MAKING A MEAL OF IT
The sacramental nature of the British family meal has been lost. Can it now be regained?
I am not sure who first coined the phrase ‘cash-rich, time-poor’, but I think it is a clever way of spinning a more unpalatable truth: we have lots of money and brittle relationships. Time is the currency of relationships and these have become devalued by our addiction to work. A recent survey by the National Centre for Social Research (NCSR) looked into changing work patterns and found that the conventional working week of Monday to Friday, nine to five is a thing of the past. Among families with dependent children where at least one parent works, only 17% do their work within these hours. If both parents work the figure is less than 1%. As a result of these findings, the NCSR had to alter the parameters of its intended research to call unconventional hours anything outside the hours of 8am to 7pm.
One large casualty lies prone among the clutter of these long working hours, and that is the family meal time. According to the 2004 National Family Mealtime Survey, 20% of those asked sat down to eat together once a week or less. Of those who did eat together, 75% watched TV while they ate.
The survey found that children often had meals alone in their bedrooms while watching TV or playing computer games. The charity Raisingkids launched a campaign two years ago called Back to the Table. Although its title has an unfortunate echo of a now infamous campaign of the Major government, there is great merit in its goals. Research has shown how shared family meal times build relationships and strengthen communication, help teenagers cope with the stresses of adolescence, lead to better nutrition and foster rituals, giving shape and meaning to family life. Harvard researchers have even concluded that family dinners are more important to a child’s language development than reading or playing with them.
Households without a regular shared mealtime are prey to the phenomenon of living together apart, where tensions are created by the absence of communication. I do not wish to idealise mealtimes. Working most evenings I feel like a variant of Lynne Truss’ book: Eats, Washes up, Leaves, and often have little energy spare to engage at a deep level while eating. Yet I have never regretted a family mealtime because they somehow give shape to our identity together. There is, in other words, a sacramental feel to them. Perhaps it is no co-incidence that family meals remain a stronger component of unhurried continental Roman Catholic life than they are of frenetic Protestant Britain.
Our Christian identity is firmly shaped by the gathering of a particular group of friends round an evening meal. Oscar Wilde once said that after a good dinner one can forgive anybody, even one’s own relatives. I doubt he had the last supper in mind, but it lends an extra poignancy to the observation. Until we stop making a virtue out of being short of time, and also give people the unconditional permission to leave work on time, we will remain relationally poorer than we ought. The outcomes of which, incidentally, cost us a lot of money.
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