x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Family meals must adapt to modern lifestyles

The View from Here: Getting household away from their modern-day distractions to sit down for a traditional family meal is not just good for bonding, but the budget, too.

Families that routinely congregate around the kitchen table, as epitomised by the 1950s US television show Father Knows Best, are becoming an endangered species. NBC Television / Getty Images
Families that routinely congregate around the kitchen table, as epitomised by the 1950s US television show Father Knows Best, are becoming an endangered species. NBC Television / Getty Images

I grew up in a house where we ate our meals in the traditional way: gathered around the TV with a microwaved curry balanced on our knees.

Because mother found cooking a chore, she would do it all on the same day, usually in the same pot. Once a week, for a couple of hours, a stew would bubble and fester away on the stove. Eventually, mother would have mercy on it, take it off the stove and put it in the freezer. For the rest of the week, she would fish bits of iced curry, or pasta, or whatever inspiration had struck her during her last boiling session, and reheat before calling us to the couch.

So it was something of a culture shock when I married a woman who believes we should eat off a large piece of wood called a dining table. Each evening, she makes our family of four sit around it, have a conversation and eat a meal that consists of at least three ingredients, none of which is mayonnaise.

My mother's nightly nuclear curry left me ill-prepared for this, but eventually I adapted. I no longer jab those alongside me with flying elbows. And very little ends up on the front of my shirt, as it used to do when I shovelled it in as fast as possible. But most of all, though, I have come to appreciate the value of the table as a money-saving device.

The family meal is a dying tradition. In 2006, the British Office for National Statistics, which tabulates inflation based on a basket of 650 household items, dropped the dining room table from its list, a fact quoted in Stephen Pollard's Ten Days That Changed the Nation.

Today, a quarter of English homes do not even own one.

A recent survey by the Australian cooking website taste.com.au found that for every dollar spent on home cooking, two would be needed for the same meal as a takeaway. And a contributor to saveforhouse.com, a website that encourages people to save for the deposit on a house, says his daily food expenditure dropped from US$24 (Dh88) per day to just $9 after he gave up bought meals. This worked out to be more than $8,500 a year.

It's not the easiest thing to get a household away from the internet, Xbox and other distractions, and sit facing each other for 45 minutes.

Especially if at least one member - and there always is one - hates chicken, or tomatoes, or whatever is the basis of the evening's dinner.

But it's worth the effort, even if threats and bribes are sometimes needed to put down the small rebellions that will occasionally break out. Variety will also help to keep everyone from becoming bored with the whole thing.

This is where a well-stocked freezer earns its keep. Chicken, meat and fish, bought when stores have specials, help to keep money in your wallet. And it means that each evening, there is a variety of dinner options to choose from, reducing the temptation to call the Indian takeaway down the road.

Buy fruit and vegetables daily; they may be cheaper in bulk, but inevitably a large sack of spuds will begin growing eyes long before you manage to finish it off. In the long run, small portions save on waste.

Restaurants are, of course, part of modern urban life - it would be a bleak existence without them. But rather cut out the cheap takeaways and make provision in the family budget for a few meals out each month at a decent establishment.

And should the prospect of sitting around a table with sullen teenagers prove too daunting, here's something that may help. Amazon.com is selling a "Table Talk" pack of playing cards. The idea is to hand the cards around the table and discuss the items printed on them.

Topics include: "define respect", "who is your favourite teacher?" and "what does 'actions speak louder than words' mean?"

Of course, it will also brand you the lamest of all parents, which in itself should make a good topic of dinner-table conversation.


Gavin du Venage is a business writer and entrepreneur based in South Africa.