Kiwi kids reveal frustrations with busy parents
This generation don't use knives and forks – because we never show them how
Kids who sit down for family dinners are healthier and smarter, research reveals. But time-poor parents are denying them the chance. Ewan Sargent investigates.
Each night 13-year-old Ava Martin, of Ellerslie, does something most of her friends don’t. She has dinner with her family. Ava, her two sisters and brother, mum and dad, always eat together between 6pm and 6.30pm. As they eat they talk about the day they have had. No devices, no TV. Just eye contact with each other. ‘‘Meals are very, very important to us,’’ mum Charlotte Martin says. ‘‘I grew up that way. Family meal times were always the time when we sat down and discussed the day’s events and any issues people might have. I was very adamant when I had a family that I wanted to carry on that tradition. And we still do that with my parents every Sunday when we have a dinner.’’ Most families are going the other way. We are letting this simple analogue mealtime face-to-face connection slip out of our lives. A study by independent researcher Sarah Woollett, commissioned and developed by My Food Bag and Stuff, reveals we’re eating at home and together less often. The just-released Family Dinners survey involved 521 children and 630 adults across the country. It paints a picture of fewer family meals together, of stressed parents working late and out-of sync-hours, of takeaways and of eyes staring at screens instead of each other. Parents know something is wrong because – in their own words – they feel guilty. A generation ago, threequarters of children ate dinner with their parents every night. This survey indicates that now, only 51 per cent of families eat every dinner at home together. One of the sadder findings is that while 96 per cent of children see dinner as a great chance to chat to parents, 79 per cent wish they could have more dinners together as a family. Reasons why adults wished they could have more dinners at home included: ‘‘quality family time’’ (32 per cent); ‘‘it’s cheaper’’ (16 per cent); ‘‘it’s healthier and more nutritious’’ (10 per cent); ‘‘it’s a chance to catch up’’ (8 per cent); ‘‘it’s better-tasting or better food’’ (7 per cent). Regional differences can also be seen and Aucklanders seem particularly stressed. When asked if cooking dinner at home was a real chore, 31 per cent of Aucklanders agree, compared to 26 per cent in Taranaki, Manawatu and Wellington; 25 per cent in Waikato, Bay of Plenty, Gisborne, Hawke’s Bay and Canterbury; then down to 19 per cent in the rest of the South Island. When all the information is combined and the simple question posed of who is the most concerned about dinners, children and healthy habits, those most worried are Aucklanders, $100,000-plus earners and under35s. The least concerned are Cantabrians, over-55s, and people aged 45-54 years. My Food Bag founder Nadia Lim says the results are more shocking than she expected. And sad. ‘‘I 100 per cent believe in the magic of bringing people together around the dinner table, having had that in my family. I was really lucky to have parents who advocated for that so we just want to find out what the state of it is.’’ Her Dad was firm around mealtimes. ‘‘You had to stop whatever you were doing and come to the dinner table at the time it was served and no-one could pick up their fork or knife until everyone was there. Man he was strict.’’ FAMILY TIME At the time she thought he was a meanie to stop The Simpsons halfway through. ‘‘But I’m glad now.’’ So what are families who don’t do family dinners missing out on? Quite a lot it seems. Auckland University associate professors Dr Jennifer Utter and Dr Simon Denny have studied the links between family meals and adolescent wellbeing. Utter says their research shows that adolescents who share frequent family meals report better relationships with their families, better eating behaviours and better indicators of emotional wellbeing. Denny, a paediatrician at the Centre for Youth Health in South Auckland, has been deeply involved in the Youth 2000 National Youth Health and Wellbeing Surveys which now cover 25,000 secondary school students. He says students who have four or five meals a week at home with their families are healthier because they eat better food, smoke fewer cigarettes (and less marijuana), are less depressed and less likely to attempt suicide. The association is clear. Much more research has been done overseas, and campaigns have been launched to remind people how much family meals matter. A leader in this is Harvard Medical School clinical psychology professor Anne Fishel, a founder of the Family Dinner Project. In her blog she writes how as a family therapist, ‘‘I often have the impulse to tell families to go home and have dinner together rather than spending an hour with me’’. She lists findings from 20 years of research in North America, Europe and Australia and it’s a compelling defence of bums on seats eating and talking. They include the discovery that dinnertime conversation boosts young children’s vocabulary even more than being read aloud to, and regular mealtimes are a better predictor of high achievement scores for schoolkids than time spent in school, doing homework, playing sports or doing art. Fishel also mentions the Kiwi work of Utter and Denny, which shows family meal teens have more positive moods. She writes: ‘‘Dinner may be the one time of the day when a parent and child can share a positive experience – a well-cooked meal, a joke, or a story – and these small moments can gain momentum to create stronger connections away from the table.’’
