Beyond the Normative Family Meal Promotion: A Narrative Review of Qualitative Results about Ordinary Domestic Commensality

Fairley Le Moal, Maxime Michaud, Carol Anne Hartwick-Pflaum, Georgia Middleton, Isabelle Mallon, John Coveney

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

17 Citations (Scopus)
42 Downloads (Pure)


There exists a normative representation of family meals in contemporary Western societies which is promoted as imperative through public health programs, larger discourses and by some studies in the nutritional and public health research fields. Family meals, also called domestic commensality, are represented as convivial events and are associated with positive health and wellbeing outcomes but there is minimal evidence to show they are beneficial for family members and it is not known which aspect of the family meal could be responsible for these alleged benefits. This normative family meal image is based on a representation of the family as a peaceful unit exempt from external constraints. This narrative literature review of qualitative studies of family meals seeks to put forward the underlying premises of this representation and compare it with reports about actual practices. The results emphasize that eating together is still practiced and remains valued by family members, which is in contrast to discourses lamenting the decline of the family meal. However, the valorisation and recurrence of family meals depends on class, gender and cultural positions. There is a gap between the norm of healthy or convivial and achievable family meals, which can reinforce the so-called “mental load” and “emotion work” of those in charge of feeding the family and heighten inequalities within the household. In fact, there are many challenges to family meals which originate from external constraints or are inherent aspects of family life. The results from this review suggest that we should focus on family meals by taking into account the food work surrounding it and focussing on the interactional aspects of family meals. Ethnographic methods allow the researcher to observe the diversities and complexities of commensality as well as family dynamics and, in doing so, could provide more realistic representations of eating within the family.

Original languageEnglish
Article number3186
Number of pages23
JournalInternational Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health
Issue number6
Publication statusPublished - 2 Mar 2021


  • Conflicts
  • Emotion work
  • Ethnography
  • Family meal
  • Health norm
  • Interactions
  • Practices


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