Charlie Owen, Institute of Education, University of London
Family meals; Maternal employment
There is a concern that the failure of families to eat an evening meal together is contributing not only to children’s poor nutrition and an epidemic of obesity, but also to a rise in antisocial behaviour. Some large-scale surveys have found positive associations between frequency of family meals and desirable health and behavioural outcomes for children. A number of such studies also find negative associations between frequency of family meals and hours of maternal employment, supporting public discourses which blame working mothers for negative child outcomes. However, the definition of a ‘family meal’ is not straightforward. Understanding Society wave 1 included this question for parents: ‘In the past 7 days, how many times have you eaten an evening meal together with your child/children and other family members who live with you?’ This paper uses the answers to this question to examine whether the children of employed mothers eat fewer ‘family meals’. It also contrasts the results with the Millennium Cohort Study which asked a related question: ‘Who usually eats the evening meal with [child’s name] on weekdays?’ In addition to maternal employment, relationships with other socio-economic factors have been analysed. This paper compares and contrasts the results from these two recent, large-scale studies and explores some of the methodological and conceptual difficulties involved in using these data for examining ‘family meal’ frequency and its association with socio-demographic variables.