Eating as a family this Christmas? How novel

The sit-down-together meal is dying, overtaken by fast food and re-fuelling in relays. Sharon Maxwell-Magnus asks whether its demise should be mourned
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When families gather on Monday to eat their Christmas dinner it may be an unfamiliar and tense experience. They will be taking part in one of the last vestiges of an ancient and endangered tradition: the sit-down family meal. It is hard to imagine a more vital mini-institution in British life: the family meal is where manners are taught, discipline learnt, Brussels endured, patience acquired and conversation engaged in as the television is briefly tamed. Yet it is slowly dying.

At first glance, it seems that the rapid demise of the family meal is just one more example of the breakdown in family values, with each member spinning off into an autonomous unit, condemned to eat alone in front of the television set as the family loses its organisational and spiritual core and the civilising influence of dinner- table conversation is cast aside in favour of the tinny bleep of the computer game.

At my home, it is so rare that we all sit down together to eat during the week that when we do, my two-year-old is unable to contain her excitement. The evening meal is commonly eaten in relays. My daughter is first off the blocks with fish fingers, followed by oven-to-mouth food for me, to be reheated for my husband when he finally returns triumphant in the battle with British Rail.

We are not alone. A 1993 survey by Mintel, the market research company, has found that only half of households sit down every night with other family members to eat together. More than a third prefer to eat in front of the television. (Scots and those under 35 are most likely to goggle- and-graze.)

The relay eating in my house is in guilty contrast to my own childhood, where the evening meal was as regular as the switch-on of the street lights. At 4.30pm, my mother would start on that night's meat-and-two veg. At 6pm, we were summoned for an hour of well-ordered food and chat, with my father always in attendance.

This change in our eating habits is caused by two factors: my husband works longer hours than my father; and, most important, I work, while my mother did not.

Family meals still largely happen only if women organise them. Many women enjoy cooking but feel trapped by the daily responsibility of feeding the family. To them, the end of the traditional family meal is a great weight off their backs. Indeed, it is trends in women's employment that mean family eating has a limited life expectancy: 90 per cent of new jobs go to women, who will have less time to cook than their mothers.

Jan Davies is a specialist in child development, with two sons, aged 11 and 13. Her husband is a doctor. She has recently swapped from working part-time to full-time. Jan, who arrives home at 5.50pm and eats at 6.30pm, says: "I used to make my own cakes, and my sons miss them. But there isn't the time. My mother also worked, but she didn't leave home till 10 in the morning, so she could prepare beforehand. I have to start when I get in, so it needs to be something quick, like a spaghetti bolognese or a stir-fry."

It is not just the growth of women's work that is fragmenting the family meal. The expansion of children's activities outside school is another factor. Jan says: "Four times out of five my sons have an activity like Scouts, and the meal has to fit in around that. I may reheat it for my husband, or he has something out of a tin."

According to a Henley Centre survey, the average time spent cooking has already been reduced by more than an hour a week since 1985. Convenience foods, particularly cook-chill foods, figure increasingly prominently in our diets.Although the time spent cooking has decreased, the amount of time spent shopping has increased by three hours a week since the Sixties - partly as a result of time spent travelling to supermarkets, but also because with the introduction of more than a thousand new product lines each year supermarkets are getting ever larger, more alluring and more complex to negotiate.

This expanding choice is becoming more evident in what we eat, as well as when we eat. Not only are we eating less often together, we are less likely to eat the same thing as each other. The proliferation of "character" yoghurts, pasta and bite-sized portions has led to even the tiniest tots attempting to have their say in the contents of the weekly food basket.

The Taylor Nelson AGB Food Panel asks 4,200 households to keep a diary of their food consumption, in order to provide information to food and drink companies and retailers. The research indicates that the tendency towards family members eating different things at the same sitting is particularly pronounced with desserts, children's foods and slimming meals. Giles Quick, director of the panel, believes that Britain is becoming increasingly like the United States, with families eating different things at different times, whereas in the rest of Europe the tradition of family eating on weekdays is still strong.

The truth is probably more complex. The collapse of the family meal is in part a product of the affluence of being in work, as well as long hours. A 1994 Rowntree Trust study into the diet of low-income families found these families ate together more frequently in the evening than middle- class families, but out of necessity, to save on food and fuel bills. However, far from being an occasion of unity, this family togetherness generated tensions. Dr Anne Murcott, director of a project for the Economic and Social Research Council called The Nation's Diet, says: "There wasn't the flexibility that there is in higher-income families for the kids to stay on at school for an activity, or for mum to go to an aerobics class and leave something in the oven. This became a cause of resentment, because family members felt the choice had been taken away from them to eat together or do other things."

One of the main reasons why there are fewer traditional family meals is that there are fewer traditional families. Dr David Marshall, convenor of Scoff, the Scottish Colloquium of Food and Feeding, points out that there are more single-person households than traditional family households. But, he argues, "the ideal of the family meal is still strong. Families eat together at weekends, although they may be eating in a pub or less formalised way than previously."

In fact, the family meal is alive and well at weekends, almost in a conscious effort to compensate for the fragmentation during the week. "People will have skimmed milk during the week, but feel that allows them to pile on the cream at weekends," says John Young of the Leatherhead Food Research Association. "While people may have microwave meals during the week, there is an upsurge of interest in cooking for entertainment at the weekend, possibly influenced by TV programmes."

