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to the report.
Lifting the Lid on Dinnertime:
The Social Role of Food in Australia
A 2016 report commissioned by MasterFoods® Australia
Contents
Foreword
3
Mindful
Dinnertimes
Mindful Dinnertimes, Sabina Read, Psychologist
5
Executive Summary
8
Let’s Make Dinnertime Matter
2
15
1) Dinnertime theory
17
2) Dinnertime practice
29
3) Dinnertime daze and dining deprivation
45
4) Dinnertime directions 54
Closing thoughts, Sabina Read
62
Foreword
On 20 November 2015, a week when Sydney hit 40 degrees, stars hit the
ARIAs stage and players the fairway at the Masters, Mars Food® Australia
started something a little different.
Mindful
Dinnertimes
Commissioned for MasterFoods®, over nine days researchers asked more than 1,500 Australian
households to throw open their doors and open up their pantries. Responding to an extensive
survey, singles, couples, families and housemates from across the country shared their dinnertime
habits, pictured their perfect evening meal and told us what they can’t stomach, all so we could
build up an honest picture of what nourishes the nation at night.
Whilst we can learn a little from watching on-screen cooking shows, and admiring social
media dinnertime snapshots, we can learn a whole lot more when we look behind the
kitchen doors of Australia.
In planning this research, we made a conscious effort to ask Australians about the food rituals
that matter most to them and the roles and routines they have fallen into. We felt it was important
to not just audit how people are eating dinner – who, when, where and what they eat - but also to
assess how those choices made Australians feel and what - if anything - they’d change.
The responses have been revealing.
We’ve learned that we’re the Communal Country: we find more connection in sharing a family
meal than any other activity, and a third of us manage to have a home cooked dinner with loved
ones every single day. We’ve confirmed that a majority of Australians regard themselves as lead
cooks within their household, and seen that for many what goes on over the plate is just as
important as what sits upon it. And that, for me, is critical.
3
With MasterFoods, we are uniquely placed to sit across the entire cooking continuum to help
cooks of all levels of experience enjoy the rewards that good food brings. In late November,
we commissioned this research for MasterFoods, to get a deeper understanding of what goes
on behind the kitchen doors in Australia and how food enjoyed in company contributes to our
emotional wellbeing. There was already a wealth of information about the physical importance
of a balanced diet, but less widespread understanding about the emotional side of things.
MasterFoods wanted to explore further.
Mindful
Dinnertimes
This is reflected in our findings: Australians recognise and acknowledge the social role of food,
but certain groups appear to be struggling to make the most out of their dinnertimes, either by
choice or through circumstance. A significant minority of Australians appear to regularly eat
alone, and more than half of those who did dine together admitted they were often distracted
to the point that their ability to connect was compromised. Indeed, we uncovered a worrying
undercurrent of ‘dinnertime deprivation’: ten per cent admitted skipping evening meals during the
course of our research, and further findings suggest that almost half a million Australians have a
restricted evening diet, through repetitive eating.
There’s more on at-risk groups in the report that follows, but I want to conclude by emphasising
that there is much to be hopeful about: the ambition of the young to cook more, emerging
dinnertime rituals, the switch from Sunday special to weekday events and casual catch-ups. This
in particular is encouraging: after 16 years in the industry, I can’t help but feel that the road to
contentment lies not in grand culinary gestures but in celebrating each day’s little victories: if we
managed to do that more, we might all end up just a bit healthier and happier. And as Sabina
suggests below, the data challenges us all to share dinners more mindfully, elevating everyday
refuelling into regular reasons to reconnect meaningfully. All up, we can’t wait to discuss the
findings further. Preferably over dinner.
Hamish Thomson, General Manager Mars Food Australia
4
Mindful Dinnertimes
I’m not a food researcher, I’m a practicing psychologist, but when I heard
that MasterFoods Australia was investigating modern dinnertimes in
Australia, I was intrigued.
Mindful
Dinnertimes
The pursuit of happiness has never received more primetime attention - just consider the multiple
indices currently tracking contentment in Australia - yet the fundamental building blocks of
individual wellbeing are timeless. Personal relationships, with family, friends and neighbours;
a sense of meaning and purpose, practical financial and domestic security and a sense of
engagement in what we love - complex studies peer into our lives and consistently find the
simplest ingredients carry the most meaning in our day to day.
I use the word ingredient advisedly. Across cultures and centuries, meals have provided
opportunities for communities to come together and share the day, rituals which have baked in
attitudes, behaviours and dietary preferences for the generations that follow.
In addition to the positive nutritional impact of family dinnertimes (more fresh food, less snacking
are just two of the benefits), studies have shown the linkages between family mealtimes and
academic attainment - from a more extensive early years vocabulary1 right up to enhanced
grades in adolescents. We also know that shared dining patterns bolster childhood resilience,
helping young people negotiate stress/anxiety, minimise tobacco and alcohol abuse, as well as
avoid depression.2
All this evidence reminds me just how right it is that nurture and nutrition come from the
same linguistic root. Food is more than just calories in and calories out, it provides us with an
opportunity to connect and communicate.
1
2
Mealtime Talk That Supports Literacy Development (Snow and Beals 13 Mar 2006, here)
Sharing Meals with Family, VicHealth Indicators Survey, Nov 2012
5
With all this in mind, when I reviewed the research, what immediately stood out was
that three quarters of Australians wanted to change something about their household
dinners, but that many of these changes focus on how we eat not what we eat: more
laughter, fewer complaints, everyone being at home, less effort.
For a psychologist those findings are heartening: admitting you are not content with current
behaviour is the first step to changing it, and the smaller the steps the easier they are to
achieve. We can see in the data that there’s already a very deep foundation to build on - many
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Dinnertimes
are cooking, many are eating communally - which suggests that just a few small tweaks to our
everyday routines could create a more emotionally sustaining, sustainable approach for many.
Here it’s important to emphasise I’m talking about a new philosophy, not a strict seven day a
week regime. As the data suggests, many aspire to become more mindful about dinnertime:
understanding that the choices we make about our own food influence more than just our own
health and wellbeing. We are not just what we eat, we are a product of how people eat
around us, and it serves us all if we can find ways to better connect over food.
So what might mindful dinnertimes do for us? At a basic level, mindfulness means being fully
engaged in the experience we’re undertaking. When we do something mindfully we truly
commit to an activity by being aware of the thoughts, emotions and sensations it creates. You
can mindfully brush your teeth or mindfully eat a banana, you can mindfully do anything, as long
as you do it with a heightened state of interest and curiosity. So a mindful dinnertime would
require everyone present to be together in a way that allows them to fully listen to each other,
coming together with an appetite for emotional interaction as much as functional refuelling.
In that sense, mindful dinnertimes are expressions of how we choose to come together as
a clan, which means that what constitutes a good routine for you may not be the right fit for
others.
6
Though the data shows trends in how we currently dine together, it doesn’t mean that we can
come up with a magic number of minutes to spend together, a perfect time of day or ideal setting.
Instead, the study indicates that Australians are already creating dining styles which make the
most of their own circumstances and our hardwired human instinct to connect.
In identifying the diverse range of routines routinely taking place in our homes every night the
Mindful
Dinnertimes
report captures the real lives of real people. Now we have this data I believe we can use it to
have a productive conversation: less about the quest for perfection and ‘best’ and more about
balance - balance not just in what you eat but how you eat.
Rather than holding onto an idealised version of the past, or beating ourselves up about a less
than perfect present, let’s try to honour the customs that have kept us happy and healthy to date,
and find a way to make them more meaningful now and into the future.
After all, the report suggests when it comes to dinner, we can do without the great outdoors, we
can do without great wine, but we can’t do without each other. In our conspicuous food conscious
culture we sometimes need a nudge to keep things simple: when we’re reminded of the benefits
and pleasure of eating in company, what could be simpler than doing so more often?
Sabina Read, Psychologist
7
Executive Summary
This report lifts the lid on what Australia prepares and shares for dinner at night, reviews
collective attitudes to dinnertime and links the findings to contemporary discussions about the
social and physical impact of food.
Mindful
Dinnertimes
The chapters that follow include reaction from both consumers and cultural commentators but
in this section we provide a digest of how the country comes together over dinner.
Dinnertime Data
As work-life balance continues to be contested, much has been said about the demise of the
sit-down dinner, but the death of shared dinnertimes appears greatly exaggerated. We may
not be making masterpieces like Matt Moran or Jamie Oliver every single night, but for those
looking for instances of individuals getting together and connecting over food, there is much in
the everyday to celebrate - and much to stew over. Over the nine days of research, here’s what
Australians told us.
