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."