This article has been updated from its original text.
During the day most of us are out in the community mixing with all kinds of people. Our children are learning about the world from many sources, often without parental filters or input. Even when everyone is home, individuals do their own thing. Perhaps the only opportunity of the day to talk with each other is at the dinner table.
Children in today’s busy world need a shared, safe space to discuss ideas within the understanding company of family, and parents need a routine time to connect with kids.
The way it was
I would like to share what family dinners mean to me. When I was growing up in rural northern California, I could always count on meeting my parents and two sisters at the maple dinner table around 6:30. We all helped getting dinner ready and would sit down together. For at least half an hour we would discuss how our day had gone, talked about matters which concerned us, and made future family plans. After a busy day our evening meal was a chance to gather our little tribe around the table and reconnect with each other. This pleasant time seemed like a reward for the day’s hard work.
Dining was about “us”, rather than the “I” so many families have evolved to cater to. There wasn’t a separate menu for each person. Even the babies had whatever we adults ate, just pureed or minced. If someone didn’t like something they were given a dab, just in case this was the day it suddenly tasted good, which often happened. As kids, we were most enthusiastic about the dishes we had a part in producing.
Conversation was spontaneous and unpredictable, although negative topics were discouraged since they might impair our appetites. Discussion between bites was fun, and often interspersed with fits of giggling with my sisters, to my father’s constant chagrin.
This nightly gathering was a common scene in America in the ‘50’s and ‘60’s. People didn’t make plans around dinnertime and you were expected to be at your seat or sitting with your friend’s family at their table. Folks didn’t call during the dinner hour.
Why we don’t eat together as much today
In recent generations, Americans moved from cooking at home to eating out because they think they don’t have time to cook, says Sheryl Garrett, founder of the Garrett Planning Network. But that’s not a sound decision, she says.
“If you think about it, if you count packing the family into the car, driving to the Applebee’s, standing in line for 20 minutes, getting to your table, waiting for your food, checking out, paying the bill of 40 or 50 dollars, and then driving back home, have you saved any time at all? No, definitely not. And you’ve probably spent four times the money you would have at home.”
The variety and convenience of ‘fast food’ has certainly taken a bite out of family mealtimes. And with good reason. Food franchises have learned how to cater to our fast-paced lifestyles by delivering a wide range of food items ‘on the go’ at low cost. Today, with 19% of meals in the US being eaten in cars, we’ve come to depend on ready access to food. But while convenience foods have their place, especially for quick breakfasts and lunches for working people, they are no substitute for family dinners eaten together.
The benefits of eating family meals together
While our smart phones and devices have brought us closer to the rest of humanity, it is the family meal that brings us closer to our own clan. The fabric of family is woven by shared experiences and time spent together. Here are some things we gain when we share meals as a family:
Eating together is more efficient, less expensive and healthier
My mother planned well-balanced meals using few convenience foods because cooking from scratch was always more economical, healthful, and tasty. My dad had a garden and a few fruit trees which provided fresh produce. To supplement, in summer we would go to big farms to do the last picking of strawberries, peaches, plums, and corn. Then we would spend hours freezing or canning summer’s bounty to enjoy all winter.
In the fall my father would go deer hunting and we would have organic venison. Also there were local pasture-fed animals to source from farmers. We knew where our food came from, and it was almost always locally sourced.
When I became responsible for the care of my own children, I grew more interested in nutrition. Being a single adventurous woman in San Francisco I had explored spices, seasonings and ethnic foods, but returned to the idea that freshness was the key to flavor and nutrition. In Laurel’s Kitchen and Diet for a Small Planet, I learned why whole natural foods, minimally processed, improve our health.
Eating together teaches children food sustainability.
When our children were young, one of the common threads of table conversation was acknowledging where our food came from. Each item usually had a story, such as where bananas grew and what kind of trip they had coming to our home. By growing and raising much of our food, the children learned the basics of gardening and took more interest in meals. They might have picked the broccoli, helped make applesauce from apples they picked by climbing trees, or collected the eggs for the omelet.