So far it’s overwhelming evidence. But ask Denny what magic the dinners are weaving and it gets a little interesting. ‘‘That’s the million-dollar question,’’ he replies. ‘‘It’s either healthy families are more likely to have family meals, or it could be something to do with the family meals. We don’t quite know which way that arrow goes.’’ Denny says a randomised interventionist study is needed which, to put it lightly, would be tricky to organise with real families. Some would have meals together and others wouldn’t. Then the differences would be measured. He’s been involved in a small feasibility study to see if intervention is possible. Families were given free meal kits and the deal was that in return they had to eat together, have no devices on during the meal and the children had to help cook. Denny says the small study showed behaviours could be changed with intervention, but the approach had some problems. Although the families reported being happier and healthier, it’s possible that getting free meals and better food contributed. ‘‘When we gave families meal kits we were also giving them money as well in terms of the cost that would I often have the impulse to tell families to go home and have dinner together rather than spending an hour with me. Anne Fishel Harvard University clinical psychology professor have cost them. We targeted some of the poorer communities and the families just loved it.’’ Some families’ comments about food choices were revealing. ‘‘Poor families can’t afford for money to be wasted if the kids don’t eat the food. So in some sense they were reluctant to buy vegetables instead of takeaways because they know young people will eat that food,’’ Denny says. Food is also where they make savings when times are hard. ‘‘They have to pay their rent, they have to pay power, but food is the first thing to get cut when it comes
to healthier options. Unfortunately, food outside the home looks cheap. If you are trying to work two jobs and juggle all that other stuff, you can understand why the number of people purchasing food outside the home rather than preparing it is increasing,’’ Denny says. But even without the proof of a big interventionist study, he suspects family meals do good. ‘‘There is a routine aspect to it, like just the fact the teenagers or children know it happens every day. And it is a chance to sit down and talk. The communication stuff is very important.’’
It’s Friday night at McDonald’s in Sydenham, Christchurch. Andrew Quinn has taken his two children, aged 5 and 8, for a bite of dinner before heading out to play a cricket match. Their mum works in the evenings, so having takeaways on a Friday takes the pressure off to help them manage their commitments. ‘‘I’d say any time you sit down with your kids, it’s about the quality you put into it,’’ Quinn explains. ‘‘It doesn’t matter if you’ve gone and got a pizza and you’re sitting at home.’’ ‘‘It’s all about how you run your meal time and interact with your kids.’’ For Quinn and others, it’s the time with your kids that matters, talking about their day – not the where or the when.
ToughLove New Zealand trainer Sytske Oldenburger has no doubt that family dinners make families stronger and better. She’s quick to tell struggling parents about the benefits. ‘‘Absolutely. It really assists adolescents opening up communication channels. It’s good for kids who may have shut down. You will have kids sharing information rather than parents trying to be police officers and pry information out of them. It can make a huge difference.’’ Oldenburger says that at the heart of it, families are about cooperation. A meal together is the ultimate expression of that. ‘‘It’s non co-operation when kids grab their food and then hibernate to the bedroom. Maybe some parents prefer their kids to eat like dogs in the bedroom, I don’t know, but probably most families would consider bedrooms are for homework or sleeping and the dining room or breakfast bar is where you eat food.’’ Oldenburger says the world has changed but the power of the family meal hasn’t. ‘‘Three generations ago Dad came home at 5.30, perhaps had a beer and kicked the ball with the kids, and at 6 o’clock everybody sat down to the dinner table. ‘‘Nowadays kid A has got sport, kid B has got music, kid C has got something else, Dad is working late to pay the mortgage and Mum is trying to be a taxi driver.’’ She has seen immediate positive results when families revive the dinner tradition, even starting with just one night a week.
Back in Ellerslie, and the Martin family have gathered for dinner. Tonight it’s chicken with mashed potato, broccoli and carrots. Simple, healthy food on a table with a candle centrepiece. But it’s not the food that’s magic here. The Martins are father Jeff, who works in IT, Charlotte, who works part-time in retail and is the main weekday cook, and Eden, 21, Blake, 16, Ava, 13, and Keira, 10. There’s an expectation everyone makes dinner and they need to call and say if they can’t. There’s no TV blaring, no cellphones allowed on the table and conversation must be positive towards others. A couple of quirky family traditions also underline this is bonding time. The 14-year-old Martin Cup is a small trophy carrying lollies. Jeff and Charlotte are judges and it’s awarded based on the week’s achievements. The other is Martin Kitchen Rules. For one week everyone cooks a surprise main and dessert for the rest of the family (some with help from Charlotte). Youngest Keira says she looks forward to the dinners and likes telling her family about her day. ‘‘Because my family and the people that I love are there, so it is special that we are having family time.’’ It’s a glimpse of family life that fewer Kiwis are experiencing. They have no idea how much they are missing.
Charlotte Martin and daughter Ava preparing dinner for the family. DAVID WHITE/STUFF