The Family Challenge: Thoughts on Eating a Meal Together

For all of us, the sharing of a meal is a common, anticipated ritual that reunites us with loved ones and brings a sense of balance to our lives. In today’s fast-paced world, it has become more challenging to bring people together for this important, soul-filling experience, so it is my heart’s desire to help you change that. Serve a simple, unfussy meal of freshly made foods to loved ones, get your kids involved in the preparation, and see how it enriches your lives. Appreciate the rich diversity of our world by trying different flavours and ingredients and watch how it enlightens people. Bring everyone back to your table with love.

Chef Art Smith
Former Personal Chef to Oprah Winfrey
Book: “Back to the Family.”

It has come to my attention that there are a number of government entities are trying to figure out ways to tackling obesity. Part of the puzzle is healthy eating, and some entities are looking at the family meal. And more precisely encouraging families to have more meals together. However, bringing the family meal back as a focal point in today’s society is a complex problem

We need to turn back the clock to review how our society has evolved (from a Western perspective) with regard to families eating together.

How did we get here?

Let’s go back to the 1800’s. During this era, both parents worked and the family meal was restricted to the weekend; families were large and life expectancy was low. Primarily the upper class had the privilege of the regular sit-down meal as well as recreation.

Later in this century, up until the turn of the 20th Century, there were two key phenomena that affected change in the family structure – the Industrial Revolution and public health. With mechanized processes, production increased and hazardous tasks were reduced; and there was a rise in the union movement, which fought for workers’ rights, fairer wages and reasonable working hours. This enabled traditionally stretched parents to have more time with the family. Public health ensured that people had access to communities with sanitation, clean water and less vermin which, in turn, led the rise in life expectancy. It was at this point society and governments began to pay greater attention to the family unit.

From the beginning to the middle part of the 20th Century there were two World Wars, sandwiched around the exuberant 1920’s and the Depression of the 1930’s. This presented challenges for the family unit in its functioning of togetherness. After World War II, North America witnessed the Baby Boom… and this takes us to the point where the notion of the average family unit ate together, took vacations together and being more active together became an integral part of society, especially within North America. This led to some dramatic shifts within society in tandem with other shifts within the work force and the structure of industry. The 1950’s saw the rise of the nuclear family, car ownership, the emergence of the suburbs and the growth in public education. As the Industrial Revolution and public health were key facilitators in improving the quality of life expectancy and creating more leisure time, education led to families becoming more cognizant of nutrition and exercise. This era saw the emergence of the middle class in North America. One only has to look at television from the 1950’s to see that the household unit was well-defined with a stay at home mom, a dad that had a full-time job, children that had an active life within their neighbourhoods and families sitting down to dinner on a daily basis (as epitomized in such sitcom as Leave it to Beaver). Some consider this was the heyday of the family unit in North America.

In the 1960’s things changed dramatically, the front-end boomers left home with great expectations. This was a generation which defined the emergence of post-secondary education. They spent more time in school than any previous generation and entered their family formation years later than their parents. This, combined with the advent of the birth control pill provided women with greater control on their own fertility and family planning. This was a generation which initiated equal rights, as well as heralded women’s re-entry into the workforce in droves.

The 1970’s brought further changes to the family unit with the female boomers entering the workforce and pursuing careers. This was the first appearance of “latch-key” kids – i.e. children who had a key to the house and were responsible for letting themselves come and go to and from school. In some circles, this was considered scandalous. The late 60’s and 70’s era witnessed the shift away from the nuclear family with sit down meals and mom’s role as a homemaker. No matter how the media may have portrayed the strength of the family unit – i.e. in the nostalgia with the Waltons, Little House on the Prairie or through modern suburban families as in Eight is Enough and Family – divorce was on the rise, the ”me” generation was beginning, and the pre-eminence of the family unit, as it was established in the 1950’s, was on the decline.

The 1970’s also had the first oil shock of rapidly escalating gas prices (1973-74) and with women seeking careers, dual income households started to emerge more so than previous generations where women generally worked up until the time of marriage and rarely returned to the workforce thereafter. Women’s employment, while seen as a right, was also becoming a necessity. This decade also saw increasing enrolment in university by mid-era boomers (born in the 1950s).

