In researching the attitudes of 11 to 12-year-old rural children and their families, we have found that a potent symbol of domestic wellbeing remains "the proper dinner".
Our data, drawn from ten family interviews with children and their parents and 25 children interviewed at school, reveal that this idea of "the proper dinner" comprises not only what is eaten but also how it is consumed.
One boy commented approvingly: "My mum always makes a really nice meal at night, like a proper meal with everything in it." For others, families sitting down to eat together regularly for "proper dinners" was seen as demonstrative of "proper family life".
However, providing food on a daily basis that enables everyone to eat together poses practical problems that different families negotiate in different ways. In some, the mother, who is almost always the cook, may try to accommodate the individual likes and dislikes of family members by, for example, cooking only a limited range of food - "Mum knows what we like, so she cooks what she knows we like" - or by adapting the meal to suit particular food preferences. One mother said: "Most of the time, we try to fit into it so that people will like it. For example, last night there was onion gravy and we know that Billy likes not to have onions, so you just scoop the gravy out without the onions. So we try to compromise wherever possible."
In other families, however, children's likes and dislikes may be less readily accommodated to achieve eating together as a family. Thus: "I just don't give up. If they don't like it they can leave it, but it still gets put on the plate."
Here, eating more or less the same food as other family members becomes part of "doing family". In such contexts, the moral credit goes to children who try different foods - "He's been very good, he was never fussy and he always tries things" - and it is interpreted as a sign of children's participation in family life more generally. Even in those families where the ideal of a proper family dinner can only ever be achieved at weekends, this does not diminish its symbolic appeal.
In only one family we interviewed did parents and children routinely eat separately. However, the mother's justification for this acknowledged that it might imply a lack of family togetherness. She blamed the lack of family meals on the children's desire to be doing other things outside of family life. And while in a few other families children were also allowed to opt out of the family meal if they did not like what had been prepared - they made a snack or sandwich to eat later - for most of these rural families eating a "proper dinner" together remains a familial ideal to which they aspire.
Allison James is professor of sociology at Sheffield University.