From Habit to Choice: Transformations in Family Dining Over Three Generations

  • Cathy Banwell
  • Dorothy Broom
  • Anna Davies
  • Jane Dixon


Changes in family dining are explored in  Chap. 3, focusing in particular on the meal that Australians have most consistently eaten together: the evening meal. The plain and predictable food that older Australians (the Lucky Generation) remember consuming has given way to meals that are full of variety and the influences of European and Asian culinary cultures. While family meals are still held in high regard, modern Australian families struggle to maintain them in the face of individualised food preferences and schedules that make it increasingly difficult to achieve commensality.


Baby Boomer Evening Meal Family Meal Special Occasion Brussel Sprout 
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Image 3.1

Dinner time (1940–1945) (Source: State Library of Victoria)

Over the lifetimes of the three generations of respondents widespread social and economic transformations have occurred which interact with, and ultimately reshape family dining patterns. For example, food sociologists have questioned whether the rules and structures around culinary systems in modern societies have diminished so far as to be replaced by a state of (gastro)anomie characterised by either a void or an over-abundance of conflicting rules (Fischler 1993). In similar vein, others have proposed that formal meals are being at least partially replaced by practices in which individuals eat what, where and when they choose (grazing) in the UK (Murcott 1997) or by vagabond eating in France (Poulain 2002). The trend is thought to be aided by the growth and accessibility of convenience and commercially prepared foods. The disappearance or significant modification of the family meal is proposed as one manifestation of post-modernity. This proposition has been contested, with some arguing that the family meal never really existed in its ideal form (Murcott 1997).

As well as practices, attitudes to food have also changed over this time. Elsewhere we have argued that the Lucky Generation of Australians growing up in economically restricted times was brought up to view food pragmatically, focusing on its cost and its ability to keep the family from feeling hungry. This practical attitude is also influenced by the dominant socio-cultural perspective on food, reflecting its Australian history as an English colony (Symons 1984; Walker and Roberts 1988) and the background of our respondents who were all of English-speaking descent. Later generations of Australians express enjoyment in food through their discussions of the taste, colour, smell and textures of dishes. There has been a corresponding growth in the promotion of pleasure in food via cook books, specialty food and wine magazines and television cooking shows.

Changes to family dining have been examined from socio-historical and gender perspectives (Charles and Kerr 1986; Luxton 1980; Murcott 1983), and recently attention has focused on the so-called ‘obesity epidemic’ particularly among younger generations. It appears that transformations in family dining have health (and weight) as well as social implications, although a plethora of theories are competing for attention. Some observers suggest that family dining may be protective if it excludes television viewing, (Veugelers and Fitzgerald 2005) as it may reduce the consumption of ready-made food (Gillman et al. 2000). In Australia, mothers’ positive attitudes towards family dining were found to have greater impact on maintaining children’s healthy weight than self-reports of the family eating together (Mamun et al. 2005). However, family dining has rarely been examined within and between specific generations or families. In this chapter we summarise the main trends in family dining over three generations and in the next chapter focuses on the growth of convenience food and the disappearance of home-made desserts as the final course in the everyday evening meal.

3.1 Growing Up During the Depression and War: The Lucky Generation’s Childhood

Our oldest generation were children during the Depression when unemployment rates quickly rose to nearly 30% for male breadwinners, while wages dropped dramatically, forcing thousands of men to leave their families to tramp around the country looking for work (Kociumbas 1997), which was known as ‘going on the wallaby’. In 1933, 33,000 men were of ‘no fixed abode’ (Fahey 1992). The effects of the Depression were compounded for country folk by a drought in the late 1920s (Kociumbas 1997). In the cities the hardship of the Depression was quite class-specific, with the working class suffering greater economic hardship (Kociumbas 1997; Williams 1985). Associated with World War II, rationing lasted from 1942 until 1947. Butter, tea, sugar and meat were rationed and eggs were allocated to priority groups such as children under 5 years, while sausages, offal, canned meat, poultry, rabbits, fish, bacon and ham remained unrationed (Australian Bureau of Statistics 1945). Nevertheless, only the poorest few said they were hungry during their childhood. They developed a utilitarian view of food as a necessity to support life and activity but they expressed very little pleasure in the meals of their youth (Banwell et al. 2010). Furthermore, they were influenced like other Australians by the English, who valued plain food as wholesome and virtuous (Santich 1995), rather than pleasurable. A plain, ‘no-frills’ style of cooking was common, perhaps stemming from early colonial times when white Australians subsisted mainly on a monotonous and limited diet of meat and tea, and many suffered from vitamin deficiencies and scurvy due to lack of vegetables (Walker and Roberts 1988). The British roast dinner on Sundays was maintained, and as there were no refrigerators and few iceboxes, butchers remained open on Saturdays and some even on Sunday morning to allow the purchase of meat (Walker and Roberts 1988).

