Saturday 20 January 2018

Mind & Meaning: Looks like Jamie was onto something. . .

Jamie Oliver Photo: Getty Images
Jamie Oliver Photo: Getty Images

Patricia Casey

Eating meat and two veg around a table with parents may seem to be an unlikely contributor to the overall happiness of children and teenagers.

However, a report has now shown that this seemingly mundane aspect of family life significantly assists in building strong bonds between parents and their children.

Academics from Oxford, Essex, Warwick and Surrey universities have gathered data from 40,000 households across Britain. This ongoing research project, 'Understanding Society', has found that those brought up in a traditional two-parent unit and having at least three meals each week with them are the most happy with their lives.

Other research in the US and Britain also show that children/teens who eat regularly with their parents have higher levels of self-esteem, are less likely to abuse drugs, take alcohol, smoke cigarettes or engage in premature sex, as well as being nutritionally more healthy.

In addition, they are more likely to model themselves on their parents than on their peers and so are better mannered and more sociable.

Of course, the fact of having meals together may simply reflect the benefits of having involved, hands-on parents. On the other hand, if families do not share and communicate during simple, necessary activities such as eating, they are unlikely to do so at any other time. Enthusiasts of family meals such as Jamie Oliver (pictured below) will no doubt beam approvingly at the findings of these studies.

The demise of the family meal has been in full swing for two decades or more as families work longer hours and arrive home at staggered times. So tea time is no longer at six o'clock and even the more sophisticated supper time, so called, is also a movable microwave feast that is heated instantly, to suit the schedule of each person in the house.

For many, the main meal will be eaten in front of the television as they unwind from the pressures of the day and the commute from work.

Professor Martin Jones, an archaeologist from Cambridge, has interesting ideas about the growth of TV dinners. His hypothesis about their popularity would seem to question the implications of the recent study.

His ideas came to public attention a few years ago in his fascinating book Feast: Why Humans Share Food, based on information gleaned from his excavations. He suggested that TV dinners were "virtual campfires" that have emerged as a consequence of human evolution. He believes that, analogous to sitting round the camp fire sharing food and exchanging stories about the world around us, we now acquire this information largely from sources outside our immediate environs, such as television.

Unlike hunter-gatherers who lived in proximal communities, Prof Jones says we are part of a global community and eating in front of television allows us to keep in touch with the outer reaches of our vast world.

But this fails to recognise the need humans have for mutual contact and that mealtime represents the most practicable and encapsulated time to achieve this.

In spite of having instant access to mass information through the internet and satellite television, we still have human desires such as the need for affection, love and communication.

Food has historically played a prime role in major events in our lives. Indeed all our great occasions are associated with sharing food -- weddings are accompanied by lavish meals, family friends are invited round to share food, and romance is frequently nurtured over a meal.

As we recollect family meal times in later life we conjure up a complex mix of sensuous and emotional memories such as the smell of freshly baked bread or the image of mother bringing the teapot to the table. Sentimental they may be, but these are more than the mere mawkish recollections of past times. They give us a sense of a past that has helped shape our personality.

TV dinners may be "virtual camp fires" as suggested by Prof Jones but the zapper cannot replace the home-baked apple pie nor the wide-screen TV the nicely set table.

The findings of the 'Understanding Society' study are indeed heartening and should be welcomed and accepted without even a pinch of salt.

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