The family meal; then and now, a 30-year comparison study

Author: Georgia Middleton

Middleton, Georgia, 2022 The family meal; then and now, a 30-year comparison study, Flinders University, College of Nursing and Health Sciences

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The family meal has been recognised as an integral part of family life for decades and has been linked to health outcomes for children and adults. With high global rates of poor diet quality, overweight and obesity, we need to identify environmental settings, and behaviours, that can be targeted to improve the health of children, adults, and families. With the positive outcomes associated with the family meal, it has been proposed as one such strategy for encouraging health-promoting behaviours. As an opportunity to eat a nutritious meal, role-model, communicate and connect with one another, the family meal is perfectly placed to change parent’s habits, and influence children’s development of healthful eating behaviours. However, we do not yet have a detailed understanding of what is required to execute a family meal every day, nor do we know how family meals and their involved processes have changed over time. Additionally, the idealised version of the family meal promoted across time may not be representative of the contemporary experience of family meals today, and may be contributing to feelings of shame, anxiety and guilt for already overburdened parents. We need a detailed understanding of the complexities of family meals, their involved processes, and how they have evolved over time, to move forward with researching and promoting the family meal as a viable health promotion strategy.


The aim of this thesis was to identify the processes, barriers and enablers involved in executing the family meal and explore how these have evolved over time. Additionally, this thesis sought to explore the differences in experiences of the family meal between families with high and low socio-economic disadvantage.


An interpretive study, underpinned by social constructionism, drawing on the theoretical approach of thick description, and informed by grounded theory methodologies was undertaken to address the thesis aims. Two datasets, consisting of interviews with parents in the 1990s and 2020, were analysed to gain an understanding of the family meals of the past (1990s) and of the present (2020), and to compare between the two.

Main findings

The analysis of the 1990s interview data identified participant’s desires to prepare just one meal for the whole family were often overridden by conflicting food preferences of different family members, and that women undertook majority of the work for the family meal. The analysis of the 2020 interview data identified a difference between the family meal and the time set aside to be with the family, that modern services and technology do not necessarily address the needs of busy working parents, and that men were getting more involved in the work for the family meal. Both analyses were combined to create The Family Meal Framework; a framework that encapsulates the five main components required to execute the family meal. The two datasets were then compared to determine changes to the family meal across time. This comparative analysis identified stability in many of the practices and processes of the family meal across time, indicating its significance and value in family life. The comparison indicated trends in men’s increased involvement in the family meal over time, but also women’s reluctance to hand over control to their partners to share the burden more equally. The comparative analysis identified ten factors that presented as either barriers or enablers over time, depending on the context within which they were experienced. The investigation into differences between experiences of those of varying socio-economic position were minimal in both samples and did not hold up consistently over time.


This thesis provides valuable, original contributions to knowledge by identifying the components necessary for executing family meals and providing an understanding of the evolution of the family meal and it’s involved processes across time. This new understanding will allow us to target family meal research more specifically, so we can more effectively utilise the family meal as a health-promoting activity for families.

Keywords: Family meals, historical comparison, qualitative, grounded theory

Subject: Nutrition thesis

Thesis type: Doctor of Philosophy
Completed: 2022
School: College of Nursing and Health Sciences
Supervisor: John Coveney