Family dinner: Sacred cow?

| 20 Aug 2015 | 03:23

Pillar of family life

Who has the time, patience, or energy to get everybody to the table for a scratch-made meal seven nights a week? Not many of us! Family dinner is a challenge for many families across socio-economic, cultural, class and educational lines — it’s universal in both its difficulties, and its benefits, no matter who you are. But research shows that those benefits are too strong to ignore.

Some of the benefits of regular family dinners have nothing to do with food: Young children gain better vocabularies from family dinner than from being read to; older kids have better grades and peer relationships if they eat dinner with their families. Teens show fewer risky behaviors like drug and alcohol use, have better body image, and exhibit lower incidence of depression. And adults have healthier eating habits and better marital satisfaction when they gather around the table.

Family meals don’t have to be an all-or-nothing event. Showing up counts, whether it’s a regular Sunday dinner or Saturday breakfast. It could be sandwiches or pancakes, a rotisserie chicken from the grocery store, or even the occasional delivery pizza. It just has to be consistent, and everyone has to connect with each other (put the phones away!).

Americans often make the mistake of thinking that family dinner is about eating. Of course that’s true, but we find that what families really want when they turn to The Family Dinner Project for help is a way to make mealtimes more meaningful. They’re looking for games the whole family can enjoy at the table, or conversation starters to help them get past the “How was your day?/Fine” routine. It’s the magical combination of a shared meal (preferably, of course, a somewhat nutritious one), a positive atmosphere, and an opportunity to really connect and listen to one another that makes family dinner so powerful.

But what if your teens don’t want to talk, your spouse would rather turn on the TV, or your toddler can’t stay in his chair? Just as you wouldn’t completely give up on a new exercise regimen after a couple of sore mornings, don’t quit on family dinner just because it doesn’t always seem picture-perfect. Family dinners should be as unique as your family itself, and as filled with love, good intentions and even imperfections. Look for the middle ground that allows you to get everyone to the table and see what unfolds.

By Bri DeRosa, communications consultant with The Family Dinner Project, a nonprofit based out of Harvard University

Sacred cow

The amount of time Americans spend cooking meals at home has fallen by half since the mid-1960s, leading some influential voices to worry that—given the plethora of options we have to make quick, inexpensive meals—we have forgotten how to cook. They propose a broad return to the kitchen, emphasizing the benefits of home-cooked meals for health and family togetherness.

Our interviews with a diverse group of 150 mothers of young children about their experiences feeding their families suggest this message is getting through. The mothers in our study cooked, on average, five nights a week. Many cooked in bulk on the weekends, used crockpots to save time, and got their children involved in cooking. Yet despite their impressive efforts, mothers felt they were falling short. Many said there was never enough time in the day to do it “right.” Contrary to rosy images of everyone sitting around the table enjoying a wholesome meal, for most families, cooking was filled with time pressures, tradeoffs to save money, and the burden of pleasing others.

Critics lashed out at our findings. Farmer and food writer Joel Salatin argued that if this generation can’t make meals like our great grandmothers made, “with our 40-hour work week and kitchen tech, then we deserve to eat adulterated pseudo food that sends us to an early grave.”

We’re not against cooking or family dinners. But when “food gurus” wax nostalgic about the days when people grew their own food and sat around the dinner table eating it, they fail to acknowledge the invisible labor that goes into planning, making, and coordinating family meals, not to mention how different family life is today. Instead of continuing to suggest ways that mothers (and fathers) can try harder to cook more and cook better, we should consider how else to make it possible for families to enjoy a meal at the end of the day. Creative and less individualistic solutions might benefit everyone, from reviving community suppers to starting freezer meal clubs with friends. Otherwise, simply suggesting that Americans return to the kitchen en masse will only increase the burden so many women, and families, already bear.

By the co-authors of the 2014 study, “The Joy of Cooking?”: Sarah Bowen and Sinikka Elliot, associate professors of sociology at North Carolina State University; and Joslyn Brenton, assistant professor of sociology at Ithaca College