In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Family Meals

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Relevant Journals
  • Family Meals and Health and Wellbeing
  • Family Meals, Nutrition, and Diet Quality
  • Family Meals and Obesity
  • TV Viewing during Family Meals
  • Family Meal Intervention Studies
  • Family Meals and the Governing of Families
  • The Decline of Family Meals
  • The Anthropology of Family Meals
  • Family Meals and Other Health and Wellbeing Outcomes
  • New Research Directions in Family Meal Research

Childhood Studies Family Meals
Valeria Skafida
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 February 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 February 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0250


Family meals have been the focus of a substantial body of research and are considered important key events in everyday family life, both socially and nutritionally. Academic scholarship on the family meal has come from a range of different disciplines, including anthropology, sociology, social policy, nutrition and dietetics, and public health. This paper provides scholars with an overview of the key themes emerging from academic interest in the family meal. Family meals have been looked at in relation to a vast range of different factors. Studies have explored the correlation between family meals and general health and wellbeing, and family meals have at times been portrayed as a panacea for a multitude of social and dietary ills. Within the epidemiological and public health literature, studies have often explored the link between family meals and nutritional quality and obesity, though systematic reviews of such literature suggest that the evidence for a causal protective effect is weak and inconclusive. There are also intervention studies which have sought to influence health outcomes by changing aspects of family mealtimes. While these types of studies dominate the existing literature, scholars will also find studies exploring the relationship between family meals and other factors, such as TV viewing, eating disorders, substance abuse, academic and behavioral outcomes, and emotional wellbeing. Family meals have also been a key academic interest among social scientists who have typically pursued different research questions. For example, scholars have looked at how the family meal can be and has been a vehicle for the governing of families, and how family meal discourse has moralized maternal feeding work. Sociologists interested in the family meal have also often written about the changing nature of family meals over time, and have debated the alleged “decline” of the family meal. Anthropologists have explored family meals in relation to themes such as culture, tastes, and the structuring of mealtime socialization, among many others. What can be concluded from this introduction, and from this entire paper more generally, is that family meals have captured the imagination of scholars across the disciplinary spectrum, that researchers have sought to understand how family meals relate to, are shaped by, and affect a very broad range of other factors, and that the overview provided here is not exhaustive.

General Overviews

“Family meals” is a commonly used term in academic research, but relevant work has also used terms such as “commensality,” “foodwork,” and “food sharing practices,” to name a few. Scholars interested in learning more about family meals research would stand to benefit from two very relevant Oxford Bibliographies entries: see the separate Oxford Bibliographies article Food as well as the Oxford Bibliographies in Sociology entry DeSoucey 2020. Both of these contributions point readers to a number of key texts, articles, and resources which would be of interest to those researching family meals. Summarized in this section are a handful of key resources which could be thought of as pillars of social science research on family meals. These include Douglas 1972, which was one of the very first academic articles to provide an in-depth analysis of the “meal” as a process of anthropological interest and relevance. Certeau, et al. 1998 emphasized practices of everyday resistance and rejected notions of passive consumerism. Another notable French contributor to this field is Pierre Bourdieu (see Bourdieu 1984), who distinguished between the functional nature of working-class meals compared with middle-class meals, which stressed form over function. Some of these themes were developed extensively in Charles and Kerr 1988, which was one of the first sociological investigations to look at how family meal practices are engrained in social factors such as gender, age, and class in the UK context. In this regard, good introductory sociological works include the edited collection Murcott 1983, and Murcott’s subsequent monograph (Murcott 2019). The latter of the two covers a range of topics, not all of which relate to family meals alone, but includes a chapter questioning the decline of the family meal. Caplan 1997 is also a key contribution in the sociological literature on family meals. Among the relatively more recent publications, Jackson 2009, an edited collection of interrelated papers, takes food as the lens through which to observe changes in family life and examines how changes in family form had affected patterns of food consumption in the United Kingdom. Partly drawing on data from the same study as Jackson, James, et al. 2010 is a very good resource to explore how children’s identities are constructed through the processes of food and eating. The more recent O’Connell and Brannen 2016 is another interesting exploration of changing meal habits and focuses on children across the childhood spectrum and is thus one of the few textbooks to explicitly focus on temporality and change over time.

