Family meals after lockdown - what could the ‘new normal’ look like for you?
When our schedules used to be packed with things like long commutes, after-school activities, and busy social lives, family meals were often pushed down the priority list. In fact, British children were among the least likely in Europe to eat a family dinner, with only 38% eating their evening meals with their families every day, compared with over 80% in Portugal (World Health Organisation).
But for many families, this has changed during lockdown. The extra time spent at home means that there have been more opportunities for parents and children to eat together. And this doesn't apply only to families with young children. Even teenagers have been sitting down to eat with their parents more often, with one survey reporting that 1/3 of teens took part in more family meals during lockdown than before (BiteBack 2030).
I've pieced together the statistics showing the good, the bad and the ugly of our lockdown family food experiences, to explore whether eating together more often might be a change we choose to keep as part of our 'new normal'.
The bad and the ugly
No doubt some of us just want to reset all aspects of our lives to pre-lockdown settings. And there is plenty of evidence about things that were made worse by lockdown when it came to feeding our families.
Take food shopping. This was one of the many areas of change and stress in people's lives, especially during the early days of lockdown. A survey by the company Brand Nursery asked people about their food shopping behaviours during lockdown. It found that 97% of people planned more carefully when to shop, 89% thought more about what to shop for, and nearly 3/4 of respondents reported that they found food shopping more stressful than before.
Personally, I can relate to all those findings. For me, acquiring food, preparing it, and feeding it to my family definitely took up more of my headspace than usual. And for many couples, that burden did not fall equally.
If you are a mum with children at home, living with a male partner, the chances are that you would have taken on most of the food-related work - from buying, to cooking, right through to feeding it to your children and cleaning away after everyone.
A recent report showed that during lockdown women spent an average of 1.7 hours a day more than men on housework and 2.3 hours more on childcare - which no doubt explained the mere 1 hour of uninterrupted work that women were managing to achieve at a time, versus the 3 hours that men were able to do (Institute for Fiscal Studies). This kind of difference happened regardless of whether the man was the main breadwinner, furloughed or unemployed.
In addition to gender, there are a lot of inequalities that have been highlighted by this virus, and another one that has come to the fore where family food is concerned is income. The phrase 'holiday hunger' became well known for the first time, and footballer Marcus Rashford's successful campaign to make sure that the poorest families were given summer holiday food vouchers made national headlines.
But that positive outcome didn't help poorer families during lockdown. The charity BiteBack 2030 found that less well-off children were "more likely to snack, less likely to eat fresh fruit and vegetables and more likely to feel they are eating unhealthily across the board" than their wealthier counterparts - as a day from this teenage girl's food diary illustrates.
But it wasn't all bad news - and not everyone wants everything to return to the 'old normal'.
Various survey results suggest that some of us want to keep a number of the changes we experienced during lockdown:
85% of adults wanted some of the personal or social changes they experienced to continue (YouGov)
57% of Brits reported valuing food more than before (Opinium)
43% of us said we enjoyed food more than before (Hubbub)
Last month, researchers reported that 60% of young people thought that having more shared family meals was positive for health and wellbeing - and that they wanted to keep having them post-lockdown (BiteBack 2030).
Food companies have also spotted an emergent family meal trend - enough for McCain's to commission market research on the subject. Their results indicate that 37% of parents would like to continue eating more meals with their children following lockdown. And 30% say they have enjoyed having more meaningful conversations at mealtimes (McCain's Nation's Conversations market research).
This desire to eat together more often as a family is widely regarded as a good thing, particularly for our children. I've written before about the various benefits claimed for family meals: from emotional and physical wellbeing, to academic attainment, to a healthy relationship with food.
So is there evidence of any of these benefits, and others too, being seen in homes across the nation following lockdown?
For some it's too soon to tell, but these are the areas where I think a positive picture seems to be emerging:
1. Parents and children are cooking more
There's a good chance that many of us have been upskilling ourselves - and our children - as home cooks. Food shortages and shopping restrictions, although stressful and time-consuming, taught us how to make do and mend when it came to ingredients (and expectations). Successes may have been mixed but learning how to get creative when we don't have the exact ingredients called for, has probably made us all better cooks. And lockdown may also have motivated some of our children to take an interest in cooking - perhaps for the first time: BiteBack 2030 reported that 1/3 of teens said that they cooked more during lockdown than before.
