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Exploring family health
Exploring family health

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2 Changing mealtime routines

In postwar Britain, from the mid twentieth century, families tended to eat meals together as far as other commitments such as work and school permitted, which allowed parents to supervise their children’s diet and encourage regular eating habits. Many observers of childhood obesity criticise modern family life for increasingly ignoring traditional mealtimes and allowing children to ‘graze’ unsupervised, or to eat while watching the television. Both these activities could disrupt the relationship between parents and children that is seen as so important in the development of healthy eating.

On the other hand, some observers of eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa (in which people restrict their food intake excessively) place family mealtimes at the root of the problem. Children, at least in their early years, have very little say in what they are given to eat. Mealtimes, if taken as a family, can be potentially difficult occasions where family tensions and rivalries may erupt. If eating becomes linked with family problems, then eating can itself become a problem. Also, children may begin to use eating (or not eating) certain foods as a way of testing the power of their parents. Not eating is often the only thing that children can do to exert control over their lives, and if this pattern of using food to control one’s life is continued into adolescence and adulthood it may result in an eating disorder. This does not mean, of course, that every argument at the dinner table results in anorexia – but that mealtimes are important family occasions where existing tensions may surface as disordered eating behaviour.

Before thinking about this further, what do we know about the diversity of family life today? When looking at family composition (diversity) in the twenty-first century, a significant change from the 1980s and 1990s is the increase in one-parent families, which now total almost two million. Of these one-parent families, 9 out of 10 households are headed by mothers (Beaumont, 2011). Women also tend, in general, to eat more healthily than men, so it might be supposed that children who live with their mothers will begin to learn healthier eating habits. However, this is likely to be outweighed by the fact that the majority of one-parent families are on low incomes and so it can be more difficult for them to afford and prepare healthy food.

Changes in roles within the family are also likely to have negative as well as positive results. In many modern families, both parents work, making it difficult for the family to cook and share meals together on a regular basis. The growth in the sales of fast food, such as pizza and ready meals, would seem to support this (particularly if meals need to be primarily convenient rather than nutritious). However, an increasingly shared approach to childcare may result in less constraining roles for all and less tension associated with family responsibilities. Children may be beginning to have more influence within the family, choosing what and when to eat, and possibly buying their own snacks and drinks. This would be positive if children had already learned healthy eating messages, but this independence and choice may simply make children more vulnerable to the marketing and advertising of unhealthy foods.

The next section goes on to consider the link between obesity and health.