Dinnertime matters because it helps us connect…
• When our respondents were asked to score everyday activities by the depth of connection
they created, home cooked dinners won out
• More than three quarters - 78% - of our participants scored a home cooked dinner
with family as an occasion delivering high levels of connection3, followed by sharing
face-to-face banter or jokes (76%) and discussing major life issues (73%). By
contrast, 63% nominated cuddles as a key way to connect.
3
8
High connection activities receive a net score of five or higher, out of a possible ten
• Twenty one per cent of the female respondents rated home cooked meals with family
a perfect ten, compared to just 11% of men. Women were also more likely to award a
ten to dinners with friends - 16% versus 7%.
• Reflecting the importance they place on the social role of dinners, respondents told us what
goes on over the plate is often more important than what is on it (the food) or around it (the
Mindful
Dinnertimes
setting and fellow guests).
• When we asked our respondents to tell us their mealtime must-haves, emotional ‘over
the plate’ factors dominated practical ‘on the plate’ concerns. ‘No arguments’ was
seen as the most essential home cooked ingredient (38% ‘essential’), followed by
time together without stress (37%) and then nutritious food (33%).
Dinnertime matters because it’s how we get together…
• One in three (35%) people ate dinner with loved ones - family or friends -every day
• On average, Australians eat with family more than four times a week
• Almost half of those surveyed (46%) reported having one or more home cooked dinners with
friends in the last seven days
• Monday chews now seem a popular way to digest Monday blues - with more people coming
together at the start of the work week than on the traditional Sunday. 72% share a meal
at the start of the week, compared to 62% on a Sunday (the joint least popular day in our
research)
9
• We linger longer over dinner with friends than family, regardless of what day we meet
• The average dinnertime with friends on a weekday was 44 minutes, compared to 34
minutes with family
• On the weekend, our respondents spent just shy of an hour (58 minutes) with friends,
compared to an average 45 minutes with family
Mindful
Dinnertimes
• Thirty one per cent dined for more than an hour and a half with friends on the
weekend; 14% spent that long with family
• Catch ups can also be snappy: a third of those who ate with friends spent less than 20
minutes on their meal on a weekday…
• …though meaningful dinnertimes might take slightly longer to settle than a quarter
of an hour. Ten per cent of our respondents spent this time or less eating dinner with
their family on the weekend
Dinnertime matters because it’s how we choose to spend our precious
time…
• Three quarters of those surveyed (73%) prepared dinner from scratch at least once or twice a
week; 20% did it five times or more
• Just nine per cent of those surveyed said that they rarely/never prepare dinnertime meals
• But during the research window a quarter of Australians (27%) did not make
any meals from scratch, in particular those from single, shared and low income
households
10
Dinnertime matters because it’s on our mind…
• Three quarters of research participants would alter something about the weekly routine they
discussed with us
• The most commonly called-for changes are around preparation (better, fresher
ingredients; reduced effort) and presence (everybody at home, more fun, fewer
Mindful
Dinnertimes
complaints, less technology)
• Though two thirds of respondents said they enjoy the rituals around dinner, almost a fifth
of Australians dread dinner during the week (18%) and a similar figure resent it during the
weekend
• More than half of those questioned (52%) admit that they were distracted at their last dinner
- and that those distractions limited their ability to relax and connect with fellow diners
• A third – 36% - of respondents nominated some form of technology as a constraint
on connecting; and a similar proportion acknowledged entertainment interrupted their
interactions
• Scheduled TV impacted 27%; on demand programs 13%; Facebook fought with the
diversion offered by real-life fellow diners for 16% of research participants
• Worries about finances, family or work distracted over a quarter of the householders
surveyed (28%) and arguments one in five (22%)
• Roughly one in 10 of our householders reported negative feelings associated with cooking
at home: fatigue (11%), stress (10%), anxiety (9%), and a sense of being overwhelmed (7%)
being the most mentioned. These negative feelings are more in evidence amongst those who
rarely cook, creating a self-fulfilling vicious cycle
11
Dinnertime matters because some groups appear disconnected from its
benefits…
• More than a quarter of those aged 55+ say that ‘eating alone’ is the best way to describe
how they ate over the past seven days (29% weekdays, 28% weekend) against a national
baseline of 21% reporting they usually dine solo
Mindful
Dinnertimes
• Ten per cent of Australians skipped dinner at least once during the research period; 17% in
the past month. A quarter of those in the lowest income bracket skipped dinner at least once
in the previous month - the highest prevalence captured in the demographic data.
• Twelve per cent of Australians reported they ate the same meal repeatedly in the past month,
of which three per cent acknowledged they’d consumed it ten times or more, a figure which
when modelled on the adult Australia population equates to nearly half a million (472,000)4.
• Seventeen per cent of the lowest income group admitted that they’d like fewer meals that
had to be reheated, versus an overall sample of nine per cent.
• Thirteen per cent of our 1,500+ respondents told us they were too isolated from friends and
family to share a home cooked meal more often, and isolation was an issue affecting 22% of
those on low incomes. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the ‘isolated’ are single householders (30% of
those who live alone) and 14% of those aged between 55-64.
4
12
J une 2015 population stats: total population of 23,781,200 http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/[email protected]/mf/3101.0 and adult (15-64)
percentage of 66.2%: http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/[email protected]/Latestproducts/3101.0Feature%20Article2Jun%202015?opendocument&tabname=Summary&prodno=3101.0&issue=Jun%202015&num=&view=
Dinnertime matters because those who consume the most home cooked
food appear to be more connected, contented and in command of their
dining decisions …
• Home cooking doesn’t necessarily require chef-like commitment and attention to detail, but it
does appear to correlate with more rewarding experiences.
Mindful
Dinnertimes
• Those who most frequently ate dinners cooked from scratch five times or more a week - 20%
of those who took part in this research - were:
• More likely to feel strongly connected with their family over shared meals. A third
(35%) rated dinner with family a 9 or 10, compared to a quarter of the sample as a
whole
• More satisfied in their current routines: just two thirds (62%) wanted to change any
element of their dinners (compared with 75% overall)
• More ‘present’ at dinner: only 41% said they were distracted, against 52% of the
entire research population
• More likely to avoid negative dinner behaviours: 57% of those who regularly ate meals
prepared from scratch ingredients managed to avoid any signs of dinnertime daze or
deprivation in the past month, compared to 38% of the whole sample
13
Dinner time matters because it’s one of the few things we all still share…
A quick bite or a slow stew, fast food or baked in flavour, this research reflects the diversity of
dinners that are currently cooked up each and every night across the country. Though the ways
we dine differ, the weight of importance Australians place on dinner is high, implying strong
community interest in the social role played by food in principle, if not in practice. For further detail
on specific dinnertime trends (nutritional, spatial, sociological), please read on.
Mindful
Dinnertimes
14
Let’s make dinnertime
matter
We live in an age of consumption, but has an anytime, anywhere, any place culture impacted the
way we come together and connect over dinner?
Mindful
Dinnertimes
To answer that question our research asked more than 1,500 Australian households to describe
their food choices over the previous week. Reflecting contemporary discussions about the
impact of technology and shifting work patterns on household habits, the research in particular
attempted to ascertain whether ‘traditional’ home cooked meals were at risk: either conceptually
(no longer valued by Australians) or practically (no longer shared with family, friends and
housemates).
Findings from the research are divided into four distinct chapters:
1) Dinnertime theory (what dinner does for us)
The importance of dinnertime to Australians, its emotional impact and factors considered critical
for a successful meal. By beginning the analysis with what dinner means for Australians, we
contrast cultural and emotional data with lived reality: how participants actually make and share
dinner day to day. See pages 17 to 28.
15
2) Dinnertime practice (how we do dinner)
The company we keep, when, what, and where we eat. The longest section, this provides a
sociological snapshot of how diners get together (or eat apart), identifying timing preferences,
cooking choices and dining approaches. See pages 29 to 44.
Mindful
Dinnertimes
3) Dinnertime daze and dining deprivation
Behaviours which are less beneficial: from eating amongst everyday distractions to more
disordered meal routines. This section contains more concerning findings and at-risk groups.
See pages 45 to 53.
4) Dinnertime directions (do we want to make a change, and do changes
make a difference?)
The things we’d like to change, the barriers to change, the wider impact of differing dinner styles.
