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Demography is Destiny

Is the family meal time around the table disappearing?

Is the family meal time around the table disappearing?

by Marcus Roberts | June 13, 2019

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What is your mealtime routine? Do you sit down at the table together? Are all members of your family called together and forced to stay at the table until everyone has finished eating? Do you then clear the table and wash up together? If so, your family’s dining habits are becoming less common.

According to this article in the Atlantic, a recent survey of more than 1,000 American adults showed that the table is becoming a less popular place to eat.  A little less than half said they eat at the table when eating at home, and instead the couch and the bedroom are becoming more popular to eat dinner. (The couch I can understand, but the bedroom??? That is a surefire way to get crumbs in the bed. Or even worse, gravy.) 30 per cent of respondents cited the couch as their primary place to eat at home while nearly a fifth took their dinner to the bedroom. Thus, the table is roughly as popular as the bedroom and the couch as the place to eat at-home meals in America.

The decline of the table’s popularity follows the rise in families eating separately. In 2013, a nationally representative NPR poll found that only about half of American children sat down to eat dinner together as a family on a typical evening. Mostly this is down to obstacles such as work schedules and children’s extracurricular commitments, although some respondents just said that the family ate at separate locations.

One other reason for the rise of other parts of the house in which one consumes food is the chance in cooking habits. Women are working more and thus cooking less on average. But men haven’t picked up the cooking slack. Thus, families more often get ready-made food options which makes people less inclined to set the table and gather everyone around it.

Another reason for the changing eating trends is the rise in the one person household. These have soared in the last 50 years in the USA. The sociologist Eric Klinenberg noted in 2012 that “more people live alone now than at any other time in history.” While this can be said to lead to greater “freedom, personal control and self-realisation” it also means greater loneliness, loss of community and loss of communal dining. It means more dining on the couch and perhaps, not owning a table in the first place.

Of course, one cannot ignore the rise of the screen. One eats on the couch generally because one is watching TV. And this doesn’t just apply to solo eaters, the NPR survey found that nearly a quarter of children live in homes where dinnertime competes with a TV or other screen on at the same time. A less obvious explanation is given by Amy Trubek, a professor of nutrition and food sciences at the University of Vermont. She wonders whether the survey results were linked to the changing layout of homes. “There has been a move away from the formal dining room as a separate space in more modern houses, but also in the new standard for the open kitchen ... This creates, overall, a more informal relationship to the moment when a meal is consumed.” Whatever the reason, it seems as if the days of the ubiquitous dinner at the table are over.

As for us, we try to ensure that we eat together and generally can do so each night. The big problem is getting the children to finish their meals before leaving the table (they are often “full” after half a dinner and then miraculously “hungry” when it is bedtime). However, this would be much more difficult if Shannon and I were both working full time jobs which were more demanding of our time. (One of the reasons I left the law was that so many of my colleagues with families did not get home in time for bedtime, let alone for dinner with their children!)

Marcus Roberts is co-editor of Demography is Destiny, MercatorNet's blog on population issues.

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