Dinner time: WHY do we eat HOW we eat?

Many social determinants influence the production and consumption of family evening meals in present day Australia.(1) Determinants are simply traits or factors that bring about a (positive or negative) change.(1) The realm of social determinants of health is numerous and complex as these factors rarely exist in isolation.(1,2) The most commonly identified social determinants of health include (but are not limited to) gender, ethnicity, wealth and education.(1,3-5) Collectively, the entanglement of these social factors further complicates the identification of how family evening meals are shaped and influenced. Furthermore, the influences on food choice, behaviour, preparation and consumption are constantly changing and exhibit a complex interaction.(1,4,6) Therefore, to understand the social factors which influence family evening meals in Australia, attention must be given to the way evening meals have been socially shaped and transformed over time.(1,2)

Meals, globalisation and family meal structure
The definition of a meal has been increasingly difficult to define.(2-6) Furthermore, it is much harder to differentiate between a meal and a snack today as opposed to a few decades ago.(2) In the past, meals were structured around morning, noon and night, breakfast, lunch and dinner respectively and snacks were foods that were grazed in between meals.(7) But in present day society, although meals are still generally defined as breakfast, lunch and dinner, what constitutes a meal is less distinct. People define what constitutes as a snack and what forms a meal therefore, this definition is highly subjective.(7) The development of globalisation – from a greater movement of people and goods through to trade and food commodities between and within countries – has rapidly formed and redefined present-day consumerist society. Evidently, this has translated into the way Australians acquire, prepare and consume foods.(2,7) Australians are now exposed to an ever-increasing amount of diverse food choices, reflecting historical (popularity of red meat) and recent influences (Asian cuisines).(7) As a result, people can eat what they want, when they want, where they want.(2) Less time needs to be spent on planning and preparing for the day’s meal compared with a few decades ago.(2,4,5,7) As a result, few Australians actually plan what they will consume for family evening meals and usually improvise with ingredients that are readily available (either in the kitchen pantry or local supermarket).(7) Nonetheless, research shows that majority of Australian families still follow a distinct 3-meals-a-day pattern most days of the week, and large Sunday lunches are very popular.(7)

How social circumstances influence family meal time
The social circumstances of families greatly impacts their ability to acquire prepare and consume food. Employment, family structure, and culture are a few examples that (directly or indirectly) exert significant influence on what a family consumes for dinner.(1-8)

It is obvious that employment, income and socioeconomic status come hand in hand when deciding what foods to purchase.(3,4) As an example, for young families where both parents engage in full-time employment, preparation of family meals is limited by time constraints.(4) Therefore, evening meals tend to be those that are convenient and easy to prepare.(4,7) Workplace pressures may also indirectly affect preparation and consumption of family evening meals.(4) People who work long hours or engage in stressful work environments may be less motivated to spend much time cooking dinner and opt for easier-to-prepare, less time-consuming options like simple family favourites (steak and vegetables, lasagne, spaghetti bolognaise).(2,4,7) This is the case for many Australian women.(7)

The financial status of families indirectly influences acquisition, preparation and consumption of family evening meals.(4) Socioeconomically disadvantaged families must consider the cost of a meal and weigh up whether quantity or (nutritional) quality is more important.(3,4,7) Research shows that socioeconomic status affects food purchasing behaviour.(3) That is, socioeconomically disadvantaged people (who are less financially capable) have reduced tendency to purchase healthier foods.(3) A study conducted in Brisbane, Australia found that people residing in low socioeconomic areas had less access to major supermarkets and healthy food options compared to those who reside in socioeconomically advantaged areas.(3) Also, where healthier options are available, they are generally limited in choice and more expensive than less healthy food options.(3) Therefore, even if socioeconomically disadvantaged families intend to provide healthy, nutritious meals for their families, their ability is stymied by social factors like finance, accessibility, and availability.(2-4)

It is interesting to note that family meals are often dictated by the food preferences of children.(6) This was not the case once upon a time, when children simply ate what was placed before them.(6) The recognition of children’s opinions in post-war families have dramatically revolutionised the structure of family meal times.(6) An independent survey found that the old ‘eat your vegetables and you will get dessert’ line that parents once used to encourage children to eat their vegetables has become somewhat redundant as children are becoming increasingly ‘spoilt’ and given what they ask for.(6,7) Some would argue that this is only a result of poor parenting skills, but the increased recognition of problematic ‘fussy eaters’ (children) in many families suggests otherwise.(6) Furthermore, it is suggested that the privilege of children possessing freedom of choice in family meal time may dictate what the rest of the family consumes.(6)

Cultural values in different ethnic groups add to the existing complex relationship between multifaceted social factors and Australian family evening meals.(9,10) Cultural values encompass what people believe, expect and perceive is right behaviour.(9,10) Culture also influences individuals to live their lives and spend their time in certain ways.(6,9,10) Australia is a multicultural country where people represent diverse ethnic backgrounds. Evening meals have different meanings to different cultural groups. For some, evening meals are a time when the family gathers together to share stories about their days, their struggles and triumphs; for some it is a social occasion; and still for others evening meals are merely a time to gather and eat (in silence). Certainly, the existence of many different cultures in Australia has influenced the way Australians prepare and consume food.(7,9,10) Appreciating cultural diversity has led (most) Australians to be more accepting (some would say tolerant) of different cultural practices and cuisines and encouraged the exploration of different styles of cooking methods.(7) For example, the social exposure and acceptance of many Asian cuisines have made stir-fry meals a popular choice for many Australian evening meals.(7)