Our participants recalled that meals were based on low-cost cuts of meat, and usually three vegetables, sometimes home-grown. Joy’s account reflects the dominant discourse about meals at this time and the need to eat cheaply.

We had very cheap food, [it] would have been a lot of potatoes and a lot of rice, boiled rice, rice puddings, the whole bit. I imagine we had meat, but I don’t actually recall. I would say it would be the cheaper cuts because my father was earning a pittance, an absolute pittance.

Maxine explained the enduring power of early childhood food habits that last even as they become unfashionable.

People can’t understand why I like offal. And brains and lambs fry and all that. But we were brought up on that during the food rationing.

As children, the Luckies, like Heather, most commonly dined on lamb or beef, often sausages or chops, which were cheaper, and steak less frequently, while chicken and other poultry were reserved for Christmas or very special occasions.

No, very seldom chicken. You know how in now days you can buy chicken all the time, well we had chicken perhaps we might have seen a chicken towards Christmas.

At this time Australia was a large producer and exporter of sheep wool and meat, and some participants remembered their meat intake consisting almost entirely of lamb and mutton.

Many, like Eve, praised their mothers’ abilities to make a meal out of nothing but the downside was that meals were humdrum, predictable, dictated by the limited availability and affordability. Joy’s reference (above) to her father’s earning capacity was accompanied by the memory that her mother would always serve the husband and the four kids first and herself last, reflecting the ideology of motherhood and the social and economic conditions of the time. Family meals expressed the hierarchies of the day with men often determining the timing of meals, the menu, the order of serving and sometimes the conversation. Women and particularly children wielded little influence. Participants remembered that family meals were dominated not only by some fathers’ homecomings, but also by their food preferences and their emotional states. Joy recalled that her mother often ate her food cold because she always got up to serve her father first and then interrupted her meal to get him his dessert when he had finished his main course.

And I thought at the time, no way will I ever do that. But this was the role of the housewife back then, the man coming in from work was the most important person. And the wife always, you know, was very, very low down on the ladder, definitely…

As a consequence of dining as soon as her father arrived home, Joy’s mother was required to prepare a light supper at about 10 pm at night because the children were hungry again by then.

Sixty-nine year-old Jenny recounted that her father insisted that the children were not allowed to talk at all. Children dined with the family and ate what they were given. We weren’t allowed to have dislikes, I don’t think, with five kids. I think we ate most things. They knew that food was scarce, particularly if rationed, and expensive. Lindsey said: Times were hard and you didn’t waste anything. As children, they seemed to have absorbed this attitude with little resistance, even though they acknowledged it was a struggle to eat some foods. I can remember sort of chewing it and chewing it and chewing it and having to sort of swallow it…Lindsey continued. If they did not finish their meal they might be banished from the table, refused dessert or served their uneaten food for breakfast.

Informants gave accounts of structured evening meal patterns of main course and dessert, with the menu following a familiar pattern of meals over a weekly cycle, adding to the predictability but with a loss of spontaneity. Heather’s account of the weekly meal cycle was typical. Nevertheless, her use of the phrase just straight out of the oven suggests that there was some enjoyment to be had in hot freshly cooked food.

We’d have a weekly roast with three vegetables and a sweet.…And that would usually be Sunday lunch. Sunday night it would be cold meat and salads and homemade scones just straight out of the oven.

A somewhat looser seasonal cycle entailed lighter, cold meals such as salads and cold meat during summer, and heavier, hotter meals like lamb and beef stews, or sausages and chops during winter. These cuts of meat were supplemented by offal like lambs brains and tripe and by men’s and kids’ catch of fish and rabbits. During winter, potatoes, pumpkins, and greens such as brussel sprouts or cabbage were popular. The cycle was punctuated by special events such as Christmas and birthdays, which were not always celebrated with significantly richer meals because of the rationing that occurred during the war. The Luckies’ accounts are confirmed by research at the time showing that the average adult worker between 1920 and 1925 consumed at the evening meal: meat, potato, pumpkin, rice pudding and two cups of tea (Teow et al. 1988). These patterns were a continuation of nineteenth century settler eating habits, which were heavily based on meat and tea (Symons 2007). Sugar was comparatively cheap and large amounts were consumed in puddings or tea, which was the alternative drink to alcohol (Griggs 2006; Walker and Roberts 1988).

