The family meal is under threat – here’s how you can save it

Sarah Bailey, centre, wants to keep her family around the dinner table - Clara Molden
Sarah Bailey, centre, wants to keep her family around the dinner table - Clara Molden

What did your family dinner look like last night? A hearty nutritional repast, served with a side order of stimulating conversation, affording a welcome dose of emotional warmth and succour in the bleak midwinter?

Or maybe it was a bit more like the scene in my house: the teenager having mysteriously taken delivery of a Getir order at his revision desk, the impending doom of a Zoom call with an American client necessitating dinner being served with all the ceremony afforded to feeding the cat, me hovering by the fridge debating whether adding a dollop of kimchi on the previous night’s pasta might significantly benefit my gut biome/new-year weight management aspirations.

In our era of individualised, on-demand lifestyles, with our long, unpredictable working hours, the myriad distractions and disruptions of digital culture, plus wildly varying eating philosophies and preferences, is it any surprise that the “traditional family dinner” feels like it’s under attack?

The personalised nutrition market (which includes innovations such as Tim Spector’s Zoe app with its hyper-targeted dietary prescriptions), is estimated to be a $6 billion (£4.8 billion) global industry.

Even if scientifically tailored, personal diet plans sound all rather niche right now, simply catering to a fairly average modern family – where one person might be going vegan for January, another might be attempting intentional intermittent fasting (ahem, that’s me), or be simply obsessed with Joe Wicks’ McLeanie turkey burgers – can make a home cook feel more life a short order chef.

While researching this story, I spoke to former restaurateur and mother-of-three, Jules Bagnoli (who earned a nod from Egon Ronay, and many more, for her sustainable restaurant Isinglass in Manchester some years back), about what it was like home-cooking for her twins as they were growing up, one of whom was vegan, one omnivore, and she told me: “I would draw a mental line down the middle of the hob and try to cater to both. It didn’t work. Both meals tasted terrible, they are such different styles of cooking.”

But let’s put all that on the back-burner for a moment, because as it turns out, gathering together and sharing a home-cooked meal on a regular basis is very, very good for us – mentally, socially and nutritionally. And for the purposes of this article, let us think of “family dining” as eating communally with “whoever makes you feel like home”.

For this expansive definition, I must thank Anne Fishel, a Boston-based family therapist, clinical psychologist and professor, who co-founded the Family Dinner Project 13 years ago, prompted in part by an epiphany during an arduous therapy session with a father and teenage son in her home office.

When the lemon-and garlicky scent of a roasting chicken – cooking in Fishel’s family kitchen one floor above – wafted into the therapy room, the teenage boy asked: “Could we stay for dinner?” Professional protocols meant the answer had to be no.

“But my internal dialogue was, ‘Let’s stop this family therapy, it’s not going well. Here’s a cookbook, go home, cook together, eat together, you’ll be so much better off,’” recalls Fishel. And in this moment, she started to wonder how she might build a bridge connecting what she knew through research to be the benefits of family dining, to a wider community than she could ever reach in her practice: “Mental health, nutritional and cognitive benefits... There have been studies showing there’s better cardiovascular health in teens who eat regular family meals, and lower rates of obesity.

“Family dinners are associated with lower rates of eating disorders, substance abuse, early teenage pregnancy, behavioural problems at school. And for adults, eating with others is associated with better mental health, lower feelings of depression and anxiety, and also less bingeing.”

The Family Dinner Project provides free recipes, conversation-starters, advice and inspiration for getting people around a table. “When parents are asked, ‘Would this be a good idea?’ over 90 per cent say indeed it would. But only somewhere between 40 and 50 per cent are actually having that,” says Fishel, who credits her own experience of childhood dinners as being foundational to who she is and what she does today: “I think a lot of what I needed to know as a family therapist I learned around my family dinner table – how to deflect conflict, how to tell stories, that even if somebody is quiet at the table, it doesn’t mean that they don’t have something to say if you draw them out.

“Family mealtime is the most reliable time of the day for families to connect and connection is a seatbelt on the potholed road of childhood and adolescence.”

Nurturing the body, mind and the soul: it’s a message that resonates. Even Gwyneth Paltrow, who you might expect to show up in a feature such as this as the queen bee signifier for the selfish wellness industry and hyper-personalised dietary regimes, extols the merits of sitting down for regular family dinner.

In a recent interview for Ruth Rogers’ podcast series Ruthie’s Table, she recalled her parents including Paltrow and her brother in the nightly dinner ritual as children: “We felt special being included at the dinner table even though it was a nightly event. If they had friends over, then we sat with them at the table and had long conversations.”

Paltrow continues the tradition with her own children, focusing on weekends when she has time off from Goop duties and can cook: “We always have dinner all together, as a family, no phones at the table.”

In this country, dinner was mostly eaten in the middle of the day until industrialisation, after which workers came home to eat their main meal, after a day at the factory or in the office. Some say the popularisation of the microwave in the 1980s sounded the death knell for the post-war family dinner. My theory is that streamed – unscheduled – television really put the boot in, ending communal watching while eating, and all its cosy togetherness.

