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When I was ‘researching’ the parenting booklet, one of the topics that came up again and again in the responses was the importance of families sitting down to eat together regularly.

Since then I found this article by Richard Corrigan, a London chef, who explains why he is supporting a research project that is looking into the effects of mealtimes on family life and social cohesion.

I have always instinctively felt the truth behind the cliché that the family which eats together stays together. But is that hunch backed up by hard facts or is it a nostalgic dream, increasingly unobtainable in a world where many parents work long and unpredictable hours?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is the introduction to the ‘Meals and Food’ chapter of the parenting booklet:

Eating together, each day, without the TV or computer on, can bring so many blessings to family life. It gives your children time with you, and time with each other. It allows you to listen, to talk, and to share things. It gives rhythm and regularity to each day, and to the week – which is so important for the children. It puts the brakes on the constant rushing of modern life.

Eating together gives space for personalities to grow, for language to develop, for ideas to emerge. It gives a simple way of praying together, if you say grace before meals, and pray in thanksgiving after them. And you make sure that the children are eating well!

This is hard for many people. There are activities after school. Perhaps you have shift-work. The children want to go out or do homework or watch TV. Or the simple fact is that you are not in the habit of eating like this, and it seems like a big hassle to force everyone to sit together. But the long-term benefits are absolutely huge. Regular meals together – or as regular as is possible for you – are one of the keys to good family life.

And here is one of the quotes about how meals depend on tables!

Just having a table is important! Some of the families in our parish didn’t have a kitchen or dining table to sit round for meals at home. We spoke about this in the Holy Communion classes, and helped one or two to get a table. It doesn’t have to be expensive. They came back and said what a difference it made – talking, listening, and sometimes arguing, and then making up; just being together in a way that doesn’t happen if you don’t make time.

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We had a week of silent retreat at the end of last month. Silence, of course, doesn’t mean silence; it means no talking. During meals it meant the clatter of cutlery and the slurping of coffee at breakfast, a selection of classical music at supper, and someone reading to us over lunch – in the monastic tradition.

A pulpit in the refectory of a Carmelite friary in Malta, where a friar would read to the community during meals

It’s very rare, as an adult, that you just sit back (or hunch forward over your lunch) and have someone read to you. One part of the mind is concentrating on the words, and enjoying the language and thoughts and stories. Another part is able to be more attentive than usual to the surroundings, to the senses – the taste of the food, the sheer physical presence of the person opposite you, the sounds of the room and the world outside. And another part of the mind, or perhaps the heart, falls into a semi-conscious slumber, like when you are sitting on the back seat of the car as a child, gazing out the window, as your parents talk about important things you only vaguely understand.

And the soul, somehow, at least in the context of a retreat like this, can be liberated into a kind of domestic contemplation, a stillness that you carry from the chapel into the dining room, that isn’t disturbed by the need to chat over lunch.

It reminds me of the film The Reader (I haven’t read the original novel), where the central part of their complicated relationship is her request to be read to (I won’t give any plot away!). And one of the parents who helped me with the parents booklet gave this simple advice:

Encourage your children to read. Go to the library with them. And continue to read aloud to them, even if they can read well themselves. It gives you an opportunity to talk and learn and grow together. You can usually find a book to read to children of different ages, so your children can be together in this way now and then.

So it’s good to be read to now and then!

Do you have any moments, as an adult, when someone reads to you, or when you are in a group that is being read to? I think it’s quite rare, but I might be wrong.

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I’ve just seen Audrey Tautou’s latest film Delicacy (6/10). The highlight of the trip, however, was to discover that after an experimental period of about three months, Cineworld have finally put the not-so-cheap-but-nevertheless-cheerful pick’n’nix sweet selection back in the foyer.

They made two fundamental mistakes: they went posh, and they went healthy. Instead of the cola bottles, jelly babies, strawberry bonbons, fake-chocolate-covered raisins, pink shrimps, non-Cornish-non-dairy fudge (perhaps this post is getting a bit too confessional for a blog), they created a beautifully displayed posh nuts and healthy dried fruit pick’n’mix counter.

Can you believe it? What a complete misreading of the psychology of cinema, which is about comfort food, returning to the childhood wonder of our first cinematic experiences, eating what is bad for you not just because you like it but because of the added frisson of guilt associated with the transgression itself, the surging highs of an industrially produced sugar hit and the corresponding lows just seven minutes later, the knowledge that you are paying so vastly over the odds per gram of plastic liquorice that you just have to savour it for all it’s worth, and the sheer gastronomic delight of chomping through the panoply of artificial flavours and colours, or of making a single piece of ‘fudge-that-isn’t-really-fudge’ last through the whole of the first act of Citizen Kane.

As if we were going to pay £1.78 for 100 grams of hand-hatched pecan nuts and beach-dried mango strips.

Anyway, the people have spoken, Cineworld has listened, the fruit and nuts have gone, and the technicolour junk is back. The guy at the till told me that no-one was buying them. End of story.

It was worth it as an experiment though. Why? Because it means they finally had to clear out the five-year old sweets that had been sitting at the bottom of the buckets and rising to the top now and then, ready to break your teeth. It’s a sad moment when you relax back into your cinema seat and the purple jelly baby is as hard as a gobstopper and the foam shrimp snaps in your mouth like melba toast. Never again! Well, that’s a bit too hopeful. What I mean is, we’ve got a few months now before the new stock starts to deteriorate again.

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How much do you drink? Per day? Per week? I don’t mean cappuccinos and milkshakes. I mean units of alcohol.

