People associate food with family relationships. Debra Lupton (1994), an Australian researcher, found that childhood memories of food were related to social relationships rather than to foods themselves. When requested to write about "food," participants in Lupton's study described emotional themes related to belongingness, happiness, control, and disappointment. In most cultures food is linked with group membership, including belonging to a family. Eating together provides opportunities for family members to interact while sharing the same event or eating similar foods. Family members' interests and activities may vary widely in the areas of work, school, and leisure activities; mealtime provides a common focus.
Many people recognize the importance of family mealtimes, and many factors, including work schedules, school events, and the convenience of restaurants, make eating together a challenge for some families. Attention to the benefits of family meals is not new. In 1943 James H. S. Bossard indicated that the family meal "holds members of the family together during an extended period of time." During mealtimes, noted Bossard, family members interact, enlarging vocabulary, providing information, developing personality, and socializing children. He acknowledged that because family meals represent "families in action," negative as well as positive interactions occur during meals. Similarly, Lupton noted that the family meal itself is not necessarily positive. When family members cooperate, are valued, and positive interactions predominate during meal preparation and eating, the family meal helps establish a sense of security among family members.
Family mealtimes may be a higher priority for some families than for others, and a possible decline in frequency of family meals is a commonly expressed concern. Social problems, ranging from failure in school to delinquency, have been attributed to the decline in family meals. However, a decline in family meals may not be as extensive as feared. An American Dietetic Association (2000) fact sheet indicates that the average family prepares and eats dinner together five nights a week. Obviously, many people are committed to obtaining the benefits of a family meal.
Parents have an impact on what their children eat and how much they eat. Children prefer foods with which they are familiar (Birch 1996). To develop familiarity with and preference for specific food items, children may need to be exposed to that food ten times. Parents have the responsibility of selecting much of the food eaten by very young children. But children also affect the food behaviors of other family members by influencing what is purchased and prepared. Parents want to serve food that their children will eat. According to Gill Valentine (1999), "the power of children shape[s] the consumption practices of a household." Valentine found that differences in food preferences among family members may lead to negotiation and compromise or to the decision to have meals in which family members eat very differently from one another (e.g., vegetarians and meat-eaters).
Parents and children not only impact one another's food choices. The care and love parents demonstrate by purchasing or preparing food for their children is evident; in addition, children also use food to express care and helpfulness to parents. In interviews conducted in California, adolescents between the ages of eleven and fourteen reported cooking for themselves or siblings in order to be helpful to parents. They viewed preparing food at home as making a contribution to family life (Kaplan 2000). Thus, children and parents alike help to create a sense of family by giving and receiving care demonstrated through food.
The adolescents interviewed by Elaine Bell Kaplan (2000) indicated that their mothers were responsible for preparing the evening meals, but the boys described enjoying cooking as much as the girls did. Boys' enjoyment of cooking follows a trend in which men frequently contribute to preparation of family meals. Women still do most of the cooking for families, but men often participate in food preparation. Lupton (2000) found that among rural Australian heterosexual couples, many enjoyed food preparation, although the men who liked to cook were typically middle-aged or younger. Even though women still took the major responsibility for meals, these couples viewed food preparation as part of the division of labor, which they had negotiated, rather than as the duty of the female. Attitudes toward food and gender role patterns, however, may vary from country to country. More gender role segregation in food practices has been reported in British than in Swedish households ( Jansson 1995).
Food preferences and preparation responsibilities are negotiated between husband and wife, as well as between parents and children. People also negotiate and renegotiate food patterns throughout the stages of their own lives. Researchers in Scotland examined changes in eating habits when couples began to live together. Prior to marriage or cohabitation, people shopped for food when they felt like it or needed more food; when they began living together, both meals and shopping became more regular. Women made efforts to improve their husbands' food choices, and men's diets improved. Most couples reported that food was a much more important component of their relationship than they had expected (Kemmer 1998).
As children grow and eventually move out of the household, some parents tend to eat less regular and smaller meals. Parents return to cooking and eating more when children visit. This pattern is particularly characteristic of widowed women, who have experienced loss of social interaction, as well as the satisfaction of providing care through meals (Quandt et al. 1997).
Trends in society include people living longer, an increase in dual-earner and single-parent households, and access to more convenient foods. In addition, many people live alone. Sometimes jobs are located long distances from homes. Therefore, families may have little time or incentive to cook and may choose to eat in restaurants or to bring fully prepared meals into their homes. According to Gisele Yasmeen (2000), few urban Thai families regularly cook meals at home. Because most Thai and Southeast Asian women are in the paid workforce, these families might subscribe to a neighborhood catering network or eat other publicly prepared food. When consumers desire readily available, fully prepared food, industry complies. Increases of fast-food restaurants in Western societies provide an example of both the impact of the consumer on society and society on the consumer. When fully prepared food is available and affordable, families are likely to cook less.
Food content and methods of meal preparation have changed and will continue to change for individuals as they age and for families as their lifestyles change. Nevertheless, meals are an important part of family life in which families experience belonging and continue to pass on culture and traditions to future generations.