More than half of Japan’s schoolchildren have breakfast alone or without the presence of adults, and only about a third eat supper with their whole family.
An increasing number of children say they prefer to eat alone, they are not hungry before meals and they do not enjoy eating. Many believe the most enjoyable meal of the day is school lunch.
These are some of the findings of a 1999 survey on eating habits that covered 2,067 children in the fifth and sixth grades at 18 elementary schools throughout the country. The survey was jointly conducted by NHK and Miyuki Adachi, a professor of food ecology at Kagawa Nutrition University.
In the survey, a followup to a 1982 study, the schoolchildren were asked to describe what they had for supper the night before and for breakfast the day of the poll, answer multiple choice questions and write comments on how they feel about meals.
The poll found 12.6 percent of kids ate breakfast with all their family members, compared with 22.4 percent in 1982, while 33.4 percent dined with their family, down from 40.9 percent. Some 26.4 percent breakfasted alone, compared with 17.8 percent in 1982.
“There are many kinds of food out there, but children’s meals today are becoming very poor,” Adachi said.
One striking finding of the latest survey was that some children — 15.5 percent — said they like eating alone the most. The 1982 poll did not solicit this response.
Many of today’s children eat alone even if other family members are at home.
One boy said he had instant noodles for supper in his room while his mother and older brother were sleeping and his sister and younger brother were reading comic books. “I want to eat breakfast and supper alone because it’s quiet,” the boy said.
A girl, who had curry and rice for dinner, said she likes eating alone because she wants to watch her favorite television programs in her own room.
“What’s serious about this is not so much the fact that they eat alone, but that they grow up not knowing the enjoyment of eating together with their families,” Adachi said.
Another new trend, according to Adachi, is the growing number of children who buy their dinner at convenience stores or fast food outlets. About 30 percent of the children polled said they occasionally buy their dinner.
In many cases, these kids eat supper at cram schools, with rice balls and fruit juice topping the list of what they eat, followed by hamburgers and instant noodles.
Adachi said children who eat alone have a tendency to consume a lot of carbohydrates in food such as rice, bread and noodles, but do not consume enough vegetables, which contain minerals and vitamins. They also lack protein from such food as meat, fish, eggs and beans.
Sketches of their meals by children who eat alone featured simple meals such as soup, fried rice, “yakisoba” noodles, miso soup, bread, rice balls or instant noodles.
“We get nutrition from a teamwork of all the necessary nutrients,” Adachi said, “so carbohydrates alone cannot provide enough nutrition for growing children.”
Poor eating habits associated with eating alone often cause health and psychological problems, with kids who eat alone more prone to such problems as irritation, headaches, fatigue and insomnia than those who eat with their families, Adachi said.
“We cannot say children who eat alone cause delinquency, but we can say many of the delinquent youths have poor eating habits,” she said.
A 1998 survey by Ibaraki Prefectural Police shows that 47.8 percent of youths who committed serious crimes, such as extortion and assault, said they dine alone, compared with 16.3 percent of junior high and high school students who have not been in trouble with the police.
Those who do not have breakfast more than three days a week accounted for 54.2 percent of delinquent youths, compared with 13.5 percent of nonoffenders.
The survey compared the eating habits of 246 junior high and high school students chosen at random in Ibaraki Prefecture and 276 people of the same age group who have been arrested or taken into custody by police.
While eating together every day with all family members is almost impossible in today’s society, Adachi says adults should try to eat together with their offspring when they can, provide them with and teach them about balanced meals, and “not talk about test scores at the dinner table.”
Meals should be a time to relax and have conversation, Adachi said. “If they eat together, parents can notice the slightest changes in their offspring. But if they don’t, they don’t see the family ties unraveling one by one,” she said.