I’m not assuming you are middle-class, but middle-class drinking is the focus of Robert Crampton’s article about the increasing acceptance of moderate-to-heavy alcohol consumption as part of an ordinary British lifestyle. [The Times Magazine, 12 Dec 2010; subscription only]

Over the last few years, alcohol consumption has actually fallen slightly, but not for everyone:

Among the middle-aged and older, and the more affluent, it has continued to rise. And because measuring consumption in the home is harder, and middle-class people tend to drink in their own and each other’s homes, the rise is likely to be higher than recorded.

Anecdotally, certainly, the evidence is clear. Most of my friends drink pretty much every day; the norm is none or one dry day each week. They sink maybe two or three beers or a half a bottle of wine, plus maybe a Scotch or a gin each night, sometimes more, in the week; then more, sometimes a lot more, at weekends. And then you’ve got holidays, special occasions, obviously the Christmas party season, already well under way.

We’ve come a long way from when we were kids in the Seventies and the booze stayed in the sideboard, a luxury that came out with the best crockery two or three times a year. To be middle class in Britain now is to drink, often rather a lot.

What’s the effect of all this drinking?

You get fat: I put on half a stone just in August. You sleep badly, either not enough or far too much. After a big, marquee night, a 20-unit extravaganza, you can lose a whole day to a hangover. Even at 11am, your wife is shushing the children because daddy’s not feeling well.

You make bad decisions. You get grumpy. You slur. You fall off your bike late at night. You have conversations with strangers you then can’t remember – the conversation or the stranger. Some people take advantage of your drunken generosity. You send e-mails and texts you probably shouldn’t send. And it costs you, what? Depending on where and what you’re drinking, 50 quid a week? Eighty quid? One hundred quid?

Why do people drink more? Everyone will have their own personal story, but Crampton thinks the bigger cultural changes have had a significant influence.

I grew up thinking heavy drinking was like gambling, something some idle rich people did and some deluded poor people did, not something those of us in the middle did. Or if we did do it, we felt bad about it. I think that was the way of it for most middle-class people my age, irrespective of religion or politics.

My parents had grown up in a mid-20th-century Britain constrained by war, rationing, lack of money and the residual influence of church or chapel. In mid-century, the country drank less than one third of what it had drunk in 1900, and just over one third of what it would drink in 2000. But even as I imbibed the idea that regular, let alone heavy drinking was at best strange, at worst sinful, the reality on the ground was shifting. By the time I turned 16 in 1980, the country was drinking twice as much as it had when my dad had turned 18 in 1950. And for the first time, a significant measure – about 15 per cent – in the national cocktail was wine, the middle-class tipple.

In the 30 years between my 16th birthday in 1980 and my 46th this August (three champagnes, two white wines, two margaritas, one red wine, one pint of Guinness) we have got richer and booze has got cheaper. Any religious restriction on drinking has all but evaporated. Foreign travel – and thus access both to even cheaper booze and an agreeable, vinocentric culture – is routine. Working hours are more flexible. Food is about 100 times better: there is far more incentive to combine a bottle of wine with what we eat in 2010 than with what we ate in 1980. The middle class has all but abandoned one vice, smoking, and adopted another, alcohol, in partial replacement.

I think something else has changed in Britain in those years, too, something less tangible. The middle class – even the strait-laced section I hail from – has learnt to value sensual pleasure in a way that would have seemed almost immoral to many even 30 years ago. And what more easily available sensual pleasure is there than drink?

Thirty years ago, at some level, we thought drinking, not just heavy drinking, was wrong. We don’t think that way any more. But maybe we should. Not all the time, four or five days out of seven would do the trick.

Crampton is not a puritan – that’s what makes his article so interesting. He just wishes we could find some balance and moderation. He wants us to recognise that there is a downside to our increasing dependence on alcohol. And he wants us to be more honest about the desires and needs that drive us to drink in the first place, and to ask whether we could meet them in other ways that would be equally fulfilling.

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As you know by now, I try to avoid reading the plot summaries in film reviews. So it was a delight, as a novice blogger, to discover that Julie & Julia is about someone who starts a blog.

We jump back and forward between two lives. We see Julia Child discovering the wonders of French cooking in 1950s Paris, longing to publish her own account of these recipes in English for the American market – an account that was eventually published as the hugely influential Mastering the Art of French Cooking. And two generations later we see Julie Powell, who vows in August 2002 to create all 524 of Child’s recipes in one year, and blogs about her efforts. The blog is still online, and here is her first post.

Masterin' by chrisfreeland2002.

In the dramatic structure of the film – two parallel lives, mirroring each other, full of connections and echoes – we are meant to see Julie’s blogging as the contemporary equivalent of Julia’s writing. Communication and self-expression have now taken a digital form. But what’s so interesting is that the ‘contemporary’ blog is really a means to a much more traditional goal: a book deal. Julie’s dream (in the framework of a romantic comedy), is not to get her man – she is already married; it’s not even to be a successful blogger – the hits start coming in pretty quickly. It’s simply to be recognised by the journals and published as an author.

So the film, based on a true story, has its own take on that continuing discussion of whether the internet and the blogosphere have more significance in contemporary culture than the traditional mainstream media. It shows that however successful someone is in the virtual world, there is a continuing allure in the printed word – newspapers, magazines, books. You could even call it a romance – at least for those old enough to have grown up enchanted by books, like Julie. But this was five or six years ago already; and I wonder how differently the story would play out today.

[As a film, it was patchy. Funny and moving in parts, but much of it feeling like a well produced sit-com. If you want someone to persuade you to see it, there is a glowing review of the film here.]

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