Whose turn is it to set the table?

Ms Sarah Boyle, Acting Head of O’Connor House

At each break throughout the school day the tables around the Main Building become a hive of activity and the excited buzz of chatter from Year 12 students. When passing by the tables you can hear the girls talking about weekend events, discussing assignments, or planning the next bake stall. Everything happens at the Year 12 tables, it is the hub of their final year. While they typify chatting teenage girls, a more significant observation about the tradition of the Year 12 tables is that the girls are sharing and supporting one another through the ups and downs of their final year at school. It is at the table that they find comfort and reassurance in each other’s company, reinforcing meaningful friendships.

Can the same be said for the family dinner table?

With the pressures of modern life, there is a renewed emphasis on the importance of sharing a meal together as a family. The structure of many households today is varied. Families can take the form of two parents, usually both working fulltime, or a single parent, where the demands of daily routine require clockwork precision. Within families the children may be heavily involved in co-curricular activities before and after school, are busy with school work or are preoccupied with the visually captivating world within the computer screen. With this in mind, finding the time to get everyone to come to the table at the same time and discuss the goings-on of the day can seem like a quaint throwback to a bygone era.

The history of sharing a meal with others can be traced back to ancient times. In the days of hunters and gathers great ceremony and ritual was placed on the meal that had been prepared, as men had often risked their life to bring food to the table. It was a time to acknowledge the importance of the community and being thankful for the food they had. Our own meal time traditions in contemporary Australia can be traced to more recent history, having its roots in industrial Europe and America. However, it too has changed and morphed over time due to social, economic and technological pressures as time marches on. With the development of convenience and fast foods the ritual in preparing a meal for loved ones and sharing it together seems to have been fallen by the way side. Nancy Gibb in The magic of the family meal highlights that anthropologists assert that the development of fast food has killed the ceremony of sharing meals. Gibb cites Professor Robin Fox, from Rutgers University in New Jersey who goes as far as to posit that “we have reduced eating to sitting alone and shovelling it in” (2006). This is certainly a grim take on modern meal times, but have they really become so pedestrian and mundane? Surely with the popularity of television shows such as Masterchef there are far more Aussie families planning and preparing meals together. Despite the history, research (Busch; Huntley; Macpherson) shows that the simple act of sitting down as a family to share a meal together teaches vital life skills.


In an Ipsos study conducted in 2008 by social researcher, Dr Rebecca Huntley called Because Family Mealtimes Matter, it stated that the number of Australian families sitting down and sharing a meal during any given week is declining. The nation-wide survey of 1000 Australians found that 59 per cent ate their weekday dinner together at the family table and of those respondents, 60 per cent stated they had the television on while eating (2008, p34). These statistics reflect the nature of twenty-first century life and the pressure it puts on the traditional social structures and functions of families. Interestingly, Huntley identified three key benefits of family mealtimes, these being improved relationships between family members, improved nutrition and eating habits with children, and improved social behaviour.

Family cohesion and security is crucial during the turbulent adolescent years. Sitting together at mealtimes allows family members to communicate with one another in a regular forum which builds family connectedness. When children feel connected to their parents they are more likely to turn to them when problems arise. Moreover, parents are more likely to know the names of their children’s friends, teachers and what is happening at school which leads to the child believing that their parents are interested and engaged in all aspects of their life. This is supported by Professor William Doherty, from the University of Minnesota and author of The Intentional Family: Simple Rituals to Strengthen Family Ties who speaks of the notion of “family citizenship” which entails the duty that each family member has to one another (1999). By actively engaging during mealtimes parents and children are exercising their responsibilities as part of the family. Everyone comes to know the important role they play, and this in turn helps build the family’s identity and culture.

As all parents of adolescents know, in an era of social media, this kind of connection is easier said than done. The majority of teenagers have a Facebook account where they may be seemingly connected to 250 friends all at the same time. This is not to mention the mobile phone, which is constantly on and severe bouts of separation anxiety would ensue should it be lost. With this in mind, it seems all the more crucial to draw teens away from these technological distractions to eat a meal together to reinforce the family unit. Miriam Weinstein, author of The Surprising Power of Family Meals says that “we’ve sold ourselves on the idea that teenagers are obviously sick of their families, that they’re bonded to their peer group. We’ve taken it to an extreme. We’ve taken it to mean that a teenager has no need for their family. And that’s just not true” (Gibbs, 2006). Thus, it can be concluded that the connection within the family unit that can be built during mealtimes is far more nurturing and sustainable in adolescent development.