  • Bourdieu, Pierre. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1984.

    Bourdieu developed among other things the concept of habitus, which is often referenced in sociological literature on family meals. He argued, in this contribution and subsequent ones which he authored, how social, economic, and cultural capital manifest themselves in the preferences and habits around food consumption of different social classes.

  • Caplan, Patricia. Food, Health, and Identity. London and New York: Routledge, 1997.

    This collection of papers is a key contribution to the family meals and food sociology literature focusing on the UK context. Several papers would be of interest, especially the contribution by Anne Murcott, which was one of the first instances in which the family meal as an event potentially in decline is discussed.

  • Certeau, Michel de, Luce Giard, Pierre Mayol, and T. J. Tomasik. The Practice of Everyday Life. Vol. 2. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998.

    The authors used in-depth interviews with ordinary individuals, mostly women, to explore their routines around cooking and homemaking. This seminal book ultimately demonstrated how people engage and negotiate their way in the consumption process, exercising resistance where necessary, thus rejecting the idea of passive consumerism.

  • Charles, Nickie, and Marion Kerr. Women, Food, and Families. Manchester, UK, and New York: Manchester University Press, 1988.

    This book is of relevance to family meals scholars as it seeks to understand the role that women play in the family meal process, and the book focuses extensively on how family meals are part of the larger apparatus of social reproduction of ideologies, cultural norms, and values.

  • DeSoucey, Michaela. “Food.” In Oxford Bibliographies in Sociology. New York: Oxford University Press, 2020.

    Any scholar interested in family meals should acquaint themselves with this entry, which is an excellent and comprehensive overview of the sociological literature and themes on food. Thus, this entry would aid the formation of a broader foundation around the sociological study of food which a family meals scholar would benefit from.

  • Douglas, Mary. “Deciphering a Meal.” Daedalus 101.1 (1972): 61–81.

    In her article, Douglas defined and categorized meals as structured and unstructured food events and sought to understand what the elements are of each type of food event. She discussed how meals are a symbolic ritual process intrinsically tied into broader cultural values and norms.

  • Jackson, Peter, ed. Changing Families, Changing Food. Houndmills, UK, and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.

    “Changing Families, Changing Food” was an interdisciplinary research program funded by the Leverhulme Trust. The project’s aim was to explore how food consumption had changed in the United Kingdom, focusing on pregnancy and motherhood; childhood and family life; family meals; family and community.

  • James, Allison, Anne Trine Kjørholt, and Vebjørg Tingstad, eds. Children, Food and Identity in Everyday Life. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.

    This book draws heavily on a childhood studies perspective, and could be considered a must-read for those who have navigated their way to this specific entry. This work is interesting not only for the substantive contribution it makes regarding the social construction of children’s identities through food and eating, but also for its methodological innovation into how to appropriately capture these aspects of children’s lives.

  • Murcott, Anne. Introducing the Sociology of Food & Eating. London and New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2019.

    DOI: 10.5040/9781350022058

    This book is promoted as an introductory textbook for students in sociology and food studies. In one chapter discussing the alleged decline of the family meal, the author reflects on how despite the lack of evidence of such a decline, the moral panic among some family meal scholars persists, and is likely to be exaggerated.

  • Murcott, Anne, ed. The Sociology of Food and Eating: Essays on the Sociological Significance of Food. Gower International Library of Research and Practice. Aldershot, UK: Gower, 1983.

    Though this is a collection of essays which covers a very broad range of topics around food and eating, it is one of the earliest sociological analyses of food which also touches upon eating practices within the family, the morality of diet and food choices, and working-class perspectives on food and health.

  • O’Connell, Rebecca, and Julia Brannen. Food, Families and Work. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016.

    DOI: 10.5040/9781350001817

    This is a book looking at a range of interesting topics related to the family meal, such as children’s agency in what they eat and the family meal among working families. It is unique in drawing on quantitative and qualitative evidence in equal measure.

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