This final section identifies the changes and challenges on the horizon.
All data quoted in this report comes from a qualitative and quantitative research program
undertaken in Spring 2015, unless otherwise stated. For further information on field work
methodology, please see page 54.
16
1) Dinnertime theory
Social connection
The Lifting the Lid on Dinnertime research study revolves around dinnertime - what is served,
when it’s served, where it’s served, by whom and to whom. However, before descending into
detailed dining data, it’s useful to understand what dinnertime means to Australians in principle,
both compared to other activities and in and of itself.
Mindful
Dinnertimes
Participants were asked on a scale of 1 to 10, how connected with your family, partner or
friends do you feel on [the following occasions?]
Counting Connections
Sitting down with family over a home cooked dinner
with good conversation
Sharing a joke / engaging in banter in person
Discussing big issues in our lives
Bonding through everyday trial and tribulations
Sitting down with friends over a home cooked dinner
with good conversation
Going out for dinner or drinks together
Going on active / adventurous / scenic activities together
0%
NET 5 to 10
20%
40%
60%
80%
100%
9 to 10
17
Experiencing activities together outside the house
(e.g. concerts, the zoo, museums etc.)
Having a cuddle on the sofa
Going on active / adventurous / scenic activities together
Watching films
Mindful
Dinnertimes
Giving or getting advice from others
Watching TV
Sharing a special moment with the kid(s)
Playing sport together (e.g. backyard or competitively)
The bedtime routine with the kid(s)
Spectating live sport at the venue (e.g. AFL, NRL, NRU etc.)
0%
NET 5 to 10
20%
40%
60%
80%
100%
9 to 10
However we analyse the results5, home cooked dinners with family led the rankings for
connection: more than three quarters of Australians (78%) nominated it as a positive
connecting occasion. Food and/or conversation appeal to foster more bonding than physical
contact: after family dinners came face-to-face banter or jokes (76%) and discussing major life
issues (73%).
5It is possible to analyse the overall connectivity of an activity by bundling together its scores at net 5 and above, an extremely intense
connection would be inferred from a score of net 9 or higher. However the results are filtered, home cooked dinners with families come
out top of the rankings
18
Age appeared to somewhat determine how respondents answered this question and indicates a
declining value in dinnertime amongst younger demographics: 31% of those aged 55-64 scored
family meals a nine or ten, a statistic which declined down the decades from 25% (35-44 and
45-54) to 22% for 25-34 and 13% for 18-24 year olds.
Gender and relationship status also had a bearing on how connected an individual felt: a fifth
Mindful
Dinnertimes
(21%) of the female respondents awarded a connectivity score of ten to home cooked meals
with family, compared to 11% of men; those with children scored it higher than those without
(29% versus 20% net nine or 10) and couples also registered high connectivity - 32% against
the sample average of 24%. Women were also more likely to rate dinners with friends a ten in
terms of connection - 16% versus 7% of men.
Individual attitudes
Thinking about yourself, which statement best describes your feelings about dinner on a weekday and at the weekend?
Australians may view home cooked dinners as the most effective way to connect with loved ones,
but it needn’t necessarily follow that they all always enjoy them. To dig deeper, we asked our
research participants to tell us how they defined their relationship to dinner, and while the clear
majority told us they enjoyed them, others were far less positive.
19
Figure 2: Dinner Typologies
Dinnertime Personalities
45%
Mindful
Dinnertimes
40%
35%
30%
25%
20%
15%
10%
5%
0%
Dinner Lover
Dinner Desirer
Dinner Dreader
Dinner Fueller
Dinner Skipper
Dinner Apathist
(I enjoy dinners
and do spend time
on them)
(I enjoy dinners but
would like to spend
more time on them)
(Dinners are a chore
and sometimes
I dread thinking
about what to cook)
(I eat dinners as
quickly as possible)
(I rarely eat dinners)
(Dinners are not
important to me)
Weekday
Weekend
Weekdays or weekends do not seem to determine our core attitudes to cooking; and, whatever
the day of week, one in six Australians respond to dinner with dread. As one lady in Quakers Hill,
New South Wales explains:
20
“There was a time I would have loved cooking different meals, but I don’t know if I’m
getting older… [I] just don’t enjoy it anymore. But food is not so important to us. I have
been to a lot of families where it’s very important, a lot of Italian families, [for instance]
eat, eat and eat. And they’re doing it with all this love. I think we don’t do it with love, we
do it with ‘oh god, I’ve got to do this.’”
Mindful
Dinnertimes
How does cooking dinner for family or friends in your house typically make you feel?
Please select all emotions that apply.
Remembering that the majority of Australians told us they were Dinner Lovers or Dinner Desirers,
just over half of the participants in our study (54%) told us that cooking for others made them
satisfied, 44% said it gave them satisfaction and a quarter (24%) a sense of pride.
However, a significant minority reported less positive feelings: around one in ten talked about
their fatigue, stress or anxiety, and seven per cent said they were ‘overwhelmed’. While some of
this negativity may be deeply engrained, it’s likely some of it is circumstantial. For example, when
we caught her coming off a challenging night shift, one midwife in New South Wales admitted
that though she enjoyed cooking normally:
‘… sometimes your motivation and your care factor of eating healthy is a big fat zero.’
That said, even if negative feelings are transitory, they do seem to be exhibited more by female
respondents than men. Those who rarely prepare meals (a category split fairly evenly between
genders) also exhibited stronger negative sentiment, as illustrated below.
21
Figure 3: Fuelling A Range of Feelings
Tired
Mindful
Dinnertimes
No Joy
Overwhelmed
Anxious
Stressed
0%
2%
Rarely Prepare
22
4%
6%
8%
Sometimes Prepare
10%
12%
Usually Prepare
14%
16%
Important ingredients
How essential are each of the following to creating the best home cooked dinner
experience?
Mindful
Dinnertimes
How important do you consider the following benefits of eating a home cooked dinner
together with your household or friends?
On the face of it these two questions look very similar, yet one deals with the conditions needed
to enjoy dinner while the other focuses the benefits that flow from a dinner done well.
Whether Australians were considering inputs to a successful dinner, or outcomes at its
conclusion, their answers fell into several categories:
• What happens ‘on the plate’ - the quality of food
• What happens ‘over the plate’ - the type and tenor of interchanges
• What happens ‘around the plate’ - the setting and attendees
Looking at the responses around the ‘absolute essentials’ question the leading answers were
emotional ‘over the plate’ responses: no arguments came top (38%), no stress second (37%),
swiftly followed by a readiness to have fun/a laugh (31%) and engaging in conversation (also
31%). Nutritious food (33%) was the only ‘on the plate’ element which featured in the top five,
with hearty food and food that causes no complaints lower down the league table.
23
As a midwife in New South Wales commented, “What matters to me with mealtimes? Being
together. We don’t really care what we’re eating. It’s nice though to still be able to sit with
someone, just have their company.”
Reflecting the focus on laughter and lightness in dinnertime non-negotiables, a slim majority
- 55% - of research respondents do not view serious conversation as an essential dinnertime
feature.
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Dinnertimes
More broadly, while mealtime must-haves focus on emotional behaviours and attitudes,
dinnertime disposables - those aspects not considered important - imply that the best home
cooked meals aren’t always big occasions. Two thirds of our sample can do without eating
outdoors (67%), and a similar proportion (66%) can survive without great wine or more than two
generations being present. A third (38%) can get along without treats and 36% said that it was
not essential for everyone to eat the same meal (36% say this is not essential).
Again, the age, stage and gender of respondents does appear to influence answers across
this question. Older respondents appear to prioritise a lack of arguments : 47% of 4455 and 48% of 55-64 year olds say this is essential, compared to only a quarter (27%) of the
youngest 18-24 age bracket. Overall younger respondents seem less engaged by what’s
on the plate - for example only 17% feel it was critical to have nutritious food against 41%
of those aged 55-64, and there’s a similar apathy around hearty food. Sixteen per cent of the
youngest age bracket place it in the absolute essentials category compared to 31% of the eldest
respondents.
Unexpectedly, it’s the 25-34 age group who appear to be the most concerned with
traditions: 54% said the best home cooked dinners would ideally feature a nostalgic family
recipe (against a sample average of 42%) and 57% say a roast or BBQ is not essential, against
49% across respondents as whole.