Eating the family meal together on a regular basis has important nutritional benefits. In the Ipsos study, Huntley draws information from various American university surveys whereby families that were more likely to eat meals together every day “generally consumed higher amounts of important nutrients such as calcium, fibre, iron, vitamins B6 and B12, C and E and consumed less overall fat” (2008, p 16). These nutritional findings are worth noting as recently there has been much talk in Australia about the alarming increase in the rate of childhood obesity, with results from the 2007-08 National Health Survey indicating that 24.9 per cent of children aged 5 – 17 years are overweight or obese (Overweight and Obesity in Australia, 2010). Those families that eat frequently together saw the adolescents have a decreased risk of unhealthy weight control practices and substance abuse (Huntley, 2008, p17). It can also help safe guard against adolescents developing eating disorders.

Improved social behaviours can be developed through the habit of family meal time. Children learn how to ask questions, listen to others and solve problems by sitting and engaging around the dinner table. This socialisation process is fundamental in equipping young people with the skills to thoughtfully navigate their way through the world. The time old traditions of having good table manners is important to enforce, questions such as “may I please leave the table?” and “could you please pass the salt?” help teenagers understand the significance of being polite and come to value the routine of the family dinner. Discussions around the dinner table serve the purpose of modelling to teenagers how to overcome difficulties and solve issues that they will inevitably be challenged by.

The family dinner table is a great place for storytelling; place where the family can build upon its own rituals or as Nancy Gibb suggests, become the forum where “legends are passed down, jokes rendered, [and] eventually the wider world examined through the lens of a family’s values” (2006). For it is from this platform that a family’s values help guide children to understand how to listen to other people’s concerns and respect their opinions. In the Years 8 and 9 Ethics programmes at Brisbane Girls Grammar School the students are taught to communicate thoughtfully, read body language, develop friendships and understand the importance of empathy. While these skills are taught explicitly through structured lessons and implicitly within the classroom framework, if the values are evident at home the impact can be far more influential. The importance of the family mealtime as a place for imparting valuable social skills is also furthered by Huntley who highlights the civilising role eating a family meal has on teens in that they are more “socially adept, confident and less likely to engage in what is often called ‘anti-social behaviour’” (2008, p18). Consequently, the lessons taught around the family dinner table go much further than learning to keep your elbows off the table.

So, perhaps the time old tradition of sitting down to a communal meal with the family needs to be revisited or at least remember the importance. It’s a fact that we need to ensure that we have three healthy meals a day to nourish our bodies so that we are able to function but it also provides social and emotional nourishment in adolescent development. Like the hub of the Year 12 tables, the family table can become a focal point which naturally draws family members together to share and relish in each other’s stories, navigate the challenges and celebrate the victories. Now then —whose turn is it to set the table?



Busch, Gillian (2011) The social orders of family mealtime. (PhD thesis, Queensland University of Technology). Retrieved from http://eprints.qut.edu.au/48024/1/Gillian_Busch_Thesis.pdf

Department of Health and Ageing (2010). Overweight and Obesity in Australia. Retrieved from http://www.healthyactive.gov.au/internet/healthyactive/publishing.nsf/Content/overweight-obesity

Doherty, W. J., (1999). The Intentional Family: Simple Rituals to Strengthen Family Ties. Harper Collins; Sydney.

Gibb, N., (2006, June 4). The magic of the family meal. In Time Magazine. Retrieved from http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1200760,00.html

Huntley, R., (2008). White Paper: Because Family Mealtimes Matter. Ipsos Australia. Retrieved from http://www.rebeccahuntley.com/pdf/white-paper.pdf

Macpherson, K., (2012, January 31). Mealtime is a moment best shared. The Courier Mail.

Leave a Reply