The family that eats together...

Family dynamic ... Keryn Curtis (standing), Kate, 9, Claudia, 14, Nick and Tom, 12, Zwar eat together.
Family dynamic ... Keryn Curtis (standing), Kate, 9, Claudia, 14, Nick and Tom, 12, Zwar eat together. 

It's the ultimate image of the happy, well-adjusted family: mum, dad and the kids sitting around the dinner table together, politely passing the carrots and potatoes and discussing the day's events.

No one talks with their mouth full, there's no sulking or kicking each other under the table and the children leap unbidden to clear the table. In your dreams.

As most parents know, real-world mealtimes rarely live up to this Cosby Show ideal. More typically they resemble feeding time at Taronga Zoo.

Is it any wonder a substantial proportion of parents give up on the rose-tinted ideal of the family dinner, either abandoning it altogether or succumbing to demands to keep the television on during the meal.

According to a report, 22 per cent of Australian families eat together four times or less a week and 60 per cent of all families always, or often, have the television on during meals.

As most parents know, real-world mealtimes rarely live up to this Cosby Show ideal. More typically they resemble feeding time at Taronga Zoo.

While the demise of the family dinner is far from imminent, according to Dr Rebecca Huntley, author of the report Because Family Mealtimes Matter (Download PDF report here), there is still "definite room for improvement".

"This is particularly the case for families with teenage children, who are more likely to enjoy fewer family meals and more likely consume those meals on the couch and in front of the TV," she says.

Psychologists, dieticians and sociologists are such passionate advocates of the family meal because of something we all instinctively know it's a valuable ritual that brings an enormous string of benefits.

First cab off the rank in that list is improved relationships between everyone in the family.


A 2007 study by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University in the US found a strong link between family dinners and teens' risk of going on to abuse drugs.

"Compared to 12- and 13-year-olds who have frequent family dinners, 12- and 13-year-olds who have infrequent family dinners are six times likelier to have used marijuana, more than 41/2 times likelier to have used tobacco and more than 21/2 times likelier to have used alcohol," the report says.

Then there's the link the same study found between family dinners and academic performance. According to CASA, teenagers who have fewer than three family dinners in a typical week are more than twice as likely to do poorly in school.

There are also very obvious nutritional and health benefits.

"We know that [with] families that eat in front of the television and kids who spend a lot of time in front of computers, the proportion of junk food they eat is greater and the quality is worse," says Dr Clare Collins, Associate Professor in nutrition and dietetics at the University of Newcastle.

"That means that biochemically you are missing out on nutrients that actually help your brain work better and produce energy in your body."

So if sitting down together daily to break bread is such an incredibly powerful force for good, why are so many of us not doing it as well or as often as we should?

Collins is uncompromising: "People come up with all sorts of reasons why you can't do it but I say 'No, that is simply not good enough'," she says. "If you value it and prioritise it there are no excuses."

And it always helps to give the kids a job so they feel involved in the family meal. "Someone puts out the cutlery, someone puts out the tablecloth," Collins says. "And even a young child can have a go at helping with vegetable preparation, or, on the weekend, when you have more time get the kids involved with helping prepare a simple meal."

Getting older children involved especially teens is more problematic, however CASA's results should hearten parents engaged in that battle.

The overwhelming majority of teenagers said they preferred to eat dinner with their family 84 per cent compared with 13 per cent who preferred dining solo.

For Collins, the beauty of the family meal ritual is that it can easily be distilled into a simple message.

"You don't actually have to say, 'Eat more vegetables,' or 'Hey, talk to your kids,"' she says. "All you have to say is 'Eat meals at the table,' and we know that they will get all these other benefits. It's like an investment in your own family's quality of life."

A menu for togetherness
When Keryn Curtis's two eldest children were young she formed a habit of cooking two dinners for the family. But by the time number three came along, life was more complicated and the separate menus had to go.

"I ended up pretty much working full-time for nine months and there was no time to do anything other than have a meal together," says Keryn.

That was about seven years ago and the habit has stuck with the Birchgrove family.

"From then on we have always eaten together every night," she says. "We only very occasionally do TV dinners if there is something special on or we want to watch a movie and we're having takeaway." And the children love to get involved preparing the meal.

"They know how to set the table for different things," Keryn says. "For instance, I do a lot of Asian food so sometimes it's chopsticks and bowls and Chinese spoons. I've also taught them to do things like top and tail snowpeas and beans and break eggs."

The youngsters (aged 14, 12 and 9) are also learning to enjoy "grown-up" food such as chilli-spiced pasta sauce.

As well as being an opportunity to enjoy Keryn and Nick's food - they are both keen cooks - the daily ritual gives the family a chance to "debrief".

Discuss mealtimes in our Recipes and Cooking forum.