Fifty years ago, in an era left behind by the growth of mega-cities,
globalization and the two-income family, there was a daily ritual
called the evening meal. At 5 o’clock or five-thirty, dad locked his
office drawer, put on his jacket and took the train home to where mom
had a nutritious dinner cooking and the kids ready to sit down with
their parents and eat. Not just eat, but also report on the day, listen
to the others and deepen family ties.

Fantasy? The family as it should have been but seldom was? Perhaps. It
is true that even 50 years ago there were shift workers, longer-haul commuters
and some working mothers. There were professionals who had to work late
and dads who went to the pub before making it home—also late.
Conversation at the table may often have consisted largely of fights
between the kids and exhortations from parents to "mind your manners"
and "eat what’s in front of you". Everyone, at times, might have been
relieved when they could escape the company of their nearest and
dearest and pursue their own hobbies—although not before doing their
allotted chores.

All the same, the myth of the family dinner as a time of bonding and
harmony—hilariously and charmingly captured in an Australian film
called The Castle—is persistent enough to give those who have lost
touch with the reality, pause. Does it not contain an essential truth
about family life and individual well-being that we tend to
underestimate in our 24/7, individualistic, wired world?


Especially good for teenagers

It was this sort of question New England journalist Miriam Weinstein
stumbled on when she was researching topics about food, and that led
her to write The Surprising Power of Family Meals:
How Eating Together Makes us Smarter, Stronger, Healthier and Happier.

This is a title that makes big claims—claims that depend not on memory
and myth, however, but on scientific research. Much of the research
concerns adolescents.

Take, for example, the study that kicked off Weinstein’s project. The
National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia
University, known as CASA, tries to keep young people from destructive
behavior (the use of drugs, alcohol and tobacco, as well as schoolgirl
pregnancies). In 1996 they ran a study to see what, if anything,
distinguished the kids who engaged in these actions from those who did
not. They were surprised to find that, when it came to predicting
behavior, eating dinner with family was more important than church
attendance or grades at school.

CASA has run variations on this survey every year since. In 2003 it
showed that, compared with teens who dine with the family only twice a
week, those who have family dinners five or more times are more likely
to report that they have never tried cigarettes (85 per cent compared
vs 65 per cent), alcohol (68 per cent vs 47 per cent) or marijuana (88
per cent vs 71 per cent). They are also less likely to suffer high
stress and boredom, and are more likely to receive A’s in school.

Similar findings have come from research by Marla E Eisenberg and
others at the University of Minnesota, who in 1998-99 collected data
from 4767 adolescents from diverse neighborhoods. Last year they
reported that regular family meals also protected young
people—especially girls—against depression and suicide. Even when
teenagers reported a sense of "family connectedness", negative
psychological and behavioral effects of missing family meals persisted,
as they did when the parents’ marital status, school level, race and
socio-economic status were taken into account. The researchers say that
"family meals may… provide a formal or informal ‘check-in’ time during
which parents can tune in to the emotional well-being of their teens,
particularly girls".  

Only about a quarter of young people in the Minnesota study reported
eating seven or more meals with their family in the past week, and one
third reported eating family meals only once or twice a week, or never.
But there are signs of improvement: the 2003 CASA survey showed an
increase in teens having dinner with their family at least five times a
week—61 per cent compared with 47 per cent in 1998.


A daily ritual


If family meals did no more than protect teenagers against substance
abuse, they would be worth the effort. But, of course, they do much
more. They protect kids because they have already performed a more
fundamental task. As Weinstein puts it, "These meals give children
dependable access to their parents, and parents access to their kids.
They connect us with our religious, ethnic and family heritage."

Dependability is essentially what Weinstein means when she uses the
word "ritual" to describe the family meal. It is not something
contrived, that has to be reinvented every day, that we have to strain
ourselves to make into "quality time". Rather, it is something pretty
much anyone can do. "It takes advantage of basic biological and social
needs, for nutrition and socialibility. It allows us to act out what it
means to be a family: we nurture each other. We enjoy things together.
We travel through life together." This natural togetherness then sets
the stage for "quality" to emerge. "Researchers find that our most
meaningful childhood memories are not the big ticket items—the shows or
the sports events—but rather the ongoing sense of caring, of sharing,
of spending our time together," says Weinstein.

But "ritual" in its more religious sense is not out of place in
discussions of the family meal, as generations who grew up saying grace
before and after meals learned, and Weinstein, with her Jewish
background, is not afraid to evoke this sense. "Making time for each
other, making our kitchen table what one woman I interviewed called ‘a
little holy place’ creates a shelter in a hectic world," she says. We
could go further and say with James Stenson of Parent Leadership that
family meals are a "sacred time together—where we call down God’s
blessing on the family and treat each other with cordial respect".


