A lockdown silver lining has been that more families are sitting down for meals together – Professor Marylyn Carrigan

New data from the Soil Association’s annual market report suggest sales of organic fresh vegetables rose by 15 per cent and meat and fish by almost 17 per cent during the past year.

Family meals, once common, have declined in recent years but the lockdown has seen a resurgence and there are considerable benefits (Picture: Doreen Spooner/Keystone Features/Getty Images)

Sales of organic “store cupboard” staples also grew by nearly one-fifth, as shortages of canned and packaged goods fuelled anxieties around household food supplies.

Of course, these changes in eating habits must be viewed in the context of a pandemic that has forced a wider shift in a whole range of consumer behaviours, with people cooking at home more often, reflecting upon the nature of the food they eat, and reappraising health, well-being and lifestyles.

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While organic food is often preferred by parents for children, there is a more fundamental manifestation of our shifting eating habits during the pandemic, and one that may have an even more transformative impact on our children. It is the greater regularity with which families are gathering around a dinner table.

The idea of sitting together to eat an evening meal in our previous busy lives was pretty much unthinkable for many. As school runs, office commutes, post-work social events, and leisure pursuits have all but disappeared, parents and children are spending more time together and, in family-holiday style, much of this is spent discussing and deciding what to eat.

The new structure of life during lockdown has meant, for many of us, dinner has become the highlight of the day, with more effort going into sourcing, planning and cooking food.

For some time now, researchers, therapists, and family support organisations have understood that regular family meals provide a wide range of physical, social, emotional and academic benefits. Coming together with loved ones to eat is good for the mind, body and spirit. That meal need not be a labour-intensive, fine-dining, organic feast, the simple act of sitting down together and sharing food, however plain and unfussy, is incredibly worthwhile.

Research has proved that communal eating increases social bonding and feelings of well-being, helps people feel better about themselves, and provides us with social and emotional support.

Parents anxious about the damage being done to their children from school closures and their own frantic attempts at home teaching should take comfort from the fact that family meals help boost children’s conversational skills.

Indeed, regular mealtimes are a better predictor of high achievement than many of the other activities our young people are currently denied. Even teenagers’ performance is boosted by communal dining and they are less likely to participate in harmful behaviours as a result.

Children who eat with their parents also experience less stress, so as much as it can often feel like a battle to coax youngsters away from their screens, sharing a daily meal is one means of mitigating the disruption and chaos they’re experiencing every day.

Whether the menu is burger and chips or organic quinoa and avocado is a question for another day. The key takeaway, if you’ll excuse the pun, is that by eating it together and talking while we do, we can create healthy relationships as well as healthy diets, and stronger bonds as well as stronger bodies. If you are desperately searching for positive byproducts of Covid restrictions, look no further than the organic growth of family meals.

Professor Marylyn Carrigan, Edinburgh Business School

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