Meal preparation: whose job is it anyway?
The role of a woman and man when it comes to food purchasing and preparation is controversial.(2,6,8-10) Traditionally women were viewed as home makers and servers and men as providers for the family.(11) The provision of meals for the family is an important female role within family ideology.(11) Though there has been some change in gender roles regarding food preparation, it seems that this social ideal remains symbolically significant among Australians.(7,11) A survey conducted in 2009 by Meat and Livestock Australia(7) (MLA) found that in Australia, 76% of meal preparers were female and 24% were male. Aside from the traditional view, food purchasing and preparation became the responsibility of women because women were perceived to be more skilled in shopping and cooking, while men are assigned a supportive role.(2,6,7,9,11) Regarding food preparation, some meals are seen as befitting to ‘men’ to prepare such as barbeques and specialities.(2,7) However, these social norms are changing with the increased notion of egalitarianism.(2,7) With more women returning back to work after childbirth, there is more pressure for men to share the responsibility of food purchasing and preparation.(2) Evidently, there is a shift in perception of the traditional social norm that the kitchen is a woman’s domain.(2,7,11)

Food preparation gender differences also exist in terms of values, attitudes, understandings and beliefs about food.(2) Traditionally, women are associated to be rational while men are described as hedonistic.(2,11) Hence, women are assumed to be more knowledgeable and have greater awareness about nutrition and health than men. Consequently, food purchasing and preparation remains a heavily gendered issue and still appears to be a female dominated domain.(2,7,9-11) Research shows that in the present day, many women unwillingly adopt this traditional view and exercise the function of being the primary meal preparer in the family.(2,7) This exemplifies the power of socially constructed ideals through time.

Women – the gatekeepers of the family
The Gatekeeper concept(11), developed by Kurt Lewin in the early 1940s has become a fundamental theory in the field of nutrition. This theory came to be from an experimental program that tried to alter the food purchasing habits practiced by women. The Gatekeeper concept assumed the common societal view around that era that women possessed the control over the flow of goods, in particular food, into the household. Lewin described that food prepared and eaten by the family comes from ‘channels’ like the refrigerator, grocery store, and garden. The gatekeeper has control over the selection of channels and what food flows through them. Furthermore, Lewin argued that by understanding this concept, one can appreciate why people eat what they eat. Through a series of logical deductions, Lewin finally concludes that women are gatekeepers. Though food preparation has moved from the traditional role of the ‘housewife’ to a more shared responsibility in recent years, there is no doubt that society still adopts the view that women are the gatekeepers of the family.(2,6,7,9,11) Regardless of socioeconomic background, race, ethnicity or age, food purchasing and preparation remains a woman’s task.(2,3,7,9-11)

The factors that influence food preparation and consumption are numerous, complex, and constantly changing. Food preparation and consumption patterns in Australia can be seen to be greatly influenced by many overlapping social determinants. Furthermore, cultural values, gender differences and social expectations construct these changes.


1. Reidpath DD. Social determinants of health. In Keleher H, Murphy B (eds). Understanding health: a determinants approach. Oxford University Press: South Melbourne. 2004;9-22.

2. Lake AA, Hyland RM, Mathers JC, Rugg-Gun AJ, Wood CE, Adamson AJ. Food shopping and preparation among the 30-somethings: whose job is it? British Food Journal. 2006;108(6):475-85.

3. Turrell G, Blakely T, Patterson C, Oldenburg B. A multilevel analysis of socioeconomic (small area differences in household food purchasing behaviour. J Epidemiol Community Health. 2004;58:208–215.

4. Baxter J. Flexible work hours and other job factors in parental time with children. Social Indicators Research. 2011;101(2):239-42.

5. Campbell K, Crawford D. Family food environments as determinants of preschool-aged children’s eating behaviours: implications for obesity prevention policy – a review. AJND. 2001;58:19-25.

6. Coveney J. The government of the table: nutrition expertise and the family social organisation of family food habits. In Germov J, Williams L (eds). A sociology of food and nutrition: the social appetite. 3rd edn. Oxford University Press: South Melbourne. 2008;224-42.

7. Meat and Livestock Australia. 2009. Last night’s dinner. [updated 2009; cited Apr 2013]. Available from: http://www.mla.com.au/files/03568389-bbee…/Last-nights-dinner.pdf.

8. ABS [internet]. 2006. How Australians use their time. [updated 20 Feb 2008; cited Apr 2013]. Available from: .

9. Kemmer D. Tradition and change in domestic roles and food preparation. J Sociology. 2000;34(2):323-33.

10. Lupton D. ‘Where’s me dinner?’: food preparation arrangements in rural Australian families. J Sociology. 2000;36:172-86.

11. McIntosh WA, Zey M. Women as gatekeepers of food consumption: a sociological critique. In Counihan C, Kaplan SL (eds). Food and gender: identity and power. Taylor and Francis: Italy. 1998;132-50.


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