The food we buy reflects these contradictions. At my local supermarket, there is lemon grass and sun-dried tomatoes for the cookaholics. But there are also rubbery pre-cooked omelettes, ready-grated cheese, and preset jellies - products that remove even the faintest whiff of food preparation - for those who need to eat quickly.

The main cause for concern in all of this may be the questionable nutritional value of what we eat, rather than the fact that we are not eating together. The National Association of Teachers of Home Economics and Technology, which one might have thought would be one of the last bastions defending traditional eating habits, is surprisingly tolerant about the widespread reliance upon convenience foods. "In some ways, the purpose of home economics is to know when to buy convenience food rather than make your own," says spokesman Geoffrey Thompson. "We can't lament that schools are no longer teaching how to make Victoria sponge. What does concern us is the decline in nutrition education, because without that children won't know which convenience foods are better for them."

In most households, the main source of the knowledge is still the mother (a state of affairs explored in detail by Slice of Life on BBC 2 on 29 December). A 1994 Mintel report, Men 2000, found that although there is less family eating, in seven out of 10 households it was still the woman who was responsible for shopping, cooking and food preparation. A study by the sociologist Susan Gregory, of Reading University, into what happens when a member of the family has to change diet for health reasons found that the woman was expected to take responsibility for organising the change. "When asked how they would advise someone else in the same position to adapt to the change, the men would say, 'You'd need a wife like mine.' "

So it seems we are not on the verge of a new era in which the traditional family - man at work, woman at home with the kids - and its meal is replaced by families where both parents work and both cook and shop. We are trapped, or rather a lot of women are still trapped. The traditional family meal might be dead, but their work goes on: shopping for all and cooking in relays rather than once a night, as well as working.

The ancient art of preparing food and sitting down together to eat is being slowly lost. What price will we pay for its disappearance? Giles Quick, for one, argues that we should not mourn its passing. "The whole history of food is about moving towards convenience. In the beginning, you had to hunt down your food, kill it and cook it. Then you only had to cook it. That will go too. The family meal may take generations to die, but it will go in the end." And will generations of mothers sigh with relief or turn in their graves?

Case study 1

Anne-Marie Piper is a solicitor for Paisner & Co, a City firm. Her husband, Dorran, works for Lloyds of London. They have two children, aged 4 and 2.

"We tend to eat separately during the week," says Anne-Marie. "For instance, I eat cereals with the kids while Dorran showers and then he will make them eggs or bacon while I get ready."

In the evenings, the children eat first, while the adults eat at around 9pm. "If I've had a client lunch I'll do myself a sandwich, while Dorran eats a proper dinner. Whoever gets in first starts the cooking, although we will both have a takeaway if we are too tired. Eating is fuel during the week," she says.

This differs from her childhood, when the family ate at 6.30 each evening. "It would be nice to eat together more, but with the travelling it just isn't practicable," says Anne-Marie.

On weekends, however, lunch is eaten together. "I like eating with the children because they learn table manners from you, but also because you do some of your best talking as a family over meals.That's why we try to make sure we get that at weekends."

Typical dinner: sandwich for Anne-Marie, chicken and two veg for Dorran. Fruit for dessert. Cheese, potato and two green veg for the children. Fruit for dessert.

Case study 2

Emma Dally, 41, is a novelist and editorial director for the National Magazine Company. Her husband, Richard, 43, is a food writer and author of The Lazy Cook (Bantam). They have three children, aged 9, 8 and 3, and live in London.

"The evening meal is important to us both, but Dick does all the shopping, planning and cooking," says Emma. "It makes my female friends very envious."

The children eat first, at around five, and Emma and Richard will sit down around 8pm to enjoy food and conversation. "I'm fortunate in that I work from home so I can shop each day locally and prepare beforehand," says Richard.

Emma and her husband believe their children should learn to value the social aspects of eating. "If I'm away, then Dick will let the children stay up and they'll have a meal with candles and napkins. It's a treat for them. At the weekends we regularly have family, often extended family, meals and they understand that if they want to join in with the grown- ups they have to sit down."

However, the couple are tolerant of the children's food tastes. "We are pretty strict about sweets, but otherwise our only rule is that they can't say they don't like it until they've tried it," says Emma.

Typical menu: chicken, rice and peas, followed by fruit for the children. Roast lamb with braised cabbage and potatoes for Emma and Richard.

Case study 3

Caroline Tyer, 34, is a part-time receptionist. Her husband, Colin, is a building society area manager. They live in Manchester and have two children, aged 8 and 11.

"I'm fortunate in that Colin gets home from work around six, so most nights we can eat together," says Caroline. "There are exceptions - if he works late or if my son is being tutored. But I prefer to eat together."

However, catering for the whole family can be hard. "When I'm dieting I might make a big salad, but my son doesn't like it. I spend a lot of time thinking about what I can make that is quick and that we all like."

Caroline values the ease of convenience food. "I wouldn't dream of making my own pastry and I'll only make a pudding once a week. We might have a takeaway at the weekend. I feel better if I've made the food myself, although I can't imagine spending the time on cooking that my mother did. For a special meal she might disappear into the kitchen one day and not come out till the next. I couldn't be doing with that."

Typical meal: spaghetti bolognese followed by melon.