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A Michelin-starred chef on why families should always eat together

Children learn ‘soft skills’ when they eat together with their parents (CNS photo)

Home for me as a boy was a couple of dozen acres in County Meath. It was idyllic in many ways, but hard work. Family farming in Ireland in the 1970s could be touch-and-go. It was labour intensive too. I was one of seven children and we were expected to put our shoulder to the wheel.

A good appetite was never a problem and meal times, especially Sunday lunches, were the still point around which our family life revolved. So I have always instinctively felt the truth behind the cliché that the family which eats together stays together. But is that hunch backed up by hard facts or is it a nostalgic dream, increasingly unobtainable in a world where many parents work long and unpredictable hours?

Well, the usefulness of family meals is no fantasy. You would expect me, as a life-long restaurateur, to argue in favour of the positive effects of people breaking bread together. I watch people do it everyday. It is one of the reasons I love my work.

But I am equally passionate about the importance of meals in the home. My wife, Maria, and our three children – Richard, Jessica and Robert – try to sit down and eat together as often as we can. This has always felt like common sense. It worked for me as a boy growing up north of Dublin and, although there is less greenery around us at our home in north London, it works for me as a father.

It is one of the reasons I agreed to become the patron of a British think tank which tries to put some hard science behind the soft glow of a good home. The Home Renaissance Foundation was founded by my friend Sir Bryan Sanderson, a former managing director of BP and chairman of BUPA. He wanted to promote an understanding and an appreciation of what our homes can do when they work well.
Research by the Home Renaissance Foundation shows us that family meals should not be dismissed as so much 1950s retro.

According to economics professor Dr Sophia Aguirre, who wrote a paper for the Foundation about this, family dinners generate “human capital”. Kids who sit down regularly with parents and siblings do better at exams than those who don’t. Rates of substance abuse, obesity and eating disorders are also lower. Her graphs show that what really matters is the quality of the time together. As soon as a television is switched on during a family meal, a lot of the good socialising stops.

Now, you could argue that, if kids have parents who are up to organising a family meal at the dining table, those children already have a headstart.

For one thing, many of the homes we build nowadays have no room for a dining table. And if it’s not the building, it’s the people. In chaotic families, the routine that regular meal times need just isn’t there.

But Dr Aguirre’s work also shows how it is precisely these disadvantaged youngsters who need formal family meals more than others. It is at the dining table that we impart some of the most important lessons of life: how to tell a story, share our recollections of the day and listen politely. It is where kids should learn something about manners. Not formal etiquette, but how to behave in company. It is easy to dismiss these things as irrelevant.

The diners at my restaurant in Mayfair know what a soup spoon looks like. But last August, not a million miles away from my own home, the riots showed us that a generation of young men are not part of the story of social mobility which drew me to Britain. I am not for a second saying that learning how to tell the difference between a fish and steak knife will help cure “broken Britain”. But I do sincerely believe that something as simple as sharing a family meal can do a surprising amount of good. If you can get kids into the habit early enough, family meals can be the making of what the academics call “soft skills” – even if it is just once a week.

Some of my happiest memories of growing up in Ireland are of Sunday lunch. It was a team effort, laying the table, bringing in the food, clearing up afterwards. It was a punctuation mark in the week and the source of many family traditions. Thanks to what I have learned from Dr Aguirre and the Home Renaissance Foundation, I now realise it was also preparing me for life in ways I was not even aware of at the time.

The next time your child comes home from an after-school activity and zaps something in the microwave consider this. The biggest leg-up your child can get from you might not be Kumon or ballet lessons, but a seat at the family dining table.

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