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Dinner time: Should families eat together every night?

Cottage pie "You're not a bad person just because you can't sit around a table to eat every evening," says Andy Bates

Andy Bates, chef and contributor on BBC Two's Food & Drink, makes the case that family mealtime isn't necessary every night.

We all like to be able to sit around a table and eat with our partners, friends and family.

As someone who works in food, and cares passionately about it, it would be bizarre if I didn't want to relax over a shared meal as often as possible. And yes, I understand the importance of family mealtimes to health and well-being, especially for kids. But every evening… really?

Truth is, I'm fed up of being made to feel guilty about not sitting down together every single night.

Newspaper articles are constantly nagging us, and psychologists wag their fingers, making us feel that we've failed as a family if we just can't manage it.

Sure, a study published in the American journal Pediatrics indicates that in families who eat together, the children are 35% less likely to engage in disordered eating, 24% more likely to eat healthier foods and 12% less likely to be overweight.

Feed the family:

Red onion, fennel and chilli tarte tatin

Cook a classic comforting cottage pie

Slice up onion, fennel and chilli tarte tatin

Serve simple papperdelle and meatballs

But another report from Cornell University in the US points out that "family dinners may be part and parcel of a broader package of practices, routines, and rituals that reflect parenting beliefs and priorities".

In other words, the kind of families that eat together are also the kind that do other stuff together - and that is what makes them successful.

So don't beat yourself up - there are other ways to be a good parent or build a good relationship than always eating together. For some of us, daily family meals are just not possible.

If you work shifts, for example, or are often away from home travelling for work, you don't have the option of sitting down together day in day out. It's not your fault, and I believe you shouldn't be made to feel guilty about it.

Take my upbringing. I was born in the 70s and grew up in the 80s, and both my parents had full time jobs.

They occasionally worked late, or Dad would play squash then have a beer after, while sometimes Mum would go to the gym. It meant week nights were usually spent with either Mum or Dad - not both. It was rarely we got to eat together in the evening.

Did this mean I had a less good childhood? No way!

In fact, there were even some benefits. There was always food in the house and Mum would cook a pie (or something equally fantastic) for us to heat up when we got in from school. The result was that my brother and I learnt to be independent.

Plus it gave the folks a little time to themselves and to escape two squabbling brothers who were eating them out of house and home.

What do you think?

Andy Bates and the Food & Drink presenting team

Do you think traditional family meals are still necessary? Join Andy Bates for a live discussion on Monday 10 Feb 21:00 GMT following Food & Drink on BBC Two

As for weekends, on Saturdays my brother and I played football for a village team and I raced for a local BMX club (remember, it was the 80s).

As soon as we got home we were back out on our bikes finding our pals around the village till it got dark. Then later that evening we would eat everything we could possibly get our hands on - there wasn't necessarily a formalised meal.

The only rule that my Mum and Dad laid down was that every Sunday we were expected to sit around the table as a family for a proper Sunday lunch.

It was a three line whip: there was no opting out. My brother and I would push to the very last minute what time we had to be home. Dad would threaten us: "Back by 4pm boys - don't be late or it'll be thrown away."

So we'd rush back on our bikes, only to find that it was always at least another hour before it was ready. But Dad's trick worked every time, and we were home early enough to lay the table, get involved and interact with the whole preparation of a family meal.

Whether the meal was a roast, or the occasional new recipe supplied by "Queen Delia", it was always an occasion. But the biggest treat for me was that there was invariably a proper pudding - rather than the usual fruit.

Although the family meal wasn't every day, there was still a reliable ritual that was important to me - as were the other activities were part of our evenings growing up. It was just as special for my folks to see my brother and I running around a garden like lunatics as it was to see us around a table.

A family meal in the 1950s For many modern families, scenes like this are not possible every day

That's the key. It's about time spent together, not just time spent eating together. Playing outside, exercising, board games - they all count.

Even playing video games. (Yes, video games. Please don't dismiss this. It's not all about killing zombies. A lot of games are puzzle-related and problem-solving.)

All these can be ways families bond, while fitting in with their lives.

You're not a bad person just because you can't sit around a table to eat every evening. Even a snack in front of the telly every now and then, thinking about your day, is not the end of the world.

But why not make a family meal once a week the goal? And I mean family in the broadest sense - housemates, couples, friends, whatever your group is.

Aim for it to be as exciting as possible, of course, and build your own traditions.

Make it a celebration and get everyone involved. Invite them to choose the courses and help cook them.

Have a theme - maybe choosing a different country each week. Whatever rocks your boat. Your family, your choice.

Are family mealtimes still necessary? Join Andy Bates online for a live discussion at 21:00 GMT Monday 10 Feb following Food & Drink on BBC Two, or send in your comments in advance.

Join BBC Food on Facebook and Twitter @BBCFood.

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