James Ihaka is a Herald reporter based in Hamilton.

Family meals becoming relic of past

The Oneroa family (clockwise from left) Mapuna, Kevin, Cherie, Eru and Matapia, always eat together. Photo / Natalie Slade
The Oneroa family (clockwise from left) Mapuna, Kevin, Cherie, Eru and Matapia, always eat together. Photo / Natalie Slade

One in five people say they almost never eat with other family members at the dinner table, a survey shows.

The Herald-DigiPoll survey found nearly half (47.5 per cent) of those questioned enjoyed dinner with family at least five times a week, 21.4 per cent said they "almost never" sat down at the family dinner table, while 15.6 per cent said they still found time once or twice a week to share dinner with family, and 13.4 per cent had the evening meal with other family members up to four times a week.

Herald columnist Wendyl Nissen was shocked, saying dinnertime was among the traditions New Zealand was slowly losing.

She, her husband and the child who still lives at home have dinner together every night. On Sundays, the three and the couple's four other children, who have left home, have a family dinner. "You don't realise until it is gone how important it was to the happiness of the family and the happiness of the children," she said.

Nissen said changes in society and work patterns were to blame.

"When you compare it to the old days, like say in the 1950s when you had mum at home and dad at work and home by 5.30pm because we had good transport and no traffic jams, now people are busier because they have to pay mortgages.

"Family time is being eaten up by work time and somewhere around the 80s it became justified to not be with your family if you were working because it seemed a good thing to do."

AUT University lecturer in health and environmental sciences and registered nutritionist Dr Mikki Williden said research showed regular, shared dinners were linked to lower rates of risky teenage behaviour. There was also evidence to suggest shared meals helped to protect pre-teens against developing eating disorders and reduced the risk of obesity.

A 2011 report commissioned by the Families Commission showed about a third of young people shared meals with their families at least seven times a week. The report showed students who had family meals had better family relationships, better communication and more parental support for healthy eating.

Mealtimes a chance for some bonding

There are three main rules when eating at the Oneroa household dinner table: "chew, swallow and then speak".

Cherie and Kevin Oneroa, of Meadowbank in Auckland, make a point of sitting down for their evening meal at the dinner table every night of the week where they try to lay down the law to their four boys, who range in age from 6 to 14.

"We have a list of family rules on the wall and among them are the rules: chew, swallow and speak.

"We try to get the children to speak one at a time, we feed the youngest through to the eldest and we usually say grace before we eat dinner."

The Oneroas are among the 47.1 per cent of New Zealand families who eat dinner together at the table more than five times a week according to a Herald-DigiPoll.

The survey revealed that nearly 22 per cent of Kiwis never or rarely eat at the dinner table and a further 15.6 per cent eat at the table with family members just once or twice a week.

Mrs Oneroa, 41, said the upside of being a stay-at-home mother meant she could always prepare meals and enjoy the time the family had together to share them.

When the Herald visits, oldest son Rainton is at a friend's house but the family are enjoying lamb cooked on the barbecue with plenty of salad and potatoes.

"We usually sit down about 5.30pm but that goes out the window a little during the holidays," said Mrs Oneroa.

"But during the school week we have a set routine where we all sit down and eat together."

Mrs Oneroa said the dinner table was an important place where her children learned some of their social skills. "If you're doing something like eating together the conversation is likely to flow more, you are doing something where you're together and sharing as a family."

- NZ Herald

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