High unemployment in Australia in the inter-war years compelled men to find additional ways to provide for the family. Even city-dwelling men fished, hunted or scavenged so that rabbit pie or fresh fish occasionally appeared on family dinner tables. One woman described how her father would go to the nearby Sanitarium factory on his bicycle and buy a sackful of broken Vita Brits (cereal biscuits) which they would have for breakfast. Children often contributed to food provisioning by minding chickens, helping in the vegetable patch, or rabbit trapping.

During World War II the government launched a campaign to encourage men in particular to grow vegetables and raise fowls in suburban backyards. Fruit from trees in the garden supplemented the diet in many households. Participants consumed large amounts of fruit, both fresh and stewed—so much so that one woman refused to eat plums for the rest of her life. Neighbours shared or swapped their fruit, vegetables and eggs and extra food was often given to neighbouring families who were battling. Some suburban families had rural relatives who supplied them with meat and dairy produce. As rationing did not exist in outlying rural areas (Australian Bureau of Statistics 1945), farming families had access to larger amounts of red meat, fresh milk, fresh eggs from the domestic chook pen and a vegetable garden. In urban areas Chinese restaurants and fish and chips shops provided a different dining experience, although it was rare for cooked food to be taken home or for families to dine in restaurants, despite the fact that Cahn (1977) considers that many hotels sold food. These may have catered in particular to travellers and the very wealthy.

While a commercial food industry was developing and products such as biscuits and other commercial carbohydrates were readily available (Santich 1995) by the 1930s, the Lucky Generation remember that the food for family meals, including baked goods, was mainly produced in the family home by women who prepared, cooked and preserved food and provisioned the household.

Well it was all home-made so everything we had was home-made. My mother made all her jams, pickles, everything on the table and we’d have a weekly roast with three vegetables and a sweet. (Marie)

Fahey’s book on Australian food habits contains a Depression period recipe for jam using home-grown fruit dried in the sun and then boiled with sugar and stored in beer bottles that were cut down and covered with paper as they had no lids (Fahey 1992).

While women’s labour and thriftiness created meals from basic materials, men were also vital to feeding the family. They were breadwinners and their ability to bring home an income was the main predictor of how much money a family had to spend on food. One woman remembered that the family meal was served exactly at 5 pm because that was when her father arrived home and he expected his meal to be ready.

He’d been out working and he used to walk five mile to work, five mile back. And when he got home, he’d be hungry, but 5 o’clock was dinner.

Food was purchased from local shops or from merchants who travelled from door-to-door. Bread, milk, and other goods were often sold door-to-door, providing the housewife with a convenient supply of fresh food items. Mary recalled:

I can remember the man coming down the street, you know, and selling the rabbits and also the baker. We used to follow the baker’s cart, the iceman. We used to go for bits of ice. When you think of it now…Yes, a wheelbarrow type thing. Yes and the iceman he had a car, a truck. The iceman did. And the baker had horse and cart. We used to follow him up with a shovel, a spade, a shovel and bucket from the garden.

Becoming a teenager changed the Lucky Generation experience of food very little. Rarely did they eat at each others’ houses; sometimes they knew that other families did not have food to share. Instead, young people continued to conform to the family dining pattern until they left home to establish their own household or in a few cases went to the war, where they were introduced to eating in mess halls. It is argued that the teenager as a separate category of person requiring their own clothes, music and activities did not really appear until the 1950s (Lees and Senyard 1987; Quiggan 2000), although it is apparent that leisure activities were somewhat different for teenagers than for younger children or adults. Consequently, separation from family life usually began as a young adult, with participants usually moving out of home to commence married life, although a few remained with their families after marriage until they could afford to move out. When they left home some women learned to cook for the first time if they had not been taught by their mothers. Heather remembers:

Oh she taught me to make everything, cakes and sweets and main courses and that. When I got married, [I] walked out with a beautiful recipe book from my mother with everything I needed in it.

3.2 The 1950s to the 1980s: Post-war Prosperity

3.2.1 The Adult Lucky Generation

While the Lucky Generation were raising their own (Baby Boomer) children enormous social and economic changes swept through Australia including a new sense of plenty; practical war-time vegetable gardens began to be replaced by flower beds.

