By Denise Winterman
BBC News Magazine
Tony Blair wants to foster a new "culture of respect" across the UK and more family mealtimes could be part of the plan. But can eating together really combat yob culture?
After hooded tops, the disappearance of family mealtimes is the latest thing turning youngsters into yobs, according to the government.
Tony Blair has promised to create a "culture of respect" across the country, with respect being the theme of the Queen's speech on Tuesday, which set out the government's agenda for its third term.
Getting more families to eat together is a good place to start, says Home Office minister Hazel Blears.
Parenting experts agree. They warn of a growing number of feral TV dinner toddlers unable to use a knife and fork, and isolated teenagers who take their meals from the freezer, to the microwave and up to the bedroom without a word to anyone. All because many families no longer eat together.
According to the 2004 National Family Mealtime Survey, 20% of those asked sat down to eat together just once a week or less. The poll, by parenting organisation Raisingkids, found children often had meals alone in their bedrooms while watching TV or playing computer games. Of those who did eat together, TV was the preferred dinner guest, with 75% eating while watching it.
Child psychologist and parenting expert Dr Pat Spungin, founder of Raisingkids, says the benefits of family meals are far-reaching, often surprising and should not be underestimated.
The organisation is running a Back to the Table campaign to get families eating together again.
"Nowadays children can go through a whole day saying no more than 'hi' to their parents or siblings," she says. "It is the 'home alone together' syndrome, families are under the same roof but in their own cells. The cement of family life is crumbling and losing family mealtimes is a big part of that.
Many now eat in front of the TV
"There is often not a lot of two-way communication going on. It is one-way from machines to child, either from the TV or computer. Kids need interaction to develop their language skills, babies can't learn to speak from the TV."
This isolation can impact on children's language skills. Researchers at Harvard University in the US concluded that family dinners were more important to a child's language development than reading or playing with them.
But they are also important for a child's development and self esteem outside the home. Several recent studies suggest youngsters who regularly sit down to eat with their family are less likely to indulge in pastimes associated with yob culture, such as smoking, drinking and taking drugs. They have fewer mental health problems and perform better at school.
Watch and learn
Research by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse in America also found such youngsters are less likely to spend time with boyfriends or girlfriends, or to have sexually active friends. Girls are also less likely to have older boyfriends.
"Family meals are about bonding, they give a child confidence and teach them how to behave with others," says Dr Spungin. "This isn't only in the home but in the outside world as well."
FAMILY MEAL TIPS
Cook in bulk so you don't have to cook each day
Stock up on food staples that can be used in many recipes
Involve children in food preparation
Ask for meal suggestions
Catherine Collins, chief dietician at St George's Hospital in Tooting, south London, says shared meals can also help deal with serious food problems from faddism to eating disorders.
"For toddlers, family meals around the table are a constant learning experience," she says. "Sitting with other people and seeing them eat a variety of foods encourages the child to want to try different foods and a toddler with older siblings who is learning to use a knife and fork will try harder to imitate. Meals also tend to be much healthier, often home cooked.
"Regular family meals are also a way of keeping track of what youngsters are eating and identifying eating disorders. Teenagers are under a lot of pressure to look good and food is a way of controlling that.
"If you eat with your child, you will be able to see what they eat, and if they finish their food or push it round their plate and try to hide it."
And with obesity levels among children on the rise in the UK, and Britons munching more - often unhealthy - snacks than any other European country, monitoring what kids eat has never been as important.
Most parents are aware of the benefits of sharing meals. Of those surveyed by Raisingkids, 89% agreed families missed out by not eating together. But with so many demands on parent's time, organising family dinners can feel like a chore rather than a pleasure.
This might explain the rise in families eating out in restaurants. Around half of the families polled ate out together at least once a month.
"It's a positive sign that families want to eat together, but we need to make it the norm again and not just an occasional treat," says Dr Spungin.