mealtimePhoto: National Cancer Institute / Wikimeadia Commons


“There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” Nobody can be sure who said this first – Mark Twain or Benjamin Disraeli – but the quotation remains as valid as ever.

Where government policy is concerned, statistics matter hugely. Not just in presenting policy favourably. Data is also used to inspire strategy. But, of course, as any statistician will tell you – the result you get out, depends on the numbers you put in.

I say all this in relation to a remarkable twist in the way Britain collects statistics.

The Office For National Statistics has announced that, henceforth, it will take very seriously a number which the Home Renaissance Foundation has long felt was unfairly marginalised.

That’s right, from now on the ONS will use the family meal as a key statistic.

Its staff will capture and record the number of families who sit down to eat together three or more times a week.

This data will then feed into the Government’s so-called ‘happiness index’ of GWB – General Well-Being. The GWB, scorned in some quarters, offers an alternative to the strictly financial measurements contained in better known acronyms, such as GDP (Gross Domestic Product).

By looking at contentedness, rather than simply cash, the Government has sought to devise a way of monitoring something arguably far more important than spending power.

And this latest modification takes us a step further.

The new yardsticks, which include family meals, are about finding ways of measuring quality of life, without falling back on data sets which look like they ought to tell us all we need to know (for example, income, free school meals, health) but which often fail to tell us why some families thrive while others fail.

This really amounts to quite a revolution.

Listen closely to the following words: “Eating regular meals with family is…. thought to be an important factor accounting for happiness of children with family life and can strengthen children’s family bonds, sense of belonging and cultural identity.”

“The benefits of eating meals together as a family are also associated with better eating habits, nutritional intake and decreased risk of obesity,” says a press release from the ONS.

The government’s statistical arm goes on to argue that it aims “to capture whether children’s communications with their parents is harmonious and meaningful”.

There seems to be an acceptance here, from Whitehall, that the optimal setting for a nurturing dialogue between parents and children is around the dining table. And, interestingly, they have set the bar high. Not just once a week – but thrice.

The Government’s next step, having decided that family meals are a ‘good thing’, is to incentivise the public to follow through on that policy. And that’s where things get interesting. What is the one thing which makes family meals easier?

Cash? No.

Time? Yes.

You don’t need an Office for National Statistics to know that a family where one spouse is at home is more likely to put on family meals, than one where both parents work full-time.

Joanna Roughton is Media Relations Manager for the Home Renaissance Foundation, a London-based think tank. She was formerly senior editor at Reuters in Hong Kong and Singapore, and head of Foreign News at Sky News in London. This post is reproduced from the HRF’s BeHome blog with permission. 

Joanna Roughton is raising the voice for Home Renaissance Foundation as its Media Relations Manager. Jo was formerly senior editor at Reuters in Hong Kong and Singapore, and Head of Foreign News at Sky...