Sarah’s 10-year-old son, Dash, is easily distracted by tech at the table - Clara Molden
Sarah’s 10-year-old son, Dash, is easily distracted by tech at the table - Clara Molden

But for all today’s fractured lifestyles and food fads, family dining may be making a comeback. Covid taught us that eating communally was the glue that held us together emotionally – and gave our days structure – during those endless weeks of fear and uncertainty. And it seems that we don’t want to give it up. Fishel says: “Anecdotally, I certainly hear from families who discovered that this was a really very joyful practice and something that they want to continue with.” At John Lewis, sales of dining tables are up 70 per cent: the desire and intention to eat together is really far from dead.

So, what are some practical strategies for eating together healthily and happily as a family? I spoke to Helen Ruckledge, Derbyshire-based founder of FadFree Nutrition, a mother-of- four, who retrained in nutritional science in midlife, after taking a break from her corporate career and navigating her own health journey (she developed diabetes during pregnancy and has survived a breast cancer diagnosis).

“Parents can lead by example,” says Ruckledge, who wrote her Masters’ thesis about fussy eating. “Even with somebody with ingrained fussy eating behaviour, if you consistently put out a particular food, if you witness other people digging in and expressing pleasure, it’s surprising how eventually children change and start to accept the new normal.”

Sister-in-law Alison is able to ‘feed a family party of 20 without breaking sweat’ – much to the joy of Sarah’s husband Tim who is a good cook but finds feeding a family every night tricky - Clara Malden
Sister-in-law Alison is able to ‘feed a family party of 20 without breaking sweat’ – much to the joy of Sarah’s husband Tim who is a good cook but finds feeding a family every night tricky - Clara Malden

With older children and teens, who might want to experiment with veganism or invite friends over who have different intolerances or dislikes, Ruckledge recommends cooking the same base meal for everyone “which is essentially a vegan base, whether it’s a roast veggies in a tin or a bean stew”, and then adding things in. “So if someone eats meat, she can add some sausages, or if somebody eats dairy, they can sprinkle some cheese, or perhaps you implant some eggs and cook the dish in the oven. I rarely suggest cooking different meals for different people. It’s just a headache.”

She does, however, advocate writing things down: “A bit old-school, but it helps you get clarity on common ground.” Ruckledge invites her own kids to contribute to the meal planning process, something that fuels anticipation and the pleasure of creating memorable moments as a family: “My eldest is going back to uni tonight and she requested spaghetti carbonara as her farewell meal. It’s on the planner and everyone is looking forward to it.”

Speaking personally, I’m lucky to have hospitable in-laws, who love to eat together and who have brought me nutritional and emotionally supportive goodness for many years. My sister-in-law Alison is, like all my sisters-in-law, an unflappable chef and host, able to feed a family party of 20 without breaking sweat.

Alison’s approach to a table of diners with varied dietary requirements – including vegetarians like me and her daughter Livi – is to lay out scrumptious platters of grain-based mains, salads, vegetables, meat or fish and allow diners to pile their plates as they prefer. It should also be stated that my husband, Tim, is also a very good, diligent cook, though the drudgery of feeding our family of four nightly has probably dampened his culinary enthusiasm.

For vegetarians like Livi, a top tip is to cook the same ‘base’ meal - Clara Molden
For vegetarians like Livi, a top tip is to cook the same ‘base’ meal - Clara Molden

Over the years, I have been the one in the family most likely to dabble – or indeed go hardcore – with dietary trends and eating plans, whether trying to boost my fertility, heal illness or tackle periods of weight gain. So it doesn’t surprise me that for some people, who might want to make a radical tweak in their diet, the family dinner table can seem a minefield of social pressures, threatening to sabotage their regimen.

I get in touch with Alejandra McCall, a dietitian and lifestyle medicine professional, who helped me regain a healthy weight a few years back. “When clients come to me asking for help, the first thing that comes to their mind is, ‘How am I going to be able to keep my new habits in the long term and eat with my family or go out with friends?’,” she tells me. McCall’s own background – in Mexico – is steeped in a family dining tradition, “the time of the day where we need to stop, refuel, recalibrate and take a breath”.

“We know through research that family meals increase the bond within the family from an early age. Not only that, children that sit down regularly with their families to eat have a lower probability of suffering depression and drug abuse,” she says.

McCall also points to examples from Blue Zones, some of the longest-lived communities in the world. “These communities have many things in common in the way they eat, move, sleep, drink and also in their sense of community, how they share more than one family meal a day, every day of the week.”

Like Ruckledge, McCall espouses simple, practical hacks, for breaking down the components of family favourite meals – like spaghetti bolognaise separated into bowls of pasta, meat, cheese and sauce – for everyone to combine on their plate as it suits them, rather than condemning anyone to eating a saintly, but joyless micro meal alone.

“Family meals are an integral part of any dietary plan,” says McCall. “It doesn’t matter if you want to learn how to eat to improve your wellbeing or manage a condition, understanding how to change your habits within your core values and identity is crucial. If any dietary approach does not allow you to eat with your family – run from it!”

What are some of your fondest memories of 'the family meal'? Join the conversation in the comments section below