together on a regular basis. Under the circumstances, this didn't strike me as surprising.

Yet I still aim for family meals. OK, so weekdays are usually off target. There are too many things going on, in too short a time, for me and my husband to sit with the children at breakfast. Only myself and my toddler are together for lunch and children's tea is much too early for their father to participate. But at weekends, we try.

It seems we're a dwindling breed. According to a recent survey, one in 15 British families rarely sits down to a meal together. One in 20 said they only eat together on special occasions such as Christmas and four in 10 families with teenagers said most main meals were eaten in front of the television rather than around a table.

Some 70 per cent of the 400 parents questioned in a poll for the frozen food company Young's said they were too busy to prepare and enjoy family meals, while 37 per cent said watching TV while eating was more relaxing than talking to other family members.

I think that's sad, but Simon doesn't. A mid-thirties father of two young girls, he had a bellyful of fraught family meals as a child and now sees them as logistically impractical and personally implausible.

"I don't eat with my kids and don't particularly want to," he says. "It's partly a matter of timing. I'm rarely home when they eat. But it's also got a lot to do with my own childhood memories. I found the formality of family meals excruciating. There was such pressure to cough up everything you'd done that day, and I felt exposed and intimidated. Later, as an adolescent, they became the scene of blazing rows. I do feel guilty that we are always rushing and never seem to sit down together as a family, but I don't miss family meals at all."

Clare also finds family meals hard going. "There are too many arguments over who eats what," she says. "We don't seem to get it right." With three children under eight and a teenage stepson more used to tea on a tray in front of the TV, getting it right is a tough call. "But eating together is important symbolically and socially. I want my children to be able to eat in public and to know how to do it."

We're still at the "Urgghh, what's that!" stage of social eating in our house. But I'm working on it. And if it's any comfort, most children go through stages of rejecting food. One study into British eating habits concluded, in a beautifully turned phrase, that three- to 16-year-olds commonly displayed an "arbitrary and despotic dislike of vegetables".

Mealtime protests can make eating with children of any age a miserable experience and is often cited as the reason parents throw in the towel.Yet most dietitians and child psychologists agree that the key to preventing a full-scale food war is for parents to keep their cool. Watching them go bananas or becoming overly anxious can develop into a great spectator sport and, as developmental psychologist Dr Gillian Harris, head of Birmingham Children's Hospital's Feeding Clinic, says: "Children are beautiful behaviourists and much better at it than their parents."

But family mealtimes aren't simply a source of food. If they can be managed without too much conflict, they also provide a regular point of family contact. God knows, we need it. Researchers disagree about exactly how little parents, on average, now talk to their children. Some say 12 minutes a day, others say eight. Either way, it's not great, especially as the talk consists more of commands than conversation.

Family communication can be encouraged, and exploring and explaining the different approaches used by professionals and parenting support groups was one impetus behind Jan Stimpson and I writing our book, Raising Happy Children (Hodder & Stoughton, pounds 9.99).

But let's face it, it's not a great start if the key players are glued to the television on those rare occasions when they are in the same room at the same time.

I'm not expecting mealtime conversations with children to be an emotional or intellectual feast. Kitchen table chat with my bunch often operates around the level of B*Witched lyrics, bum jokes and "How come my friend's got a colour Gameboy and I haven't?".

As part of a generation reared on tea in front of Crackerjack and The Banana Bunch I can also state that the odd spot of munching on something in front of the telly does not lead to family breakdown and public disorder. But eating meals with children does at least let them know we think their company is worth having.

I also want some idea of how my children are doing, feeling and coping. There's little point assigning rigid timetables for important conversations with children but there is a lot of point in parents keeping communication channels open and in being around and responsive enough for children to approach when they want or need to talk.

Miles, the father of two teenage girls, says: "The older your kids become, the less you see of them and the more important family meals become. They're often the only opportunity you get to talk."

A rare specimen in a society that still boasts the longest working hours in Europe, he tries to adapt his working day so he returns to his Manchester home in time for supper with his family at around 6:30pm. "I know I'm lucky to be able to do it," he says, "but it's something I've made a priority."

So have Chris and Paula, who manage to get their four children, aged six to 17, around the table for weekend family meals. "It's something we've consciously decided to do. We have a TV in the kitchen but don't have it on when we are eating and we make sure we all eat together," says Chris.

He sees echoes of American habits in the latest survey into British eating habits. "We went to the States about 15 years ago and couldn't believe it. The teenage daughter of our host would wander in and help herself to something from the fridge, then other family members would come in dribs and drabs, grab something for themselves and munch alone, often in front of the box. They never sat down as a family. Britain is becoming much more like that, and it seems such a shame," he says.

"Of course, family meals can be fraught, but in general they work OK. And surely arguing together is all part of the picture of being a family? It's all part of trying to learn to get on with each other."

Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'