As a full-time employed mother of three school aged children and a social anthropologist whose research focuses on the intersection between work and care I have a personal as well as professional interest in food, families and paid work.
In the Telegraph, (02/05/12) medical correspondent Stephen Adams reported that family dinners “make for healthier kids”. Reporting what he refers to as “a major review”, Adams suggests that “eating together as a family leads to healthier children who are less likely to be overweight”. This headline, and the kind of survey research upon which it is based, are very familiar to social scientists studying food and eating in families. As often as not reports of such research link the supposed “decline of the family meal” to a number of factors among which the increase in mothers’ paid employment usually ranks high.
Blaming parents, especially “working mothers”, for negative child outcomes is a well-established cultural narrative in the UK. So too is mourning the loss of an idealised past of family life. The fact that such findings are so often reported uncritically reveals the ideological strength of bringing these ideas together.
But it does not demand much (sociological) imagination to wonder how these facts are made. To begin with, what constitutes a family, or indeed a meal, is not self-evident. The issue of how meal frequency is measured also presents all sorts of problems. Further questions include the age of the children under discussion and whether parents are prepared to own up to their children not eating as part of the family. Are enough younger children reported to eat alone to make meaningful comparisons with those who are said to be eating “family meals”? These are only some of the questions to ask if conventional wisdom is to be challenged and subjected to empirical evidence.
Lazy reporting and simplifications of the “evidence” often imply causal relationships between food and family life which do little to help parents or children. A more critical approach challenges the idea that mothers should still be still held responsible for their children’s diets even when they also do paid work. It also interrogates the rise in obesity in relation to a range of factors, not least of which is the increasing commodification of food and the power of the food industry. Recognising the role of commercial interests in shaping our health and that of our children suggests that attempts to regulate parents might be better directed toward regulating the food industry and challenging policy, not only parents, to bring something fresh to the table.
Rebecca is co-convenor of the British Sociological Association Food Study Group which is hosting its third conference, Food & Society 2012, at the British Library Conference Centre on 2-3 July.