Wednesday, 2 April 2008

The loss of mealtime: Is it important?

A survey of 1,011 Australian families commissioned by food manufacturer Continental found that 22% eat together four times a week or less and 43% of parents find it hard to make time for family meal times. The survey also indicated that teenagers were less likely to eat with their family. The survey showed 77% of respondents' families ate together either every night or five or six nights a week.

Dr Rebecca Huntley, who reviewed the survey, commented that:

"This study, which is the first of its kind in Australia, shows that parents already appreciate the value of family meal times and are very willing to invest their time, but for many the pressures and distractions of modern living present major barriers.

Dr Huntley indicated that research suggests the optimum frequency for reaping benefits is for families to share meal times at least five times a week, Dr Huntley said.

The question is should we be concerned about this. One commentator on radio suggested that we should focus on the 75% who do eat together and added that when she gets home from work she just wants her kids to “leave her alone.” But others have suggested that surveys like this probably over-estimate family estimates and reflect lifestyle trends in this busy world that show reduced importance being placed on families eating together.

What is to be lost if families don’t eat together? Plenty in my view:
  • opportunities for parents to help children learn basic table manners;
  • monitoring and education about good nutrition;
  • modelling how people interact, debate, question, share etc;
  • opportunities to share what is going on in each other’s lives;
  • a chance to share anecdotes, family history and stories;
  • opportunities to share knowledge about all sorts, including matters of faith, morality and so on;
  • a break in the busyness of life to allow space for children (and adults) to share what is on their mind – their worries, hopes, fears, expectations, joys.
As Christian parents there would seem to be an even more critical need for meals where prayers of thankfulness and need are shared and where we continue the process of nurturing our children’s faith. This is very much the sentiment that Moses expressed in Deuteronomy 6, when he commanded the Israelites to learn and observe the commands, statutes and laws of the Lord so that they and their children might fear the Lord as long as they should live.

Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house
and on your gates (Deut 6:4-9).

In my experience as a father and grandfather mealtimes are one of those precious times when we stop and talk; when we have time to open ourselves up, to share the deepest things in our hearts and to share how God has been at work in our lives. Of course mealtimes aren't the only opportunities for families to talk and share their lives, others include bedtime rituals, play, shared hobbies etc. But if mealtimes are under pressure in families one suspects that other opportunities are also being lost. I’d welcome your thoughts on this.

You can read the newspaper report here.

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