24
The statistics indicate that the arrival of children may be the spark that prompts a desire to revisit
familiar family rituals and traditions. Fifty per cent of those with one or more children at home
crave a nostalgic family recipe compared to 36% of those without children living with them. Fiftyeight per cent of those living with children feel a roast or BBQ should sit at the centre of all great
home cooked dinners, versus just 42% of respondents without children.
Mindful
Dinnertimes
Having asked respondents to envision the things which would support a great home cooked
dinner we also wanted to learn how Australian viewed the various benefits of home cooked
meals. Here again, ‘over the plate’ relationship outcomes won out.
25
Figure 4: Important Benefits of Home Cooked Communal Dining
Providing nutritious meals
Opportunity to be together
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Dinnertimes
Spending quality time together
Teach children social skills & manners
Teaching children about health eating
Catching up with family
Helping save money by not eating out
Provide a sense of enjoyment
Discover what’s happening with each other
Improving family/friend relationships
A positive ending to the work day
Provide a daily routine
Talk, be social, engage in conversation
Provide rituals that build relationships
Communication and talking about issues
Provide a variety of meals
Catching up with friends
Discuss topical issues / current affairs
0%
Slightly Important
26
Very Important
10%
20%
30%
40%
50%
60%
70%
80%
90%
100%
Though ‘providing nutritious meals’ heads the list of benefits, both in terms of net importance and
‘very important’, other standout features split our sample.
For example, the fourth and fifth ‘very important’ benefits - ‘teaching children social skills and
manners’ (36% very important) and ‘teaching children about healthy eating’ (35% very important)
are also considered ‘not important’ by a sizeable segment of the population - 24% and 26%
respectively.
Mindful
Dinnertimes
Unsurprisingly, those who have children at home are more likely to recognise the role of
dinnertime in role-modelling positive behaviours: 47% of this group say it’s very important for
embedding healthy eating principles; while 38% of those without children say it is not. Notably,
however, 12% of those with children at home do not believe inculcating healthy eating habits is
an important function of family dinners and 10% of parents do not recognise a benefit in setting
behavioural standards.
Age also appears to modify mealtime attitudes when it comes to identifying benefits that are
‘very important’ as against ‘important’. The oldest respondents, those aged 55-64, were often
almost twice as likely to consider an element ‘very important’ as those 18-24 year olds, from
‘opportunity to be together’ (45% of 55-64 said this was very important, against 24% of 18 year
olds’); to ‘a positive ending to the day (34% versus 17%); ‘quality time’ (41% compared to 25%);
and ‘improving family/friend relationships’ (32% against 19%). The 35-44 year old segment
also declared many benefits ‘very important’, and women over-emphasised every single benefit,
compared to men.
27
Professor Greg Downey
Multiple positive benefits flow from frequent family meals - eating communally can have an
impact on children’s dietary quality, family dynamics and their psychosocial health. Eating together
is symbolic of family cohesion, but it also increases the strength of family ties that benefit
children.
Mindful
Dinnertimes
For example, a recent pooled analysis found that sharing three or more family meals per week
was associated with a 20% reduction in the likelihood of eating unhealthy food and a 24%
increase in the likelihood of eating healthy food in children and adolescent6.
As importantly for me, however, is the data which suggests that families who share meals five
times or more a week suffer less alcohol and tobacco abuse, and fewer depressive symptoms.
As a psychological anthropologist, I look at how culture is evolving and the impact of those
changes on communities and individuals. One wave that appears to be on the horizon is a
decline in the vertical transmission of values, opinions and experiences, as the social rituals
and institutions which have traditionally brought generations together continue to fracture. If or perhaps when - communal worship, festivals, local organisations, even feasts become less
common, in their place may rise a more rigidly age-graded society: where individuals study, work
and socialize in homogenous packs with weakened links to older or young generations. As a
consequence of this shift, individuals risk becoming isolated in worlds walled in to interactions
with people their own age. Not so long ago, we might have predicted this as more of a physical
phenomenon, but already with social media, we see more and more young people struggling
in an online echo chamber. They may fail to escape their peer groups even when they are
in different company: a difficult scenario if you’re a 16 year old caught in a bullying loop, or
suffering from social comparison or a sense of inadequacy. In this context, it’s interesting to see
that younger respondents appear slightly more dismissive of the ‘decompression’ benefits of
dinnertime. This suggests responsibility for sustaining the ritual of shared dinners will remaining
disproportionately with older generations, even if many of the proven benefits are particularly
important for the young.
6Hammons AJ, Fiese BH. Is frequency of shared family meals related to the nutritional health of children and adolescents? Paediatrics.
[Meta-Analysis Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural Research Support, U.S. Gov’t, Non-P.H.S. Review]. 2011 Jun; 127(6):e1565-74.
28
2) Dinnertime practice
Daily dinner data
The first section in the Lifting the Lid on Dinnertime report underscored that Australians view
home cooked dinners as a vital way to connect with friends and family, emphasising that they
value the interpersonal dimensions of shared home cooked dinners as much as their nutritional
benefits. However, though they represent an important emotional anchor for many, others appear
weighed down, while smaller groups - those who dine to refuel or who don’t do dinner at all seem to have untethered themselves from dinner entirely. This untethering may not be through
choice - for example a man we spoke to in Robertson, NSW reported how dinner has changed
for him since the death of his wife - but it is a clear current running through many of our research
responses.
Mindful
Dinnertimes
“My wife used to serve up really good dinners. She would make Yorkshire puddings and
then once we finished the dinner, there was [invariably] some sort of pudding afterwards.
But now I wouldn’t go to the trouble of doing it. … when it’s for yourself…[it’s] hardly
worth worrying about. You just don’t feel as if you want to bother.”
This section begins by briefly looking at who leads cooking at home, and then turns to examine
what is being served up, to whom, when and where.
29
Who cooks?
According to the data we are a nation of cooks: only nine per cent rarely or never prepare
dinnertime meals.
Figure 5: Dinnertime Involvement
Mindful
Dinnertimes
No Meal Maker
9%
Secondary Meal Maker
21%
70%
Lead Meal Maker
A significant 70% of Australians who participated in the report claimed they ‘usually’ prepared
dinnertime meals. Note that ‘usually’ was defined in the research as three meals or more,
meaning there is room in many households for more than one Lead Meal Maker. Sixty one per
cent of men and 79% of women defined themselves as a Lead Meal Maker, compared to 29%
of men and 13% of women who described themselves as Secondary Meal Makers. One tenth of
men and eight per cent of women rarely prepare meals.
30
What we eat
“I’m not a chef or anything. That Jamie Oliver would have a fit to see me cooking this, no
doubt.” – A 60+ year old widower from New South Wales
“If Nigella Lawson ever sees this - oh my God!” – A midwife from NSW
Mindful
Dinnertimes
TV viewing figures, 2015 ratings year
1. State of Origin 2nd Match: Nine
2. Rugby League Grand Final: Nine
3. State of Origin 1st Match: Nine
4. AFL Grand Final: Seven
5. State of Origin 3rd Match: Nine
6. My Kitchen Rules Winner Announced: Seven
7. My Kitchen Rules Grand Final: Seven
8. 2015 Melbourne Cup Race: Seven
9. The Block Triple Threat Winner Announced: Nine
10. AFL Grand Final Presentations: Seven7
If viewing figures are to be believed, there are a few things Australians consume voraciously:
sport, and, increasingly, cooking programmes. In 2015 the highest rating TV show outside of key
sporting Grand Finals was May’s My Kitchen Rules climax, which netted a national average of
more than 2.879m viewers. Do we replicate the cooking extravaganza of our much loved shows
every night, or are our own dinnertime efforts more slowcooked?
Thinking about the last seven days - how many dinners did you have of the following type?
7
ource: The Daily Telegraph (2015), The 2015 winners and losers in Australia’s TV ratings war, http://www.dailytelegraph.com.au/
S
entertainment/sydney-confidential/the-2015-winners-and-losers-in-australias-tv-ratings-war/story-fni0cvc9-1227626622303
31
Figure 6: Dinner Choices
34%
40%
Prepared from scratchSkip dinner
46%
9%
Mindful
Dinnertimes
Sauces, packets or pastes
42%
5%
Leftover home cooked meal
35%
2%
Takeaway
23%
3%
Ready made meal
24%
1%
Dinner out
22%
1%
Snacked & grazed
21%
1%
Just add water option
16%
Leftover takeaways
16%
1%
Skip dinner
0%
10%
1 - 2 times
32
20%
30%
3 - 7 times
40%
50%
60%
70%
80%
Meals prepared from scratch - assembled at home from individual ingredients - are the type most
commonly served in Australia, by quite a margin8. Three quarters had enjoyed at least one meal
prepared this way, and indeed 20% of all those researched claimed to have eaten meals cooked
this way five times or more. By contrast, 27% - a quarter of those surveyed - had not eaten a
meal cooked from scratch once in the research period. This figure is boosted in particular by
those in the lowest income group: 41% of those in households with an income of under $20,000
had not cooked from scratch. A third - 34% - of those who live on their own had not cooked at all
from scratch in the research period, 33% of those who lived in a shared household had not done
so, and, perhaps less surprisingly, neither had 38% of those who lived with their parents.
