Food is more than just what’s on our plate. Everyone should have the right and ability to sit down with the people that matter most to them and eat together.
The benefits of shared mealtimes are widely understood; they’re an important time for people to connect. Eighteen months ago, we commissioned a YouGov survey looking specifically at what those benefits are. In that survey, 58% of respondents said sharing mealtimes resulted in a greater connection with others, and 48% confirmed it helped with the family budget, as it was cheaper to cook for multiple people at once.
What these figures show is that, for many of us, a shared meal is more than just a meal. They allow us to build relationships, support better mental health and encourage healthy diets and eating habits. And in the case of children, they’re a crucial time to support social development in a fast-paced world – whether that be through the conversation had with limited distractions, or through learning to use things like cutlery.
Nevertheless, these benefits have not yet been fully realised, and numerous barriers still exist. Pressures like poverty, family dynamics, work schedules and confidence in the kitchen often act as obstacles to families and households sitting down to share a meal together.
For some, a major challenge may be the difficulty of catering to different food preferences and needs. According to 2021 data collected by Sainsbury’s, “nearly a third of families cited fussy eating as a top reason they don’t eat the same meal”. Beyond fussy eaters, conflicting schedules between younger children and teenagers, or contradictory work, school and after-school activity schedules among adults and children all pose significant barriers to families sharing mealtimes.
This shows us the reality facing families across Britain is that often eating together is just not possible. These barriers won’t be tackled without us all committing to thinking not just about what we’re eating, but how we’re eating.
So, what can be done? From businesses promoting better work-life balance and building flexible, inclusive cultures to the government continuing to place emphasis in the school curriculum on cooking skills, nutrition information, and budgeting, there are several actions that will move us a step closer to surmounting the barriers to shared meals.
At Mars Food, a key action that we have taken as a business is putting infrastructure in place to allow our associates to ‘switch off for dinner’.
There are, of course, a number of barriers that are not so easily surmountable, including poverty, cost of living and suitable housing. It’s critical these issues are addressed to ensure shared mealtimes are an option for everyone. Successful measures will be those that involve government policy guided by ground-level expertise and research, with a range of relevant voices contributing to the conversation.
Overcoming the obstacles to enjoying shared dinnertimes will be far from simple. But it is up to all of us to facilitate shared mealtimes and ensure everyone who wants to enjoy them can do so. It’s up to businesses, charities, third sector groups, government, policymakers and the wider civil society to stand up together for sitting down together.