What do you think of when you think of a meal?

Out of curiosity, having been observing the eating patterns of my dearest and dearest over the years, and now sparked by a conversation I had with a friend on the topic of eating celebratory meals with family, I’m on the verge of compiling a multiple choice survey.

All the people invited to the meal – say Thanksgiving, or a birthday celebration meal, or Christmas lunch/dinner, would complete it before turning up and submit it to the host, in advance, so he/she could adjust expectations accordingly (or tell them not to come).   The survey would run something on these lines:

What is a meal?  a) I don’t know I’ve never had one, I just eat snacks from the cupboard/fridge  b) daily breakfast, lunch and dinner at regular times c) something Deliveroo brings in a bag

What does a meal comprise?  a)  whatever I feel like eating that’s around, preferably doughnuts  b) a carefully planned and cooked nutritious,  balanced set of foods following the Eatwell guide  c) only the things I like eating e.g. plain pasta – must be fusilli and nothing else, especially not peas  d) nothing – I don’t eat anything that someone has cooked and put on the table for me to eat, even though I said I wanted it.

How do you eat a meal?  a) standing up while doing three or four other things at the same time e.g. loading the washing machine, shouting instructions and talking on the phone b) balancing a plate on my knee on the sofa c) eating directly from my plate on the floor (if I’m pretending to be a dog) d) sitting at a cleared and laid dining table with a chair for me to sit on

Who cooks the meals?  a) always the same person in the family  b) we schedule taking it in turns, meal preparation is an important life skill to learn  c) whatever take-away we order from  c) we each cook our own meal.

How do you serve a meal?  a) on paper plates with disposable cutlery  b) on paper plates no cutlery, it’s always finger foods c) on china plates with re-usable cutlery e.g. metal  d) eat straight from the packet, tin, takeaway box – may or may not use disposable or re-usable plates/cutlery.

Where do you eat a meal?  a) at the kitchen/dining room table  b) in the car or on the bus/tube  c) walking/running down the street  d) anywhere I happen to be when I am hungry

My friend has been invited to Thanksgiving again, this year, with her large family (pre-schoolers, children, teenagers, adults).  She went last year.  This year she said she would only make the trip from the UK to the US to be with them for the family dinner if they all promised and committed to sitting at a table, with a chair each.  But not only that, she said that:  the table had to be laid with real (not disposable) cutlery, with cloth napkins and real glasses to drink from (not disposable). 

She expected a traditional Thanksgiving dinner (with vegan/vegetarian options) that had to be served on real china plates (not paper), and everyone should be sitting at the table at the same time for a minimum of one hour talking with each other.  

She stipulated that there could be no phones, laptops, tablets, TV or other electronic equipment in the room for the period they were eating –  a minimum of one hour.    

It was her experience last year, which she told me in vivid detail, which led her to making these conditions for her coming this year.   At the time we were talking, she hadn’t heard whether her conditions were acceptable to her family, but she knows they want her to come over. 

It seems that in the UK family meals are on the decline.  Sainsbury’s research found that only 28% of UK families are sharing the same meal each evening, and cited reasons very similar to the ones I’ve observed.  That’s unfortunate as much research suggests that eating nutritionally balanced meals with family members is associated with improvement in wellbeing, nutritional status, and school performance of children, and with wellbeing and nutritional status in adults.  (See for example Family meals among parents: Associations with nutritional, social and emotional wellbeing).

Thinking back to my own childhood in the 1950s and 1960s we always had an evening family meal together, sitting at the kitchen table, with knives, forks, china plates, place mats, napkins, etc.  Us children took it in turns to lay the table, until we were old enough to cook, and then we took it in turns to cook.  One of the things my mother did when was send us out with 2 shillings and 6 pence (pre-decimal money), to buy all the ingredients for a meal for four and then make it.  It was quite a challenge for a child – she started that when I was about 10. 

The three of us also had a school dinner (it was called dinner, not lunch, even though it was at noon), every school-day from the age of 5 to when we left school.  I remember at secondary school the head teacher used to join a different lunch table each day and talk to us pupils.  It was terrifying!  When I was about 12 she asked me the name of my MP. It was just by chance that I’d seen a political poster in people’s windows – it must have been election time, and I just blurted out the name I’d seen on one of them.  Fortunately that name did belong to my MP!  She was impressed by my knowledge, but it was a fluke.

Talking with my friend on family meals we wondered if we were hopelessly old-fashioned and would be ridiculed by our grandchildren saying things in their adult-hood like, ‘Do you remember when grandma wanted us all to sit and eat together at a table – how ridiculous – what was she thinking of?’  Or whether our grandchildren (and their parents) are really missing out on all the benefits of family meal eating and we should be adamant in encouraging it. 

Even by myself, I eat regular meals, sitting at a table with real cutlery and a china plate.  Chaotic family meals, of the type described by my friend and I have experienced, I do not like.  Is it better for me to adapt to chaotic meals and enjoying being with my family, or they adapt to more formal meals and enjoy being with me?  A different approach could be the middle ground, where we do talk with each other, enjoying a meal in the process.  Perhaps barbecues or picnics fall into this category?

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