Eating meals as a family is a daily event so routine, so ordinary that it is taken for granted. But it is also a central part of social relationships and cultural rituals, as well as a symbolic means of coming together. Across cultures and time, food sharing is an almost universal medium for expressing connectedness. From the dawn of humanity, the meal embodies values of solidarity, hospitality, gratitude, sacrifice, and fellowship. The shared meal is an opportunity to talk, to create and strengthen bonds of attachment, and to share the doings of the day. It is a to teach and learn. The family meal is celebrated as a supremely important component of family life. But what do we really mean when we talk about the family meal? The phrase seems simple enough, but the idea of the “family meal” is convenient shorthand for an idea that is more imagined than real.
An image that most readily comes to mind is a happy nuclear family of mom, dad, and a couple of kids sitting around the dinner table enjoying the beautifully displayed outputs of a largely invisible kitchen production process. This is an image perpetuated, if not created, by mid-20th-century advertising that persists even as the meal landscape has changed. It is the cultural ideal, something to be aspired to and emulated. The family gathered around the table, be it for breakfast, lunch, or dinner, is the ultimate symbol of perfect family unity.
But a quick read of history clearly shows that this concept of the family meal is a fairly modern phenomenon. For example, in Victorian Britain, the children of wealthy families were more likely to eat in the nursery or kitchen, or to eat in communal dining rooms at boarding schools, than to sit at the family table. In low-income households, there might not even be a table to sit around. Indeed, the historical realities of the family meals align with a fairly brief period of time. And yet, it is as much a fixture in our shared cultural identity as anything we can imagine. And it isn’t surprising. With all the work involved, the provision of a family meal is a symbolic demonstration of the care of the meal provider. It may veer more toward love or toward duty, but it always shows commitment to the family group. By sharing meal-related tasks, from shopping to food preparation, table-laying and clearing-up, all family members participate in this exercise of responsible family solidarity.
There are, of course, many types of families and household relationships. What does this mean then for what can be considered a family meal? Does everyone in the family have to be present? Do they have to be eating the same foods? Do they have to be sitting around a table? Does the food have to be prepared in the home or simply plated there? How does the dynamic changed when relatives outside the nuclear family are present? Or friends?
Lack of time, work demands, busy social lives, scheduled activities, and increased opportunities for eating away from home are among the factors redefining the meaning of the family meal. Lunch has largely disappeared as a family meal, and breakfast may not be far behind. What does seem to hold true is that the majority of people still want and value family meals, however they define them. I a study conducted in the US and North America in 2016, three-quarters of people stated that they wanted to make more effort to sit down together for a family meal. At the same time, those same people stated they faced a multitude of barriers in putting this into practice. Families still eat together, though this is often at malls, in restaurants, or in cars on their way to the basketball practice. But to what extent do these constitute family meals? The common elements of food and family are still there, but what may be missing are some of the symbolic and culturally meaningful dimensions of the home-based family meal, some of the cultural learning opportunities, and the structure that family mealtimes can bring to the day.
What does this mean for marketing? In simplest terms, it means thinking about what happens through the entire meal cycle, not just what happens at the table. The changes in how we gather at the table suggests that while the motivational and diagnostic frames campaigns are likely to resonate with parents functionally, they do not align with parents’ experiences. Parents face more barriers to having the kinds of meals they want and have fewer ideas for overcoming them. As an example of one way to overcome the disconnect, promoting family meals should focus on innovative but relatable strategies for improving family meal frequency and quality.
Another is to focus on the idea of creation rather than consumption. Today, craft-based skills are namely the domains of skilled practitioners. What once had to be made for oneself is now available to purchase. What was once fixed or mended is now easily replaced with mass produced and inexpensive alternatives. We’ve seen the explosion of trends such as the maker movement in markets such as artisanal or slow-food cooking where at least if one isn’t quite ready for “doing handmade”, it’s easy to support the passion cooking and gain something one-of-a-kind. So why not in the family kitchen? It creates a connection to something tangible. It reinforces the underlying emotional currents and social intent of shared mealtime. I provides memories that return the family meal to its somewhat mythological intent – a place to slow down, reflect, and build.
Eating together, whatever and wherever that may be, helps to build bonds between family members. Perhaps instead of mourning the demise of the family meal, we can look for ways to reinvigorate our relationship with food.