Labour-saving devices began to be produced more cheaply, making them accessible to the average Australian. An American model of mechanised mass production and the resulting mass consumerism came to replace earlier, British-influenced values of thrift and self-sufficiency (Lees and Senyard 1987). Previously considered a luxury, home appliances such as the refrigerator and washing machine became accessible to the average household. An increase in discretionary purchasing power (Dingle 1998) and the use of credit led to an increase in hire-purchasing during the 1950s (Lees and Senyard 1987). Debt due to hire-purchase increased from 6 million pounds in 1945 to 350 million pounds in 1959 (Lees and Senyard 1987). New marketing styles emerged to further stimulate the consumption of mass-produced goods, which portrayed the average person as able to afford them and aimed to ‘educate’ women on how housework could be made easier and less tedious by the use of these appliances and products (Lees and Senyard 1987). Both the refrigerator and car had considerable influence on patterns of food procurement and storage.

Supermarkets first appeared in Australian suburbs in 1960 and were readily adopted, assisted by the increasing car ownership which escalated rapidly after the war, particularly with the local manufacture of the Holden. By 1961 there was almost one car per family (Symons 1984). With the supermarket encouraging large-scale weekly shopping, families needed a car to carry home a weekly average of 50 kg of goods per household (Symons 1984), and a refrigerator in which to store it.

Gradually, supermarkets replaced small independent grocers, as well as the greengrocer, butcher, baker, milkman, delicatessen, toy-seller, clothing merchant, and to some extent nursery, pharmacy and newsagency (Gollan 1978). Under the guise of convenience and choice, shoppers shifted to a self-service style of shopping (Lees and Senyard 1987). They relied on marketing to distinguish good quality products rather than the recommendation of shopkeepers. However, supermarkets were already expert in shaping customers’ choice of purchases, via the promotion and marketing of their products, the layout of the store and product placement on shelves (Farrer 2005). The supermarket style of shopping was also thought to influence choice via the use of food images on packages (Gollan 1978) rather than by nutritional content.

The rise of the supermarket was assisted by the introduction of television, which increased the visibility of advertised food products into the household (Dixon 2002). By 1960, 70% of Melbourne homes had a TV, a staggering penetration in the 4 years since its introduction into Australia during the year of the Melbourne Olympics. The introduction had an impact on family dining, with some families making it the centre of the dining room. Betty aged 82 remembered:

Sunday lunchtime yes when the men use to watch World of Sport and they’d come over to our place [to watch on our TV] … and the time would [pass] and the roast would be waiting and then [mother] said, ‘right no more roasts on Sunday’.

Australian foodways were exposed to a widening array of influences in the 1960s. Despite socio-economic and cultural changes family meals showed surprisingly little variation during the 1960s–1970s when most Lucky Generation informants were in their 1930s–1940s and their children were aged around 10–12. The most common description of the evening meal was still plain simple food. Jill, a 69 year-old woman recalled preparing meals at this time that were:

Pretty much the same [as when she was growing up]. Grilled chops and veggies and then I would probably have a sweet because it’s like—the kids like and still like apple pie, apple sponge, stewed apples.

Lucky Generation member Sam’s account demonstrates an increasing availability and affordability of food rather than a cultural shift in attitudes to food or in the structure and content of meals.

Not a great deal[changed] except that there was more of it probably and perhaps a bigger variation, but more roast dinners, more roast lamb, but not a great deal had changed.

3.2.2 Young Baby Boomers

The Luckies’ accounts of family meals were supported by the childhood memories of their Baby Boomer offspring. Peter described the style of cooking as being fairly straightforward English style cooking and Carol said the evening meal was meat and three veg, but we always had dessert, while Karen noted that the meals were very, very plain, predictable. The thrifty habits of the Lucky Generation continued to influence their attitude to food, even in this era of increasing prosperity. Peter noted that mum always had to be fairly shrewd with how she did things. The British influence on Australian cuisine was still evident in the 1950s and 1960s (Symons 2007), in its emphasis on unadorned food: mainly meat and vegetables. The evening family meal remained the centrepiece, with men the main income earners and women’s labour centred on provisioning and preparing food along with other domestic tasks. Sharon (aged 49) said dinner during her childhood was at five-thirty every day, as dad walked in that door, dinner would be on. It usually consisted of three courses still, with the table set and the whole family sitting around the table. Some Baby Boomers remembered that …children [were] to be seen but not heard at the dinner table (Peter, aged 58). There was also an expectation that children would finish the food they were served. Leanne (aged 47) stated, you couldn’t leave anything on your plate. She hated brussel sprouts and steak and kidney pie but she had to finish her meal before leaving the table and I remember gagging and having to swallow it.

