Australians are battling the decline of the dinner table

CONVERSATION jars, careful planning and a ban on anything with a screen are some of the ways Australians are battling the decline of the dinner table so they can get the most from family mealtimes.

New research has found Australian families feel more connected while sharing dinner than any other activity, but only a small minority actually have the dinnertimes they desire.

Mars Food Australia researchers have found 78% of Australians believe dinnertime is the greatest family connector and more than three-quarters want to make a change to their routine.

Time-poor and stressed families are sacrificing the evening sit-down, with only half of Australians eating their weekday dinners at any kind of table.

More than half sat in front of the TV to eat dinner at least once a week.

What's more, almost a third of 18 to 24-year-olds surveyed admitted to eating dinner in bed at least once a week.

It is a trend bloggers Jenni Ferguson and Louise Thomsen know only too well.

What started as a hobby for the two young mothers three years ago has grown into a full-time job on a website with a million views a month from mums sharing their secrets on how to bring the family together.

Ms Ferguson said getting the family to sit down for a meal was one of the biggest discussion points in the online community, with mothers at their wits' end about how to fit regular mealtimes into their busy schedules.

Even she found it to be a struggle.

"I have a husband who works a lot, so dinnertime for us is a bit different," she said.

"For us, the kids and I prepare the meals - the kids love it, especially my daughter.

"She's going to be my little master chef.

"We bond over that, and then even though I don't actually eat with them, I sit down with them at the table and we talk about our days.

"I have a conversation jar with different questions for the kids to pull out and ask - what was the highlight of their day, what made them giggle ... just things to get them talking.

"Then when my husband gets home later in the evening, I sit down with him to have dinner and get him up to speed on what the kids said.

"We make up for it on weekends and often have extended family there as well.

"We make it extra special because we miss out during the week."

Commissioned for MasterFoods, the Lifting the Lid on Dinnertime report found 51% of respondents were so distracted at dinner their ability to connect with friends and loved ones was compromised.

Ms Ferguson and Ms Thomsen agreed a "screen-free" dinner was integral to keeping their families focused.

"My husband is lucky enough to start work early so he can be home at five," Ms Thomsen said.

"As soon as the kids started eating solids, at around six months of age, we all sat down together for dinner.

"I'm a big believer in all eating the same food - obviously we weren't eating spicy curries, but I think role modelling and leading by example with eating habits is important.

"Our kids will grow up eating exactly what my husband and I eat.

"We also believe in role modelling through our conversation.

"My husband will talk about the bad things that happened in his day as well as the good ones.

"That way the kids know if they have a bad day at school they can always bring it up with our family at dinner and have our support.

"Whether it's at dinner or some other time, there needs to be a conversation as a family every day.

"And the kids all sit until everyone is finished, and then ask to be excused before they leave the table - just like I did when I was a kid."

About 13% of respondents said they were too isolated from friends and family to share a home-cooked meal regularly.

It means more than 600,000 Australians are missing out on the important connections forged through interactions over a communal meal.

But the research has given psychologist Sabina Read hope Australians are willing and wanting to make a change for the better.

"I was immediately struck by the finding that three-quarters of Aussies would like to change something about their household dinners, and that many of these changes focus on how we eat, not what we eat," she said.

"We are hardwired to connect with each other, so it makes sense that many Aussies want more laughter, fewer complaints, everyone being home or less effort involved around preparing and eating dinner."

She said making the extra effort to sit down and chat with family over the dinner table could have more run-on effects than just the physical ones.

"Finding ways to make mealtimes more mindful will have a domino effect not only on our physical health, but also our emotional and relational well-being as well," she said.

"It's not food per se that connects us, but rather what we do with the people we care about during the times we prep and eat meals."



We asked readers how often they sat down for a family meal

Every night - 61%

Two or three times a week - 7%

Very rarely - 30%