Increasing numbers of families are defying reports that they are leading fragmented lives and meal times, and choosing to eat together. Increasing numbers are also living in multigenerational homes.’s Bernice Hurst explores the implications of this trend for food manufacturers when families want to live and eat together.

With all the recent press coverage about individuals taking responsibility for their own diets, and parents having responsibility for instilling good eating habits in their children, there is one trend whose significance and implications have not yet been widely explored.

Most consumers living in the UK are aware of the high cost of housing and the difficulty that young people are having in gaining a foothold on what has been dubbed the “housing ladder”. It has also been noted that, as a result, many more young people are either sharing accommodation with groups of their peers, or even returning to the family home.

The link that has not yet been drawn is the impact this situation could have on present and future shopping and eating patterns. Young people who may have left home and learned to fend for themselves are once again depending on parents to provide nourishment. Mothers who may be working themselves and were adjusting to empty nests, are now re-adjusting to playing maternal nurturing roles. Where the son or daughter of the family has married, and perhaps had their own child, the logistics of merging two households into one are even more complex.

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When two, three or more lives come together in one residence, albeit at different times of the day and night, how can food manufacturers and retailers cater for such a wide selection of needs? Even products targeting multigenerational families can encounter problems, for example, the RDA listed on the package may vary for the different age groups.

Those in their middle years meanwhile are often caught between both older and younger generations. As elderly parents become too frail to fend for themselves, but too independent to be forced into nursing homes, their children may take responsibility for everything from personal care to shopping, cooking and feeding. At the other end of the scale, grown children (with or without partners and children of their own) may share their parents’ home because they can’t afford to buy their own. So instead of feeding one or two adults, middle-aged homemakers may be feeding three or more, from up to four different generations – all busy, and with different schedules and eating preferences.

The medium- or long-term effect of this may be a return to extended family situations. If young adults live with their parents in the homes and towns of their choice, the chances are that they will eventually move into their own homes in that same area rather than moving further afield. As the parents age, the children will be more available to look after them. In the meantime, the parents are available for childminding duties. The number of grandparents looking after their grandchildren, and presumably feeding them during the course of the day, has increased in both the UK and the US. Both scenarios could have a significant impact on shopping patterns and consumer demands for groceries, pharmaceuticals and the range of products needed for a population of mixed ages and mobility.

Packaging impact

It could also impact on the popularity of convenience foods, prepared meals and snacks that adult children prefer based on their busy lives and irregular hours. Individual portion packs that allow for varying tastes may solve some problems, particularly those of different eating times, but the cost of such products is inevitably a factor, with premium prices being charged for convenience foods and so-called meal solutions. Not to mention concerns about excessive packaging and its environmental implications.

The generation game

Jane Harrad-Roberts, consultant director for PR consultancy Marketing Projects, lives with both her parents and her children. “The biggest problem I get with multi-generational catering within the family,” she says, “is the times everyone likes to eat their main meal. My parents’ generation like a decent size breakfast, cooked lunch, then a sandwich type tea. We can only manage a cereal breakfast, sandwich type lunch and our main meal is 8-8.30pm, too late for the older generation. The children like a later breakfast, snacky lunch and a main tea. I find I can spend all day in the kitchen if I choose.”

The US Census Bureau recently published facts pertaining to grandparents culled from Census 2000 reports. In that year, some 5.8 million grandparents lived with their grandchildren aged under 18. Of the multigenerational family households identified in the report, about two thirds (2.6 million) consisted of the householder and the householder’s children and grandchildren. Another one third (1.3 million) consisted of the householder and the householder’s children and parents (or parents-in-law).

This is of particular significance when considering the reasons why adult children may be sharing homes with their parents. The US Census report demonstrates how “multigenerational families are more likely to reside in areas of recent immigration, where new immigrants may live with their relatives,” explained demographer Tavia Simmons, who co-authored the study. “They also are more common in areas where housing shortages or high costs may force families to double up their living arrangements or in areas with relatively high rates of out-of-wedlock childbearing, where unwed mothers live with their children in their parents’ home.”

Expert Analysis

Changing Mealtimes

This report examines the state of consumers’ meal patterns in 2001 and assess how these will change by 2006.  This report brings together a wealth of information on how breakfasts, lunches, dinners and snacks are changing across seven European countries.


National Food Survey data

In the UK, the annual report on the National Food Survey (NFS) has provided national data on food expenditure, consumption and nutrient intakes since 1950. Data is compiled from a random sample of some 6000 private households throughout the country who record details of all items of food brought into the home for human consumption during the course of a week as well as some information on the numbers of meals eaten outside the home. In addition, half of the selected households record details of all meals, snacks and drinks consumed outside the home.

The sample looks at the number of adults and children in each household but doesn’t ask about the relationship between the adults, thereby ignoring the habits of adult, multigenerational, households. Results classified according to various geographical and household characteristics are included, and provide some insight into patterns of consumption and expenditure in different types of households. A proviso warns however that they need to be interpreted carefully as “an observed difference cannot necessarily be attributed solely to the classification difference under consideration”. For example, say the authors, differences in the level of expenditure between income groups may, in part, reflect differences in the numbers and ages of household members and the number of meals eaten outside the home. And that, Watson, is the point.

By Bernice Hurst, correspondent