Although the food habits of the Luckies appeared fairly engrained, over time new habits appeared. The word casserole replaced stew, perhaps signifying a new acceptance of European culinary habits. Cautiously people adopted the food that European immigrants had introduced, such as salamis, pates, cheeses, olives, breads, continental biscuits, conserves, cured hams, and coffee (Gollan 1978), and Mediterranean vegetables and pasta became more popular (Cameron 2004). Baby Boomer Julie (aged 55) discovered spicy Italian sausages and other new foods when her family moved from the country to a multicultural suburb in Melbourne:

All these tastes were opened up to us. The butchers were ethnic and green grocers were from various ethnic cultures. …. My father and I really like very spicy foods so the butcher, who used to make his own small goods and stuff, he couldn’t believe we were Australians because … his sausages and things weren’t hot enough. And my mum as one of her part-time jobs when I was at secondary school, she worked at the green grocers on Friday and Saturday. [The green grocer] was of Italian descent, and a neighbour. So, you know, there were different influences I guess on our life. It was no longer just, you know, good old Skips around you, Australians around … I guess it still was fairly dominated by the meat and three veg, but my mother certainly got into … more adventurous stuff. It was certainly far more adventurous stuff that we’d ever encountered before [moving to Melbourne].

Some Luckies began to stir-fry their vegetables, or cook them with Chinese style sauces, rather than boiling them. Around this period and continuing over the next few decades, more diverse vegetables (e.g. avocados, broccoli, eggplant, Asian greens) were incorporated into some families’ diet and some families introduced wine with the family meal. A burgeoning wine industry, mainly stemming from the introduction of viticulture by early European immigrants, made wine easily affordable and accessible (Symons 1984).

Changes to the mass production of food also began to impinge slowly on family dining during the 1940s–1960s (Farrer 2005). Despite the increasing industrialisation of the Australian food system and a marked increase in the availability of processed foods, these changes were still not much reflected in the narratives of the Lucky generation or Baby Boomer about the 1950s–1970s. While there may have been many new products on the market, the Lucky Generation appear to have fed their children very much as they were fed throughout childhood. Few mentioned products such as canned foods, although an exception was Lisa (aged 49) who described eating puddings which probably came out of a can. Generally the Baby Boomer generation remember food that was home-made. Laura said:

My mother cooked everything. There was nothing processed. We never got processed food. But it wasn’t as big in those days either, not like today. My mother baked cakes, she made cordial, she pickled beetroot, she did everything. We never had anything bought it was a treat to have anything bought. You know to get a birthday cake that was bought. We were only allowed soft drink on our birthdays. So it was a real treat..… So dinner was always meat and three veg and she would have made a sponge or an apple strudel for afterwards.

The Baby Boomers became aware of small changes to family dining around the time they reached their early teens. Michelle observed that when her father was not present her mother and sister experimented with new foods.

My mother discovered broccoli and zucchini, I remember that, but it was boiled to death the same as everything else. My middle sister was more interested in food too, so we did start to play around—she started to cook things like chop suey. My Dad was a shift-worker and when he was on afternoon shift, when my mother didn’t have to please him, we would sometimes have things like chop suey or chilli con carne on the odd occasion, a very Australian version. It might have had a bit of garlic in it.

Some experimented with westernised styles of Chinese cooking. Sandra was unusual in described a shift in cooking styles occurring during her teenage years (1960s–1970s). Sandra’s observation also illustrates a shift in emphasis from the cost of food to other features such as taste and innovation, which are associated with subjective experiences including pleasure.

Well I guess my mum was fairly advanced in the cooking food area, you know. We didn’t just have meat and three veg. We would have different casseroles, spaghetti and salads and things like that..… I used to think that everybody ate like that, and then I discovered back then, not everybody did eat like that. I mean we would have a roast a couple of times a week. (Sandra)

Around this time, celebrity chefs introduced the idea that food was pleasurable while French cooking and dinner parties became a form of entertainment (Symons 2006) and cookbooks such as the widely sold Margaret Fulton Cookbook, first published in 1968, began including European and Asian dishes such as fried rice and boeuf bourguignon. This expanding interest in exotic foods was attributed by some to the arrival of post-war immigrants who brought ethnically diverse food and a culture of dining out to Australia while Symons proposed that increasing Australian wealth and experience gained while travelling abroad was more influential. However, he argues that much of the change that has occurred is because modern “Australian cuisine [is] essentially industrial” (Symons 1993, p. 12).