Mindful
Dinnertimes
Secondary to this were meals given a helping hand from sauces, packets or pastes: again a
majority - 55% - had used these once, a figure especially high in the 25-34 age bracket (64%)
and amongst households with children (65%). This was an approach often reported in interviews
with those who had to cater for children or grandchildren:
“Cooking for a lot, it’s just hard work when they don’t all like the same things. Now, if I
make something the children don’t eat, we’ve always got to get them something different,
so we have the things that everybody will eat.” – A grandmother from Quakers Hill, New
South Wales
Notably, however, when the scratch cooking and sauce/packet/paste categories are combined, a
third of Australians (33%) prepared dinner from basic ingredients five times or more a week.
The older the respondent the more likely they appeared to cook from scratch more frequently for example 36% of 55-64 year olds had created dinner from scratch five times or more; while
only eight per cent of 18-24 year olds, ten per cent of 25-34 year olds and 17% of 35-44 year
olds could claim the same.
8
Research question definition: I prepare from scratch using bought ingredients (no bought sauces, packets or pastes)
33
As might be expected time-saving options like ‘just add water’ meals on the go were more in
vogue amongst younger age groups: a third - 35% - of 18-24 year olds had done this at least
once, and a quarter of 25-34 year olds (27%).
Ten per cent of the sample said they had skipped dinner at least once during the last week. And
again the likelihood of this rose the younger the respondent was, though 6% of 55-64 year olds
Mindful
Dinnertimes
admitted skipping dinner.9
A quarter of Australians had dinners out - RSLs, drive throughs, cafes or restaurants - though for
most (21%) it was just once in the week reported. However it’s an activity not limited to couples
(31%) or younger respondents; 22% of households living with children managed a dinner out in
the research week and broadly speaking a fifth of each age bracket was able to eat out at least
once.
Takeaways were also fairly evenly split amongst age groups and demographics, but ready meals
were most popular among 25-34 year olds, compared to other groups.
9
34
This finding correlates with further results around Skippers, contained in the third Chapter of this report.
Who we eat with
Regardless of the cooking method, a significant 35% of Australians reported that they consumed
a home cooked dinner in the company of family and/or friends every day of the previous week,
and two thirds ate homemade food in company on the weekend.
Mindful
Dinnertimes
This ‘hundred per cent home cooked in company’ camp is split fairly evenly between age groups
(18-24: 13%, 25-34 - 24%, 35-44 - 24%, 45-54 - 22%, 55-64 - 20%), although as Figure
Seven below reveals, household status does appear to determine the degree to which home
cooked happens each day.
Thinking about the last seven days - how many times did you sit down at the table and
eat a home cooked dinner with family/with friends? And on what day of the week were
these dinners?
Figure 7: Household demographics
TOTAL
Single HH
Couples
Family HH
Single Parent HH
Multi-Gen HH
Live with parents
Shared household data
No Days
8%
18%
4%
5%
3%
1%
10%
7%
Everyday
35%
28%
38%
41%
24%
54%
29%
26%
Saturday
62%
52%
69%
68%
51%
83%
54%
60%
Sunday
62%
49%
67%
67%
62%
86%
58%
52%
35
Drilling down further into the data, those households with a total income of between $100$119,000 were most likely to eat home cooked in company every single day - almost half (48%)
reported doing so. However, households with a total income of between $20-$39,999 formed
the second largest percentage group (40%), making conclusions about the impact of income
more difficult.
Mindful
Dinnertimes
There was also some variation between states and social eating patterns:
Figure 8: The State of Social Dinners
50%
45%
40%
44%
40%
36%
32%
35%
28%
30%
25%
20%
15%
10%
5%
0%
NSW/ACT
VIC/TAS
QLD
SA/NT
WA
Having established the frequency of social dining at a high level, additional questions in the
research allowed us to identify how often - and for how long - respondents ate with family and
friends.
36
More than half of respondents - 56% - ate home cooked dinners with family five times or more
a week, while on average Australians shared home cooked meals with their family 4.4 times a
week. Twenty seven per cent - more than a quarter - shared home cooked meals with family
every single day.
Figure Nine: Frequency of Home cooked Dinners
Mindful
Dinnertimes
No Times
10%
Once
54%
4%
Twice
18%
8%
8%
10%
3 times
6%
12%
4 times
4%
15%
5 times
-60%
Friends
-40%
-20%
3%
0%
20%
40%
60%
Family
Having children at home appears to make you more likely to eat with family five times or more
a week with 63% of these types of households eating in this way, compared to 51% of homes
without children.
37
Only ten per cent of the overall sample did not share a meal with family at all - although
inevitably this figure jumps amongst single households to 27%. Interestingly 15% of families with
children had two or fewer meals together with family in the sample week, a pattern echoed by
16% of couples and 36% of shared households.
However, having children at home did not necessarily prevent respondents from sharing dinner
with friends.
Mindful
Dinnertimes
As Figure 9 shows, almost half of the sample (46%) reported having one or more home cooked
dinners with friends in the last 7 days, and though once was by far the most common occurrence
(leading to an average figure of 1.3 times a week across the base as a whole), ten per cent of
households caught up with friends five or more times. When it comes to families with children at
home, a sizeable 12% had dined in the company of friends five times or more, and a third had
eaten with friends between one to three times.
The age group most likely not to have eaten with family or friends at all are the 55-64 age
bracket. Fifteen per cent of this group had not eaten once with family during the research period,
and two thirds - 67% - had not shared a meal with friends. Related to this finding, more than a
quarter of those aged 55+ say that ‘eating alone’ is the best way to describe how they
ate over the past seven days (29% weekdays, 28% weekend) against a national baseline
of 21% reporting they usually ate alone across the seven days of week.
Dinner timings
Are Australians daylight diners or evening eaters? With multiple pressures on the average day from infrastructure problems impacting commute times to extra-curricular activities pushing out
the end of school - we might have supposed that dinner start times would be staggered across a
number of hours, and yet the research indicates that three quarters of Australians started eating
before or at 7pm. In fact, 15% started their evening meal at 5.30pm or earlier. Just six per cent
started eating post 8pm.
38
Further surprises were contained elsewhere in the data, implying that our human desire to
connect is harnessing rather than held back by the demands of everyday modern life. For example,
the study implies that the weekends are no longer favoured days for social dining with family
and friends, with Mondays nudging into the top spot. Almost three quarters (72%) of Australians
reported sharing a home cooked meal with family and/or friends at the start of the week.
Mindful
Dinnertimes
Figure 10: Days We Dine Together
72%
71%
70%
69%
64%
62%
62%
35%
ys
da
o
N
ay
nd
Su
ay
Sa
tu
rd
ay
id
Fr
sd
ur
Th
sd
ne
W
ed
ay
ay
y
da
es
Tu
da
on
M
Ev
er
yd
ay
y
8%
Perhaps because our catch-ups are less frequent, we also linger longer over dinner with friends
than family, regardless of what day we meet.
39
As Figure 11 illustrates:
• The average dinnertime with friends on a weekday was 44 minutes, compared to 34 minutes
with family.
• On the weekend our respondents spent - on average - just shy of an hour (58 minutes) with
friends, compared to an average 45 minutes with family. On weekdays friends still edged
family: we averaged 44 minutes with them and 34 minutes with relatives.
Mindful
Dinnertimes
• Twice as many of us devoted significant time to friends as compared to family. For example,
49% of Australians spent more than an hour with friends at the weekend, compared to 26%
with family, and 31% per cent dined for more than an hour and a half with friends on the
weekend; 14% spend that long with family.