While we weren't always going for the healthiest options, they were probably better than many of the pre-lockdown alternatives, and would have enhanced our cooking skills and confidence, nonetheless. Home baking, for instance, became something of a national lockdown obsession. Flour and yeast were scarce, sales of suet shot up by 115% at one point, and internet searches for 'cinnamon rolls', 'sourdough' and 'banana bread', were among those that spiked, according to Google Trends.
And with restaurants closed and take-away options limited, particularly in the early days of lockdown, there was a trend to try to recreate fast-food favourites at home. (If you were wondering, KFC's popcorn chicken, McDonald's Big Mac and Nando's Peri Peri chicken, were among the most popular recipes searched for at the peak of the craze.) Even if our searches didn't always turn into action, we would still have learnt plenty from spending more time watching inventive and creative social media cooks.
2. We're improving the feeding relationship - and our relationship in general - with our children
For parents who have been trying to improve the feeding relationship with their children - particularly those trying to lessen fussy eating, or for those implementing dietary change - regular family meals are usually a keeper. Eating with our children is one of the positive things we can do to support them to become competent eaters - something I help parents with when they want to tackle their children's fussy eating or make changes to their diet.
Anecdotally, parents I've spoken to who've experienced eating together with their children more often during lockdown, even if they weren't consciously doing so to bring about any specific improvements, have also noticed positive changes. These include things like improvements in their children's behaviour at mealtimes, less picky eating, and even improved relationships between themselves and their children overall.
This is a phenomenon the World Health Organisation wants to encourage. It says in its 'Food and nutrition tips during self-quarantine' that, "Family meals are an important opportunity for parents to be role models for healthy eating, and for strengthening family relationships."
3. Lockdown family meals have helped some children to eat more healthily
We already knew that the risk of many chronic conditions like type 2 diabetes, heart disease and some cancers could be affected by our diet and lifestyle. Now we're realising that we may also be increasing the risk of suffering complications from acute conditions - particularly COVID-19 - in much the same way. A realisation that has prompted the government's new obesity strategy and 'Better Health' campaign.
Research points to the role that family meals can play in increasing children's consumption of fruit and vegetables, and decreasing their consumption of fried foods and soft drinks. And these are effects that seem to last into adulthood, with teens who eat regular family meals being more likely to eat healthily, and less likely to become obese, when they leave home. The strength of these findings has led to the World Health Organisation using the frequency of family meals as one of its key indicators of children's health.
On this on this note, there's some good news: 37% of teens have reported eating more fresh fruit and vegetables during lockdown and 32% reported eating more home cooked meals (BiteBack 2030). So even if making family meals under lockdown has seemed like the bane of your life, at least you can take comfort in the possibility that they may have been doing more good than you realised.
4. We've discovered that we enjoy family meals
This is my favourite outcome. If you think your efforts to eat with your children will go unnoticed, or unappreciated, think again. That 60% of teens I mentioned earlier, the ones who reported feeling that family meals were good for them and who wanted to keep having them post-lockdown, tells us a different story (BiteBack 2030).
And I doubt that those 60% of young people were having gourmet dining experiences every time they sat down to eat with their families. If I think back to my own childhood, some of my happiest memories are from family mealtimes - and not all of them involve delicious food. In fact, there are a couple of memorably funny occasions involving dinner disasters, which we still reminisce about fondly to this day.
My guess is that when our children grow up and are asked about their lockdown experiences, spending more time with their parents is likely to feature as one of their positive memories. And family meals could well be among the highlights – and most likely not because of what they were eating, but because of who they were eating with.
As lockdown is eased and we're each adjusting to our 'new normal', we're making decisions that will affect our family's health. Family health coaching can help you make the best of this time of transition and establish lasting changes to support your family's health and wellness.
Sarah is a family health coach with a specialism in feeding babies, children, and teens, and in helping families to make diet and lifestyle changes. If you would like to ask her about how she might be able to support you with any difficulties you are experiencing with mealtimes, whatever age your children, please email email@example.com or call 07884 966087 - or book a free 20 minute consultation.