American food business models played a major role in expanding Australian experiences of sophisticated dining (Kirkby 2008). Fast food franchises began to arrive in the 1960s and early 1970s offering efficiency and meal replacement services for the housewife. However, Symons (2006) and Kirkby (2008) also observed that dining out was not widely adopted until after the 1980s. The growth in catered food outlets in the 1960s did not appear to have a big impact on the Lucky participants despite continuing to expand over the next two decades. Consequently, their children rarely ate out while growing up. At most, the Boomers described having fish and chips on a Friday night or perhaps Chinese take away and occasionally a meal at a restaurant or hotel. Carol noted;

Very rarely would we eat out unless it was a very special occasion like on my grandmother’s 60th birthday or something like that. Then we’d go to a hotel.

3.3 Recent Times: 1990s–2000s

3.3.1 The Ageing Lucky Generation

Because most Lucky Generation participants had already retired, they were cushioned from many of the major social and economic changes of the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s. They had benefited financially from economic policies that favoured the young when they were young and the elderly as they aged (Thomson 1999). Most of them had dined out rarely in the past, but some now did so more frequently, reflecting their comfortable economic circumstances as well as increased opportunity with restaurants appearing in many local shopping centres. Joan, aged 78, enjoys going out often for lunch thus avoiding late nights.

But then twice a week we go to lunch at the local hotel, it’s very good. Or there’s a couple of restaurants and we go to lunch every Tuesday and Friday, we’ll go this afternoon.

Some patronised inexpensive buffets specifically aimed at seniors. It appears that dining establishments now recognised this specific market which implies a widespread change in the eating habits of older Australians. Licensed clubs have moved into this market as well, offering drinking, meals and gambling in an environment that suits older Australians (Patford and Breen 2009).

While dining out is generally viewed as a form of pleasure and entertainment (Martens and Warde 1997) some participants also were likely to adopt it for utilitarian reasons, such as to save the effort of cooking for one or two people.

Elsewhere we have argued that the habits of Lucky Generation forged in their childhood remained partially ingrained, but altered domestic arrangements (the departure of children and death of spouses) contributed to changes in their family dining patterns (Banwell et al. 2010). For example, research shows that elderly men living alone are three times as likely as men living with a spouse to have a low and limited variety of fruit consumption. Elderly women’s greater interest in health appeared to have a positive effect on their partners’ diets (Horwath 1988).

A growing awareness of health and diet-related concerns meant that to maintain what they considered to be a healthy diet of home cooked food many people cooked large amounts of food, freezing it in smaller portions, and then heating it in the microwave. The rapid rise of the freezer was in part impelled by its relationship with the microwave (Shove and Southerton 2000). Although it is argued that modern freezers are a device of convenience allowing the re-scheduling of a busy life, the Luckys often used their freezer to maintain a healthy diet and avoid mass-produced convenience foods. Being retired, they were not particularly short of time, although many lead active and engaged lives. Some men now cooked if their wives were sick, frail or had died although it was still the norm for women of this generation to do most of the cooking and taking responsibility for the family diet. Thus, changes in family living arrangements apparently had more influence on food management rather than on food choice.

3.3.2 Middle Aged Baby Boomers

The Baby Boomers began to embrace the diversifying Australian foodscape. Australians were slower to accept Asian immigrants, and their food, compared to European ones. Japanese, authentic Chinese, Vietnamese, Indonesian, and Malaysian foods took longer to influence Australian cuisine than Italian, Greek, German and French foods had (Gollan 1978). The removal of the White Australia Policy in 1973 allowed increasing numbers of immigrants from Asia and bringing with them new culinary traditions welcomed by the growing number of Australians who had travelled to Asia (Bannerman 1998; Gollan 1978; Symons 2007). Greater affluence enabled increasing demand for food variation and quality. By the end of the twentieth century Australian food was described as having developed a complex identity that now had to be described in terms of ethnic origins (Bannerman 1998).

In our interviews Baby Boomers emphasised that they cooked an increasing variety of foods while raising their children compared to the foods which they had grown up with. In particular, they ate more Asian-inspired foods, a greater variety of vegetables and less red meat. Sandra said she cooked More Asian. A lot more Asian. A lot more stir fry and things like that. The Lucky Generation had reserved chicken and other types of poultry for Christmas or other very special occasions. Factory farming made poultry easily affordable and available in supermarkets so that by the late 1960s it came to be eaten regularly, particularly as popular health experts encouraged people to reduce red meat consumption (Dixon 2002). Lighter meat was thought to be healthier.