A school of manners and much more

Stenson makes this comment in the context of table manners, a subject that is coming back
into vogue as parents who grew up in the anything-goes era of the 1960s
and 70s find themselves without the skills to prepare their children
for social life. Schools of etiquette are springing up where children
are drilled in everything from shaking hands with an adult to drinking
soup. Some working mothers say they do not have the time to teach their
children everything they would like—presumably because family meals are
infrequent or rushed.

A meal that the whole family sits down to—and that is not sabotaged by
television (53 per cent of teenagers in a Minnesota pilot study
reported frequent TV viewing during meals), phone calls, text messages
and early departures to meetings, the internet and computer games—is
clearly the ideal setting for learning table etiquette. From their
early years children will learn from their parents’ example and
gradually form the habit of good manners (or bad!).

They will learn, as Weinstein points out, such fundamental things as
what constitutes a reasonable portion or a balanced meal, to limit
snacking so that everyone is hungry at the same time, to alternate
consumption with conversation and so avoid over-eating (it takes 20
minutes for our bodies to register satiety) and finickyness. In this
way they will be protected from obesity and girls, in particular, from
extreme dieting and other eating disorders.

The family meal also teaches kids how to converse in a social
setting—to listen and to tell a story—and, apparently, gives them the
lion’s share of their vocabulary. In a study by professors from the
Harvard School of Education, over a thousand new words in preschoolers’
vocabulary had been learned at the dinner table, while only 143 came
from being read to.

More importantly, mealtimes are a natural setting for acquiring family
history, family values and awareness of how these values can be applied
to everyday life and to problems and opportunities in their society.
Most of these values can be turned into virtues around the meal table
itself—attentiveness to the needs of others, lifting the mood with a
funny anecdote, generosity in leaving the biggest serving of dessert
for someone else—or immediately before and after. When kids help with
meal preparation and cleaning up they are learning how to serve others
and also look after themselves.


Just add willpower


With all this and much more going for it, why has the family meal
declined? Perhaps decay set in with the TV dinner that made its
appearance 50-odd years ago and proved the perfect accompaniment to
family fare like "I Love Lucy" and "The Bob Hope Show". Since then,
competition from the fast-food industry and electronic distractions
have hugely multiplied, creating strong pull factors.

Among the push factors are working mothers (the Minnesota study showed
a link between family dinners and mothers not working outside the
home); overtime work (especially amongst dads); overscheduled kids (the
school team practice, the swimming and music lessons); and separated or
single mothers.

But, with the exception of the single mom (a dad who is alive somewhere
but never at the table is a permanent psychological as well as
practical obstacle to family dining), are not most of the reasons for
not dining as a family, in the end, excuses?

In a recent Wall Street Journal column, New York publisher Cameron
Stracher pinpointed one rarely-acknowledged reason for the decline in
shared mealtimes: Parents don’t want to eat with their children. He
wrote: "Arlie Russell Hochschild noted in The Time Bind (1997) that as
home becomes more like work, and work becomes more like home, there are
fewer reasons to rush back home in time for dinner. Most men say that,
if given a choice between time or money, the would choose the former;
in fact, they choose the latter. After all, who wants to deal with a
six-year-old having a temper tantrum because there is green stuff on
her pasta? Much easier to stay at the office, order in, drink a beer
and trudge home when the kids are asleep. Even in families where both
parents are at home, they often wait until the kids are in bed to eat.
As one mother told me: ‘It’s just not fun to eat with them’."

Here we approach the root of the problem: Why is home more like work
now? How come the six-year-old is still having temper tantrums? Who
said dining with the children had to be fun? On the other hand, whose
fault is it if it’s torture? Clearly there are issues about domestic
roles and parenting to be addressed — and they do not all fall into the
lap of women.

Stracher, for his part, has resolved to pitch in. While struggling with
questions about his 50-minute commute, he has instituted "dinners with
dad", a commitment to make dinner with his wife and two children at
least five nights a week for a solid year. And "make" means more than
just be there. You can follow this saga at his blog
where he writes eloquently of pizzas, bread and black bean burritos,
and of side issues like school fixtures, friendship and extended
family—and where other dads are making free with advice.

No one should make light of the pressures that splinter the family
today and turn members into flatmates who eat alone and find their
community elsewhere. Nor is the family meal the whole story when it
comes to family togetherness and the wellbeing of younger members. But
it clearly is part of the story and, as Weinstein suggests, the most
do-able part. Just add willpower and the family dinner should reclaim
its place in the home.


Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.