This shift was amplified in the 1980’s which witnessed a number of critical events. First, the escalation of interest rates in the early part of the decade, thus rendering mortgage rates at historical highs. Second, a major recession in the middle of the decade, which then turned into a boom that effectively ended with the 1987 stock market crash. With the economic rollercoaster of the 1980’s and greater uncertainty, couples delayed family formation yet again. At this point, this was evident in the coining of the terms YUPPIES – Young Urban Professionals, who had a preference for living in the city, compared to the suburbs and DINKS – Double Income No Kids. The message of the 1980’s was to pursue your career (or more like getting a career!) and couples rejected the notion of moving to the suburbs to replicate their childhood. While the age of family formation was increasing, it also saw the emergence of the Baby Boom Echo. There were conflicting messages concerning starting a family or looking after one’s career, especially among front-end Boomer women turning 40 (the first in 1987). The end of the decade saw yet another recession that stretched well into the early part of the 1990’s.

The 1990’s turned out to be the critical decade in challenging families in their ability to connect for meals or to be active together. Government cost cutting measures saw the decline in physical activity programs, including the highly successful Federal Government’s Participaction program. Tax systems became more aggressive and challenged many young couples to consider their ability to start a family and the number of children they had. Since the 1960’s, the size of the average family had declined dramatically, with most couples opting for one to two children. This was prompted primarily by economic decisions, given the reality that couples had to be wage earners as well as parents, and this contributed to the declining prevalence of stay at a home parent (i.e. the factors of economic need with women pursuing their “independent” career).

With substantial mortgages, the need for two incomes to cover household expenses and the associated costs of raising a family became the norm. Families spent less time together – opting for stop-gap measures such as convenience food – and became more inactive. This has resulted in the rise of obesity and childhood diabetes with some healthcare professionals considering it an epidemic. At this point we need to acknowledge that society has shifted dramatically from a norm of a single wage earner, stay at home mom with a large family to one of dual wage earners with small families in a relatively expensive home.

Americans today have 22 fewer hours a week to spend with their kids that they did in 1969. Millions of children are left in unlicensed day care everyday or at home alone with the TV as a babysitter. Employed mothers lose almost an hour of sleep a day in their attempt to make it all add up. Recent data shows that parents with school age children show signs of stress – stress that has an impact on their productivity and work – when they have inflexible jobs and unstable after-school care.

Karen Kornbluh
The Audacity of Hope – Barack Obama

Further, with increased divorce rates there has been a rise in blended families. It is not uncommon for children to be splitting time over the course of a week over two households, thus the process of transporting a child to and from school to different households cuts in to any time that could be spent on recreational and dining activity.

There are also challenges for children’s activities. Recreational after school programs have declined, primarily due to budgetary concerns (fundraising activities become the norm for various school, travel and sports programs). Also with the increasing phenomenon of extra-curricular activities geared for children to excel in specific fields, this too has led to the over programming of children from families who do have the resources to pursue such opportunities for their children. For families who are financially challenged, the main hurdle is that parents have multiple jobs and are rarely around and there is much downloading of responsibilities to extended family members or leaving children to fend for themselves. This is more prevalent among immigrants who are starting life anew in North America.

There has also been a notion of families being fraught with fear. With the media delivering stories on pedophiles, gangs and various crimes, families are more concerned about the welfare of their children and have adopted a pseudo-siege mentality of keeping their children indoors. With the advent of the personal computer and teenagers whom have always been familiar with the Internet, there are children who prefer to spend their time with video games and online pursuits. In many regards electronic media has become the substitute of choice for facing the reality of togetherness.

What has become evident is that families have evolved to the point where they are pursuing various activities and are spending less time eating together and being less active together. Some may say that with the current state of the economy, unless financial security within the household unit is secured, families will be further challenged now and in the future. Further, with aging parents there will be additional attention of resources that will be paid to seniors in the future, thus putting a further strain of the welfare of children and the family unit’s ability to nurture the well-being of the entire unit.