Another noticeable difference was the loss of the predictable weekly food pattern. Leanne said You don’t have potatoes with every meal. The idea of a ‘typical’ meal was no longer considered relevant by Lynette who commented that We don’t have a typical night. The variety of food eaten for an evening meal is illustrating in Catherine’s (aged 51) description of the food her family ate while her children were growing up:

Well, probably pretty much what we have now. Quite a variety of things really. We would have stir fries, we would have pasta at least once a week, BBQ’s, roasts and salads… I love chicken so we have lots of chicken. …. casseroles in the winter and soup. We have a fairly good variety I suppose, probably not so much the meat and veg variety. …. so different things all the time. Not so much red meats as I used to have when I was growing up.

The Baby Boomers explored new types of restaurants, and home entertaining moved from formal dinner parties to a more casual style of dining both at home and away. Asian restaurants became very popular places to dine as they were relatively inexpensive, and people could afford to dine out regularly, which became a pleasurable leisure activity. Stephen, a 50 year-old, described this shift:

I’ve got to say it was probably in the mid-80s started going to restaurants, found spicy foods. I love anything spicy. I love all Asian foods, Indian, Mexican, the hotter the better. …. so that’s probably the big change.

Once their children left home the Baby Boomers started to eat out as a way to socialise rather than have dinner parties at home as their parents had done. Peter explained:

We eat out or have takeaway quite a bit more. Part of that is availability and ease with my wife still working. And part of it is we have a group of friends we particularly enjoy eating out with. And as the kids are older and their partners, we enjoy all of that as well. So we don’t have big dinner parties like I remember my parents having and like we tried to do when we were more recently married or early married. Now if we are having a meal with friends and they do the same, rather than having all the drama lets go out some where. And then the cook can enjoy it as well. So we eat out a bit… once or twice a week we will eat out. …. But we like to eat out now.

3.3.3 Gen Y

Typical evening meals eaten during the childhood of Gen Y became more multi-cultural, with pasta and stir-fry joining meat and three vegetables. The Gen Y’s descriptions of the types of foods they ate during their primary school years were mixed. Some remembered eating a diverse range of foods. For example Sarah (aged 19) said It would have been a roast and vegetables or lasagne or a curry, or pretty much anything. Others, like David, aged 27, recalled mainly eating ‘meat and three veg’. Mum wasn’t doing anything too fancy at that age. It was pretty stable sort of meat and three veg or whatever, that sort of thing. Symons (1993) notes that in 1991 when the Luckies were growing up some childcare centres in Sydney were serving their charges a multicultural menu that included dishes such as borscht, sauerkraut and lasagne.

Symons (1993) differentiates between the excitement of the multicultural and diverse food available in restaurants and the conventional food which was served at home. Nevertheless, changes in domestic cuisine seemed to accelerate around the time Gen Y had reached high school. For Nicole food got more interesting, mum got more adventurous, and started buying food magazines and things, and trying out things on her own. She also remembers having more exotic things such as mangoes and avocadoes and stuff from the deli as she got older, perhaps because her parents had a higher income than during her primary school years. David also noted that meals began to change when he became a teenager:

Mum just started to get a little bit more creative with the meals. Because Nana [who is Greek] lives with us as well, she used to get involved in the cooking a bit more than she is now and when we got older our tastes changed and we could get a bit more adventurous. So what type of things did she cook? Stir fries and Asian stuff, even Indian stuff like curries and things like that. What do you think sort of triggered those little changes? Now I think back on it, dad’s pretty adventurous with his food and he would have been exposed to different dinners and things like that [through work], because mum’s never really been an adventurous eater. So it was probably dad’s influence and then us getting to an age where we would appreciate it too.

Other changes appeared in the Gen Y’s accounts of family meals. While it was still important, the routine structured evening family meal appeared to be under pressure from a number of sources. As they grew up, the Gen Ys in particular found it increasingly difficult join the evening family meal as other activities, such as sporting, social and work arrangements impinged upon their time. Work schedules for this generation are very different from those of their parents when young. They have experienced an increase in non-standard work hours and they are more likely to be working while studying (Wyn and Woodman 2006). Their parents, too, had to cope with increased busyness. Thus, family meals or ‘sitting down to eat’, according to Christopher, sometimes became expendable. Yeah. If I’m at work or if I’m organising stuff like the car or anything I usually just grab whatever I can eat while I’m driving or whatever yeah.

Another fracturing force that undermined the predictability of family meals was that people’s food tastes and preferences have become more individualised. For example, several participants mentioned that they or family members had become vegetarian and so the notion that everyone in the family ate the same food began to change. Stephen, a Gen Y, explained how his mother coped with individual schedules and preferences.

And depending on the day mum will usually ring me or [brother], my brother’s a vegetarian so we just, he has to do his own. Usually mum will ring me and find out if I’m just home or if [other family members] come over I’ll just cook and my mum usually just does her own thing. But if it’s just us she’ll usually just come home and cook something. Usually a phone call and its pre-organised who’s going to be home and who is doing what.