Children need to learn how the cost of convenience foods goes beyond the purchase price. The environmental costs of individual portion packaging, for manufacturing and disposal, are significant. A major perpetrator of deforestation in the South is the fast food industry. With nearly 100 paper packaging mills in the US South and thousands of restaurants worldwide, major fast food retailers such as McDonald’s, Wendy’s, KFC and Taco Bell are leaders in paper consumption and subsequent waste.
Eating together builds closer relationships within the family
It goes without saying that communication is the key to understanding. Although we live as a family, each member is on a different track through life. Spending time together over meals lets us keep in touch with each other on a regular basis. To quote Joseph Califano, Jr, of Columbia University, “One of the simplest and most effective ways for parents to be engaged in their teens’ lives is by having frequent family dinners.”
Nights at the round table
When my husband Greg was a child, his family ate at a round table. The table was inherited from grandparents, and placing it in the dining room suited the shape of the room. But there was another benefit to the round table which was less apparent: because there was no “head” to the table, everyone in the family had an equal place. The ambience was very democratic – the children shared ideas with their parents as equals, and this encouraged the spontaneous and relaxed sharing of ideas.
The neighbors across the street were a fun, vibrant Italian family. But dinnertime was a strict affair, with the father sitting at the head of the large rectangular table and the mother at the opposite end. The father held court during meals, and the kids were expected to “eat up and shut up.” Although Greg spent much of his time in their house, he never stayed for dinner. He seemed to think that the table seating arrangement, which mirrored the traditional family hierarchy, stifled open communication.
It may be a stretch to think that the shape of the table and the seating order can influence communication, but we also dine at a round table in our home, and it has been the center of countless happy times spent with family and friends.
How to change the family dynamic
What if you decide your goal is to gather everyone to the table and have quality meal time together? How do you change the dynamic in your home?
Try setting a modest goal of two times a week and build from there
Eating meals together as a family does not necessarily mean the experience will be wonderful. Even within families, it takes practice to get along. Researchers at the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University found essentially that family dinner gets better with practice; the less often a family eats together, the worse the experience is likely to be, the less healthy the food and the more meager the talk.
Simplify the food preparation
Probably the main reason we favor convenience food is the perception that home-cooked meals take more time to put together. This can certainly be the case. But there are shortcuts we can use to make food preparation fast and easy. Soups and stews can be made in quantities large enough to last two or three dinners. And when cooking rice or potatoes, make enough for a few meals. Recipes can be kept simple if you cook using fresh ingredients, and meals will still taste delicious.
Turn off cell phones and texting devices
The interruption of a phone call or text message is a sure way to break the conversation and remind everyone of events beyond the dinner table. It’s bad enough that tele-marketers call during the dinner hour. At our home we unplug the phone during mealtime; it makes our time together more relaxing and conducive to conversation.
Get the family involved in shopping and food preparation
Learning to shop wisely and to prepare food are useful life skills which are becoming more important with rising food prices and economic uncertainty. Young children can be helpful in the kitchen given a little guidance. We taught our kids how to roll out their own tortillas, which was messy, but they were proud to contribute to the meal. And they would eat just about anything if it were wrapped in one of their tortillas. When shopping, we practiced thrift. I remember preparing to order in a breakfast restaurant, and one of our kids asked the waitress for “bacon on sale”, thinking that was what you call “bacon”.
It is hard to fathom that 1/3 of America’s children eat fast food every day, according to Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Good quality food, simply prepared, should take less than 45 minutes to put on the table. With good organization and family participation, food can be prepared in advance on the weekend, with some frozen for future meals. Any recipe can be adapted to be more healthful, even just by reducing the oil or butter and substituting whole wheat for white flour.
“If it were just about food, we would squirt it into their mouths with a tube,” says Robin Fox, an anthropologist who teaches at Rutgers University in New Jersey, about the intangible benefits that family dinner bestows on us. “A meal is about civilizing children. It’s about teaching them to be a member of their culture.”
Being together daily at the table is an important chance to celebrate being a family: by staying in touch, learning about family culture, food, and practicing the social skills of dining and conversation. Family meals are for nourishment, comfort and support. And, food is better eaten with the people we love!