It is important to understand as to how we have evolved to the situation of a challenged family unit. Researchers have consistently indicated that families that eat and exercise together regularly, eat more nutritious meals and do tend to have better brain function. This is critical for academic performance amongst children. There has been increasing attention to the phenomena identified. Based on recent work I have undertaken, we encountered the work of Richard Louv, who coined the term “nature deficient disorder.” In his groundbreaking book Last Child in the Woods Louv directly links the “absence of nature in the lives of today’s younger generation to some of the most disturbing childhood trends – the rise in obesity, attention disorders and depression.” Louv postulates in this landmark book “that direct exposure to nature is essential for helping childhood development and for the physical and emotional health of children and adults.” This book is now considered essential reading for all teachers and science themed attractions and zoos.

Further work has been undertaken by celebrity chef Jamie Oliver in his series School Dinners, where he looks at the food being served in food cafeterias in England and carefully assesses what has led to this situation with the quality of food served in the school system and linking it to the quality of food being served in the home. In fact, in Calgary, Sandi Richard, produced a series called Fixing Dinner (produced by joe Media) which turned her meal planning book Life’s On Fire – Cooking for the Rushed the focus of the show is helping families who are time crunched to have a strategy for food shopping that translates into getting everyone in the household involved in the preparation of the meals. It is noted that in North America, many immigrants come from cultures where the gathering for a meal is a critical function of the household unit. It is our sense that there is much that we can learn from the traditions of these cultures – from rural communities to other parts of the world – to understand the dynamics of what got people together to participate in the preparation of a meal and how all family members got involved to the point of becoming more physically active in the outdoors (and taking a break from electronic media).

“Moving beyond the holidays…” At this point, there seems to be limited occasions where people get together for a meal. Beyond Thanksgiving, Christmas and other family-oriented holidays, there is the summer barbeque or the family gathering at a predefined event.

With rising obesity, it is obvious that people are not as physically active as before and have adopted poor food choices. Even with a taxable benefit for any physical activity – such as participation in sports teams and gym memberships – obesity is on the rise. Marketers know this. One only has to watch infomercials on TV where there are ample advertisements for exercise equipment that offer the promise of being fit and trim. The fine print is always a line with reality – whatever you do, you need to make a major lifestyle change to live more healthy, that includes better food and being more physically active.

There is increasing recognition that the current state of how households/families function is leading to poor choices for nutrition and health. While immediate action is unlikely, given all the day-to-day challenges faced, and that families tend to orient to what they know best, there are some programs that are taking a step in the right direction.

In agricultural-related research we have undertaken, two things cropped up. First, the city dweller’s lack of appreciation of where their food comes from – we are dealing with generations who have grown up exclusively in urban environments and few have visited a farm to understand where various foods come from, other than a supermarket. Secondly, in interviewing rural youth, it was intriguing to find how involved they are working on the farm as well as the cohesiveness of the family unit. When youth involved in agriculture were interviewed, most acknowledged that they had to leave their rural homesteads to go to urban areas for post secondary education. Almost all indicated two surprising findings of their own: (1) they were bored, as they felt there was a lack of activity in urban areas, where on the farm there was always something to do; and (2) urban dwellers did not take advantage of the opportunities presented to them and were surprised how many of them were inactive with the inclination to be fixation on the electronic media.

So where do we go from here?

The challenge ahead is to get heads of households to avoid feeling that they are trapped or unable to take action and resort to the familiar of fast and prepared foods and laying on the couch due to perceived exhaustion, to feeling that there are areas of opportunity to take action. We have evolved some hard-wired belief systems around our work, dining, recreation and family time. The task ahead is difficult and requires a cultural shift within the reality of day-to-day life and challenges.

One small step…

One opportunity in creating the movement is to get families actively involved in planning their meals. It does not necessarily have to be all meals, but at least once a week there needs to be a communal effort to produce a meal – where all members of the household actively take a role in the preparation of that meal. Much akin to the 1800’s where the main meal was on the weekend, the act of the preparation of the meal could serve as an outdoor activity by going to farmers markets and to agricultural destinations and thus treat it as a family outing in the acquisition in the ingredients of the meal, as well as an educational opportunity to understand more about our food supply.

Thus the element of recreating could be combined with the opportunity to deliver a meal with fresh ingredients at a high nutritional value. Using this as an example, such an approach could connect many government departments who share a common objective for getting households and families to eat together and undertake an outdoor activity at the same time. Such an approach could be a small but effective means to move people towards better choices that promote healthier life options.

Thanks to Steven Habbi for feedback and input into this post.

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