Figure 11: Time Devoted to Dinner
Time Spent Eating Home Cooked Dinner with Friends vs. Family (Weekday)
> 2 hrs
2 hrs
1.5 hrs
1 hr
45 mins
30 mins
20 mins
15 mins
10 mins
5 mins
40%
30%
Weekday (With Family)
> 2 hrs
40
2 hrs
20%
10%
Weekday (With Friends)
0%
10%
20%
30%
1 hr
45 mins
30 mins
20 mins
15 mins
10 mins
5 mins
40%
30%
20%
Weekday (With Family)
10%
0%
10%
20%
30%
Weekday (With Friends)
Time Spent Eating Home Cooked Dinner with Friends vs. Family (Weekend)
> 2 hrs
2 hrs
1.5 hrs
1 hr
45 mins
30 mins
20 mins
15 mins
10 mins
5 mins
40%
Mindful
Dinnertimes
30%
Weekend (With Family)
20%
10%
0%
10%
20%
30%
Weekend (With Friends)
Figure 11 above also illustrates that not all shared dining experiences are slow; indeed the data
implies soul food can be snappy.
• A third of those (33%) who sit down with friends on a weekday spent 20 minutes or less;
around one sixth (17%) spend 20 minutes or less on a weekend.
• Family dinners are also sometimes hurried: 38% spent twenty minutes or less on a weekday;
25% on a weekend. Ten per cent spent 15 minutes or less on a weekend.
41
Where we are eating
Thinking about last week, how many times did you eat dinner in the following locations?
Though many Australians are consistently sitting down with family and/or friends, the research
confirms what many have long suspected: the lounge is competing with the kitchen, with the
kitchen counter physically and figuratively a halfway point for many.
Mindful
Dinnertimes
Figure 12: Dinner on the Move
3%
At work
3%
3%
At a park
At the beach
In the car
5%
On the run
5%
2%
2%
1%
2%
1%
3%
Restaurant
11%
Bedroom
4%
Outside table
14%
7%
Breakfast bar
15%
8%
51%
Lounge / TV
Kitchen table
36%
65%
80%
52%
60%
Weekend
42
1%
40%
Weekday
20%
0%
20%
40%
60%
80%
“We usually sit down at the table for our meals. It’s not a rule we’ve ever set. The children
will have their breakfast in there watching TV, but dinnertime is sitting around the table,
always has been...It’s about getting together.” – A grandmother from Quakers Hill New
South Wales
Mindful
Dinnertimes
On average Australians only eat half of their weekday dinners at any kind of table (kitchen table,
breakfast bar, outside table). The same ratio applies to the weekend, i.e. they only eat one meal at
a table. Notably thirteen per cent ate at an outside table one to three times during our research
window, a markedly hot November. And it seems it may be time to rebrand the Breakfast Bar the
Eating Bar given it was an evening hub for a significant minority of Australians.
When not at a table, it appears many Australians are in the lounge in front of the TV. Half of the
research respondents (51%) ate in front of the TV at least once during a weekday, with 12%
eating TV dinners every single day. That proportion is boosted more by the 55-64 age group than
any other segment: 17% of them ate on the couch five times or more, compared to six per cent
of 18-24 year olds.
In turn, the younger age group appear to have retreated from parental/shared living rooms into
their bedrooms. Almost a third of 18-24 year olds ate one dinner in bed in the week surveyed:
19% of those who live with their parents at least once, and the same proportion for shared
households.
Meanwhile the 25-34 age group was most likely to admit eating on the move: for example, 11%
ate dinner in the car on a weekday at least once, eight per cent at a park and six per cent at
work.
43
Professor Greg Downey
Mindful
Dinnertimes
For many of us the kitchen has changed from a very private space into a public arena, which has
led to two distinct trends with cooking.
Firstly, Australians seem to be viewing social cooking as a kind of demonstration of skill, with
raised expectations all round. The kitchen has taken over from the dining room as the ‘stage’,
and an emerging culinary culture has cued us up to expect a performance in the kitchen. For
example, I do a lot of the cooking in my house. and food preparation occurs at the bench. Guests
sit up snacking on one side; I make food on the other. Although it’s great that the cook gets to be
part of the socialising, it almost feels like I’m a sushi chef at times, and though I like to be close
to my guests, I’m under no illusion I’m being observed. Cooking is part of the entertainment.
That sense of occasional showmanship contrasts with a rise of very casual day-to-day eating and we can certainly see that trend in these results. To my mind that’s not necessarily a risk for
the relationship benefits we know that flow from social dining: it’s not the physical posture of
the table that counts, it’s being together and being present with each other that matters: being
in a circle, seeing each other and having a real exchange. After all, we already know from all the
research that the quality of social connections is the thing that best predicts overall happiness.
Perhaps we are now finally starting to find the freedom to invent new kinds of shared meal rituals
that are emotionally satisfying without being oppressive or anachronistic.
44
3) Dinnertime daze and
dining deprivation
In chapter one we saw how much Australians understand and value the role dinner plays in
facilitating social connection; a theme continued by many of the experts approached during the
preparation of this report.
Mindful
Dinnertimes
However, though the theory is well understood, and the practice of social dining appears alive in
many households, some of the research findings give cause for concern. Dinner appears not to
be delivering for a significant minority of Australians: because they come together surrounded by
distractions, they skip it altogether or their diet is limited.
As we already know, important nutritional and psychosocial benefits accrue when individuals are
mindful about their dinnertimes: both what they eat and how they eat. This final section examines
a range of less healthy behaviours we have called ‘dinnertime daze and dining deprivation’ in an
attempt to connote the risks of sleepwalking, skipping or racing through the evening meal.
45
Distracted diners
Thinking about the last time you ate a home cooked dinner with loved ones, how many
distractions were present that stopped you from relaxing and connecting well with each
other?
Mindful
Dinnertimes
In the previous chapter diners told us that they have drifted away from the kitchen table but
in addition to logging their location the research also asked them to tell us what was taking
place around them as they ate, and to describe whether these stimuli were an impediment to
their relaxation and enjoyment of dinner. Researchers hypothesised that many would report a
‘multitasking dinner’: one in which food shared the focus with other activities, and wanted to
assess whether this ‘surround sound’ experience was resented, or felt to be rewarding.
Figure 13: Dinnertime Distractions
1%
More than
Three or Four
4%
48%
One or Two
46
46%
None
And over the last seven days when you ate at home with family or friends, to what extent
did each of the following distract you?
Figure 14: Dinner Distractions - in detail
Mindful
Dinnertimes
Entertainment
Technology
36%
36%
28%
Anxieties
22%
Arguments with
attendes
17%
Children in general
0%
5%
10%
15%
20%
25%
30%
35%
40%
Activities Which Distracted At All During The Last Seven Days
As Figure 13 shows, only 48% of the population says they were not distracted during their last
meal – or at least not to the extent it prevented them from relaxing and connecting.
Figure 14 shows that a third – 36% - of respondents nominated some form of technology as a
constraint on connecting - from voice calls and texts to checking social media sites and general
internet surfing; and a similar proportion singled out entertainment, a category which includes
video games and watching televised programmes (sport/scheduled/on demand). What’s more,
scheduled TV impacted 27%; on demand programs 13%.
47
Perhaps it may be inferred that the decline of the dinner table when combined with the impact
of TV is making it harder to connect together, when we remember that 51% of Australians ate in
front of the TV at least once a week and Australians only eat half their weekday dinners at any
kind of table.
Arguments with loved ones also had a major impact – one in five said squabbles with
Mindful
Dinnertimes
children, friends and family adversely impacted their dinnertime experience. The younger
groups in the research study were far more likely to report that arguments influenced their
enjoyment of dinner: Almost a third of 35-44 year olds reported squabbles over dinner, 29% of
25-34 year olds and 27% of 18-24 year olds, compared to 17% of 45-54 and just four per cent
of 55-64 year olds. Households with children at home were also significantly more impacted by
disputes: 34% compared to 12% of those with no children. Notably, families with three or more
children were more likely to report three or more distractions: 11% of this group against four per
cent of the base.
Worries distracted over a quarter of the householders surveyed (28%), but this figure was
boosted by a disproportionate percentage of 25-34 year olds: 43% reported being anxious
about at least one of finances, family or work.
48
Sabina, Psychologist.
The dinnertime distraction data is worrying but not altogether surprising. Anxieties afflict many of
those who I see in my clinical work, though the fact that almost half of that 25-34 age bracket
say they suffer them is significant. More broadly, I suspect most of us will feel that technology and
entertainment are creeping into every corner of our lives, and any parent will tell you that eating
with children is not always a recipe for relaxation, especially when they’re young.
