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Tuesday, August 31, 1999 Published at 18:36 GMT 19:36 UK


Has dinner had its chips?

Traditional dinner - the preserve of special occasions?

There is a familiar menu of food on television. In fact it seems to be a staple diet, with starters of Ainsley, main course of Delia, and pudding of Fearnley-Whittingstall.

And yet Oxo is dropping its typical family dinner advertisements after 16 years, because "family life is changing".

In other words, in an uncannily ironic twist, families are not sitting down together to have dinner, they are too busy watching adverts on the telly.

[ image: Not all food takes all day to cook]
Not all food takes all day to cook
The "mother" of the campaign over the years, Lynda Bellingham, lamented the changes that have led to the demise of her screen role: "The whole family set-up has changed socially in the last 10 years.

"I think people buy pre-cooked meals and I don't actually think it is realistic, people cooking gravy." People should be encouraged to sit down together at the table, she said, adding that she made her two children do it.

Who's to blame?

When historians have some perspective on the 20th Century, the name Gerry Thomas might become better known than it currently is.

For it was Thomas who invented the TV dinner, and thus helped forge the shape of family life for generations to come.

The first TV dinner, in 1953, came in an aluminium tray, and consisted of turkey, buttered peas, and sweet potatoes. And - sadly for Oxo - it came with gravy supplied.

[ image: Microwaves have their attractions]
Microwaves have their attractions
And while he might have done for home cooking, Thomas's contribution to television has been huge. Earlier this year he was asked to add his handprints to the cemented line-up of stars in Hollywood who have gone before him.

But it is not just in the US that his effect has been felt.

A poll in 1997 found that two-thirds of British families had given up traditional dinner time for eating in front of the television. One analyst said of the poll: "We really are a nation of grazers and snackers."

And a survey conducted earlier this year found that one in 20 UK families only eat together on special occasions, such as Christmas Day.

Click here to tell us what you think.

At least one historian has warned against romanticising the traditional family dinner, saying it relied too much on the isolation of the wife who cooked it.

[ image: Delia Smith's influence only reaches so far]
Delia Smith's influence only reaches so far
But Annabel Karmel, author of The Family Meal Planner, said it was a fallacy to think that just because food was fresh it would take all day to prepare.

And she thinks that setting aside some time for dinner can do familes - and children - a lot of good.

"There are so so many things you can do which are really quick.You can make the most fantastic stir fries which take 10 or 15 minutes. You can even buy cut up vegetables from the supermarket," she said.

She was convinced of the value of sitting down together to eat.

"I think children follow examples: if you're eating good food and your children see you, they're much more likely to follow your example.

"And if you're prepared to sacrifice the time, even once a week, to sit down for Sunday lunch or Friday night, and you talk about what you've been doing during the week, you can stop communication getting lost between families."

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