As many Gen Y mothers were employed, men (fathers of Gen Y) took over some of the cooking, although they were often considered to be less skillful and more inclined to purchase pre-prepared food.

He would do a couple of meals here and there, it was always really gross. [This was when your mum was working full-time?] Yeah, yeah. So probably we’d be more likely to buy the chicken from the supermarket or whatever and make up something, some sort of accompaniment with it, your coleslaw or whatever, and spag bol and that kind of stuff. So more stuff that could be frozen and brought out because of less time to do stuff. (Emma, aged 29)

Although the Baby Boomers may have dined out less frequently during their children’s younger years, eating takeaway instead of a home-cooked family meal became increasingly common with some families having takeaway weekly or fortnightly when they were busy.

3.4 Conclusion

These Australian families exemplify the changes that have occurred over the course of three generations. While we do not think that the family meal is dead, there appears to be a relaxation of routine over the three generations, from the fixed timing and content of meals, to individual members increasingly eating at different times, or dining together but eating different foods. Nevertheless, the family meal remains symbolically important to many families and they endeavour to maintain it in the face of conflicting and growing pressures. Indeed, because the evening family meal has traditionally been the main occasion when the family comes together, it is the point at which the lack of connection between work and other time demands and sociality become most apparent and may have impacts on health and wellbeing. The growth over three generations in what has been described as disordered eating has been linked to increased childhood obesity (Kime 2008).

The Lucky Generation retains a taste for the necessary but they have replaced a focus on cheap and filling food with one on food that is perceived to be healthy (Banwell et al. 2010). The early focus was probably encouraged by a lack of food variety that has been linked elsewhere with low incomes (see Charles and Kerr 1986), in addition to the regimented and somewhat hierarchical family meals. Food appears to have bolstered an ethic of egalitarianism among the Lucky Generation, where it was not noticeably associated with social and class differences despite a longstanding historical association in the literature (Germov 2008), but at the same time it made visible at the family meal the family power structures based on gender and age. In Australia and elsewhere it has been argued that class-based differences in food preferences have diminished over time but not disappeared totally, while food habits and choices have become more varied over time (Germov 2008, p. 270). This is somewhat supported by an analysis of data from the 1995 National Nutrition Survey which found that there was an association between income (as a possible marker of social class and cultural preferences), age and gender in food preferences. Fewer people with low household incomes consumed food regularly and had less varied diets. This was most marked among men aged over 50. However, it appeared that the cost of individual food items was not a determining factor in their rejection by this group of men. Young people (18–34 year-olds in 1995) and higher-income people, especially women, ate less of what were characterised as traditional foods (e.g. baked beans, brussel sprouts, peas, white bread). The authors suggested that health concerns and fashion may have influenced food choice (Worsley et al. 2003).

A discourse of pleasure in food and a growth in omnivorous tastes accompanied by a decreased concern with the cost of food appears first during the adult years of the Baby Boomers. The interest in the taste, appearance and novelty of foods has burgeoned along with the growth of food as a marker of identity and status. Food has become a form of entertainment at times and at others a functional activity where it is eaten on the run as a way of re-fuelling. The idea of pleasure taken in food has always been problematic in the history of Western thought (Conveney 2006). While the Baby Boomers were more likely than their parents to enjoy food, they displayed moralistic judgments about those who took undisciplined or immoderate pleasure in food and were consequently overweight. Based on cross-national studies it is argued that pleasure in food (as shown by the French, who also display strong self-discipline) is associated less with obesity than a focus on health as a dominant approach to food (Rozin 2005). Furthermore, the comparatively slim French, in contrast to the populations of English-speaking countries such as the US and UK, have maintained a strong focus on commensality, sociability and ordered dining (Fischler and Masson 2009). The growth in food pleasure in Australia is associated with increasing sociality around food, but mainly at special occasions and often when dining away from home. This permits women, who are usually the cooks, to participate fully in the culinary and social experience without being required to spend time and energy in preparing it. However, when it comes to everyday dining, Australians seem to be more like the US and UK, where an individualised approach to food, employment and other activities are undermining commensality.
Image 3.2

Alfesco dining in Melbourne 2012 (Source: J. Dixon)


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht. 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  • Cathy Banwell
    • 1
  • Dorothy Broom
    • 1
  • Anna Davies
    • 1
  • Jane Dixon
    • 1
  1. 1.National Center for Epidemiology & Population HealthAustralian National UniversityCanberraAustralia

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