Mindful
Dinnertimes
Given the high levels of distraction reported it was interesting to contrast these findings with
some of the data around how long we typically spend with family and friends - the statistics in the
previous section. An average meal with family runs between 34 and 45 minutes (weekday and
weeknight) - with friends it goes even longer - and any way you look at them it’s clear these are
not insignificant amounts of time to be sitting down together.
On the one hand there’s lots to celebrate in the fact so many of us are getting together so
frequently and for so long, but it also sounds a tiny note of caution. The act of sharing a meal
achieves little if we don’t engage effectively when we’re doing it: it’s the manner of the meal as
well as the matter of it.
That’s why it’s so important to plan dinners in a way that makes the very best of your own
household dynamics and individual circumstances, trying to build on what works for you.
To an extent this seems to be happening already: for example many seem to be getting together
at the start of the week when diaries tend to be relatively clear - but if you have footie practice or
a big sales meeting at the start of the week that new national trend is not going to be much help.
It all comes down to your own dinnertime diagnosis and where your boiling points are. If your
own particular problem is screen-based distraction look at how long you’re spending together
and see if shorter meals might help everyone invest more fully in the process; if it’s disputes then
investigate ways to relieve the tension, whether that be silly games when you eat, or different
schedules so that people aren’t as pressured over the plate.
49
And if your diaries simply don’t permit a daily dose of communal dinners - and many don’t, don’t
think you’ve failed. There are a lot of ways you can spread the benefits of shared meals: from
carving out an early bird catch-up with children every weekend, to making shared meals as much
about preparation as consumption. In particular, if you’re struggling with anxiety then sharing
some of the prep or clearing up side by side may provide you with the chance to name some of
your fears in a non-confrontational environment: rather than being eyeball to eyeball over dinner
you are partnering together on a task, which can create a much more positive environment for
conversations. Toddlers do this kind of parallel play and communication naturally, teens respond
to it instinctively, there’s no reason why it shouldn’t work for all members of the family group,
however grown-up they are.
Mindful
Dinnertimes
Whatever your circumstances or concerns, if you want to make a change to your dinner routine
the most important thing is to commit to that change: because behaviour shifts don’t come about
by accident, they come about through intent.
Dinner skippers, snackers and sleepwalkers
Which of the following actions have you done in the last month - and how frequently?
In designing this study researchers anticipated that most participants would have engaged in
some level of ‘unconventional’ eating behaviour over the past month, either through choice or
through circumstance. Just under two thirds (62%) of Australians reported they’d deviated
from traditional dining experiences in some way, indicating that they were unable to make their
dinnertime matter either by circumstance or deliberate choice.
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Figure 15: Dinner Deviations (At All)
18%
Ate a snack for dinner
17%
Skipped dinner
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Dinnertimes
Snacked all day, no full meals
16%
Not eat breakfast, lunch, dinner
16%
Ate dinner for breakfast
12%
Ate breakfast for dinner
12%
Ate same dinner most nights
12%
10%
Inhaled dinner
8%
Ate food from can
Got up in middle of night to eat
6%
0%
2%
4%
6%
8%
10%
12%
14%
16%
18%
20%
At the beginning of this report we provided snapshots of six attitudinal dinner styles dinner:
Dinner Lover, Dinner Desirer, Dinner Dreader, Dinner Fueller, Dinner Apathist and Dinner Skipper.
Three per cent of Australians described themselves as Skippers on a weekday, and four per cent
on a weekend. If the lower weekday figure were applied to the current Australian adult population
it would equate to almost half a million: 472,00010.
10
J une 2015 population stats: total population of 23,781,200 http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/[email protected]/mf/3101.0 and adult (15-64)
percentage of 66.2%: http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/[email protected]/Latestproducts/3101.0Feature%20Article2Jun%202015?opendocument&tabname=Summary&prodno=3101.0&issue=Jun%202015&num=&view=
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However, during the research window ten per cent of Australians reported skipping dinner at
least once in the past week, a figure which rose to seventeen per cent when it came to dinner
behaviours over the past month. These skippers are generally evenly spread across the sexes
and ages, but those adults who live on their own, share or (particularly) form single parent
households are more prone to skipping: when it came to the past month 34% of single parent
households skipped a dinner at least once, compared to 22% of single households and 20% of
shared. Equally, 24% of those in the lowest income bracket - $20,000 - skipped dinner at least
once in the last month. This correlates with the fact that this income group are slightly more likely
to define their relationship with dinner negatively. Five per cent claimed to be ‘Dinner Skippers’,
compared to three per cent of the sample overall; and 17% ‘Dinner Apathists’, compared to eight
per cent of the total.
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Dinnertimes
Looking further at the data, 16% of respondents admitted they had not eaten breakfast, lunch
or dinner at least once in the past month. The same total proportion snacked all day (16%) but
though the frequency patterns look similar in the two categories, only a third of respondents
agreed with both statements, which makes it unwise to assume that those who do not eat formal
meals are instead grazing throughout.
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3%
10%
17%
Called themsleves dinner skipper
Skipped dinner in the past week
Skipped dinner in the past month
Equally arresting is the data that shows 12% of Australians have eaten the same dinner
repeatedly: of which three per cent ten times or more in the past month and one per cent
more than 20 times. Remembering that three per cent scales up to almost half a million when
modelled to the general population it’s clear that limited skills/constrained finances are restricting
the way a significant number of Australians eat in the evening. In this context, it is sobering to
note that 18% of those households with a total income of less than $39,999 (the two lowest
income categories in the research) admitted to eating the same meal repeatedly, and this group
also made up a third of those who’d eaten with little variety ten times or more.
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Dinnertimes
When asked what changes they’d like to make to their dinners, a much higher proportion of the
lowest income group (less than $20,000) said they’d prefer to have fewer meals that had to be
reheated: 17% versus an overall sample of 9%.
Single households also over index in returning to the same meal again and again (22% admit to
this), as do younger respondents: 16% of both the 18-24 and 25-34 groups.
Twenty one per cent of this $20,000 and under income group also admitted eating ‘breakfast for
dinner’ at least once, as against 12% of respondents overall.
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4) Dinnertime directions
The MasterFoods Let’s make dinnertime matter campaign is a three year campaign
investigating the social role of food. Over the lifetime of the program, we intend to collect data
which will allow researchers to assess whether cultural perceptions flow through into consumer
practice, in the process highlighting at-risk audiences and emerging routines.
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Dinnertimes
Our report has shown that Australians do acknowledge the power of food to bring people
together and has emphasised that many households do dine communally: with family and with
friends. That said, for a significant minority dinner is something that is dreaded, repeated, and at
worst, skipped.
In this final chapter, we look at what - if anything - Australians would change, and zoom in on the
responses of a particular group of diners to assess whether their experiences might hold the key
to more mindful dinnertimes for others.
Calls for change
The struggle to stay on top of nutritional recommendations, household finances and time is one
that is enacted every evening in millions of Australian households. As a mother of two from in
Wakeley, New South Wales told us:
“You look at the food triangle but to me it’s not practical - I do the best with what I’ve got
and how I feel. That balancing act - it’s continual.”
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When it comes to our dinner routines, older Australians appear the most content with what’s
on their evening menu: 41% of those who are over 55 wouldn’t change anything, as opposed
to 19% of 18-24 year olds. With 75% of research respondents wanting to make at least some
adjustments Figure 16 below provides a snapshot for the most common substitutions and
switches.
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Dinnertimes
Thinking about home cooked dinners, what would you change if you could?
Figure 16a - Dinner Desires
Healthier Dinnertime Desires
More fresh food
More nutritious food
More hearty food
Eat dinners that haven’t been reheated
0%
5%
10%
15%
20%
25%
Less effort involved around dinner
More time to prepare dinners
Another person cooks more often
Less preparation required
Less thought to choose the right meal
More easy going conversation
55
More fresh food
More nutritious food
More hearty food
Eat dinners that haven’t been reheated
0%
5%
10%
15%
20%
25%
Figure 16b - Easier Dinnertime Desires
Less effort involved around dinner
More time to prepare dinners
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Dinnertimes
Another person cooks more often
Less preparation required
Less thought to choose the right meal
More easy going conversation
0%
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5%
10%
15%
20%
25%
Figure 16c - Harmonious Dinnertime Desires
Everyone would enjoy the same meal
17%
Have everyone at home
17%
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Dinnertimes
17%
Have more fun, laugh more
I cook more often
16%
There are no complaints about the meal choice
15%
Eat at an outdoor table more often
15%
Eat at a kitchen table more often
13%
Spend longer eating together
13%
No TV allowed during dinner
11%
No phones allowed during dinner
11%
9%
Less judgement and criticism
8%
Once or twice during the week
6%
No gaming devices allowed
0%
2%
4%
6%
8%
10%
12%
14%
16%
18%
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The specific calls for change above revolve around all stages of the evening meal - from
ingredient choice and preparation to ‘over the plate’ experience - and in many cases it’s the
demographic detail which tells the most interesting story.
For example, while low household income (less than $20,000) doesn’t appear to have a great
bearing on overall responses11, respondents with the highest household income were markedly
more interested in one ingredient. Time.
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Dinnertimes
• 23% of participants with income of more than $150,000 wanted to spend longer eating
together, compared to 13% of the base
• 27% wanted to eat all at the same time more often, relative to 17% of the sample as a whole
• 29% wanted more time to prepare, as opposed to 18% of all respondents
While a desire for more fresh food was shared relatively evenly amidst respondents between
18-44, it was 18-24 year olds in particular who wanted more nutritious food (31%), while a
quarter of that youngest age group wished to cook more often (26%).
Perhaps linked to this finding, 17% of those who lived in shared households wanted more home
cooked dinners full stop.
To obtain an insight into what was preventing respondents eating more home cooked dinners
with loved ones more often, we also asked Australians to comment on common impediments.
Amongst those respondents who had 0-3 home cooked dinners a week, the most frequentlycited barrier was work schedules (25% blamed these), followed by their household’s varying
commitments and activities (22%) and high fatigue levels (15%). A further 15% told us they did
not feel as if their homes were set up for entertaining, and 13% admitted they had little interest
in adopting a more social routine.
11
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Other than regards the common wish to avoid reheated food, as reported above
More concerning were the 13% who confessed they were too isolated from friends and
family to share a home cooked meal more often, and here it is worth noting that isolation was an
issue shared by a relatively high proportion of those on low incomes across the sample - 22%.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, - 30% of those who live alone told researchers they were too cut off from
family and friends to catch up more frequently, and 14% of 55-64 reported this as a barrier to
more regular shared dinners.
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Dinnertimes
A recipe for contentment?
As our expert digests have already observed, multiple studies have shown the benefits of shared
meals. The impact of communal dinners are more often studied at the unit of families rather
than friendship groups, but here too research has implied a positive impact. And for families the
evidence is overwhelming: even those who came together just once a week were found12 to be
better bulletproofed against a whole range of risks:
• 35 per cent are less likely to experience an eating disorder
• 24 per cent are more likely to eat healthier foods (than if they ate alone)
• 12 per cent are less likely to be overweight
• Four times less likely to be subject to substance abuse
With Lifting the Lid on Dinnertime, the first study in a three year program, the intent of the
research was more to hold a mirror to dinnertimes than model any kind of ‘ideal’ dinnertime
12
Study by National Centre on Addiction and Substance Abuse – Columbia University. 2011, 2012
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behaviour. We wanted to serve up a slice of life as it is lived rather than lecture those who
deviate from particular lifestyles, but reflecting on the results it is clear to see gaps opening up
between those who do have access to regular home cooked dinners and those who don’t.
Those who most frequently eat dinners cooked from scratch five times or more a week - 20% of
those who took part in this research - are:
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Dinnertimes
• More likely to feel strongly connected with their family over shared meals. A third
(35%) rate dinner with family a nine or ten compared to a quarter of the sample as a whole;
equally only four per cent of frequent home cookers reported low connection over dinner,
compared to 12% of those who don’t cook from scratch at all
• More satisfied in their current routines. Just two thirds (62%) wanted to change any
element of their dinners (compared with 75% overall), and the proportions wanting any
particular change are typically lower; for example 14% wanted their dinners to feature more
fresh food, as opposed to 23% of the sample as a whole
• More ‘present’ at dinner. Only 41% say they are distracted, against 52% of the entire
population - perhaps because they are more predisposed to focus on the meal as an end in
itself
• More likely to avoid negative dinner behaviours. 57% of those who ate meals prepared
from scratch ingredients regularly managed to avoid any signs of ‘dinnertime daze’ in the
past month, from eating in bed to substituting snacks for meals. In contrast, only 38% of the
sample as a whole escaped dinnertime daze in the month prior to the research
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Much of these findings might have been reasonably expected: after all, those who habitually
spend time on preparing and providing dinner are likely to do so because they strongly rate its
emotional and physical benefits, and having invested that time up front many might infer they are
more proactive in policing dinnertime distractions.
However, not everyone who ate meals made from scratch five times or more cooked
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Dinnertimes
them: implying that it is exposure to frequent, fresh cooking which is the critical factor in
shaping and forming individual’s mental and physical behaviour. This supports much of
the literature: being party to a home cooked meal is the thing that catalyses a chain of
positive side effects, rather than necessarily cooking it yourself.
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Closing thoughts
Dinnertimes mean different things to different people, but the overriding impression I get from
all this data is the sense that Australians know dinner provides them with one of the best
opportunities to connect and be together, and they’re anxious to make as much of them as
possible.
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Dinnertimes
That’s not to take an apple pie approach to the findings. Clearly there are pressures on particular
groups and at particular times which makes it harder for everyone to access the benefits of
frequently shared food, and those pressures likely in part explain why 75% of respondents
expressed a desire for change. And yet for many those changes need not feel like heavy or hard
work.
When I look at the results as a whole, the word that springs to mind is lightness. The people
questioned wanted less effort, more fun and laughter, fewer arguments. Everyone being home
together. Fresh food, nutritious food, food shared in a manner that satisfies both their physical
and emotional needs.
Though it’s sounds simple enough, as a parent and practitioner I know that ticking all the boxes
can sometimes be a tall order, which is why it’s so important we use these findings to stretch our
thinking about what a successful dinner can be.
We don’t need three courses to connect, sweating over soufflés can sometimes be
counterproductive if scrambled eggs are just as nourishing and appreciated. Indeed sometimes
food can help us find each other without even sitting down at all. Picking up groceries or putting
the veg on is a great way to reaffirm our awareness that our loved ones are busy and show our
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appreciation for what they do, but equally splitting tasks side by side - or simply being in the
same room together - allows us to have the kind of conversations that might be too difficult to
have face to face. Even reducing our number of shared meals can be beneficial if we then come
together by choice rather than by rote.
Ultimately, eating in company is good for the mind as much as the body, and eating is one of the
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Dinnertimes
few behaviours that everyone shares. As more and more people report they feel disconnected
from each other and their communities, mindful dinnertimes may just remind Australians to think
more about how they’re eating, as well as what they’re eating. And that’s got to be an outcome
worth working for.
Sabina Read, Psychologist
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Methodology
This report is based on a qualitative and quantitative research program undertaken by amr
research on behalf of Mars Food Australia for MasterFoods.
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Dinnertimes
Informed by an in-depth literature review of existing reports into Australian dinnertimes, depth
interviews were conducted with academics and practising healthcare professionals before a
survey was designed to investigate the dinnertime habits and attitudes of Australians.
Using proprietary online research panel (the ORU) 1,506 Australians aged 18-64 took part in a
20 minute survey, drawn from a panel of over 300,000. Data was weighted to ABS population
records to provide a nationally representative sample, and researchers were consulted during the
analysis and development of this report.
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About Mars Food Australia:
Mars Food Australia is dedicated to making better food today for a better world tomorrow. Our
team has been creating healthy, tasty and convenient meal solutions for Australians since 1967
through our popular MASTERFOODS®, DOLMIO®, KAN TONG® and UNCLE BEN’S® ranges,
manufactured and marketed from our headquarters in Wyong, Central Coast, NSW.
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Dinnertimes
Let’s make dinnertime matter is a trademark of Mars. ® Registered trademark. © Mars 2016
Acknowledgements
MasterFoods Australia would like to thank Mars Foods Australia General Manager, Hamish
Thomson, for his input into the conceptualisation and execution of this research.
MasterFoods Australia also extends its deep appreciation to Sabina Read, Psychologist,
Dr Rachel Ankeny from the University of Adelaide and Dr Greg Downey from Macquarie
University for their insights and professional input when building the framework for the research.
The development of this whitepaper benefited from the input and support provided by our
partners Clemenger BBDO and Ogilvy Public Relations Australia.
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Dinnertimes

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