The Lost Art of Family Dinners

Dinner in Suburbia by Make Less Noise
When I was a child, we ate dinner together nearly every night. I did not necessarily love the whole ritual, especially when my mother made hamburger pie, covered with mashed potatoes, or when I was in trouble for one thing or another (which was a lot), but I can see from this angle that it was a good thing.

Our kitchen was large and we ate there, gathered around the white melamine table with its painted edging of lacy gold leaves. We had assigned seats, mainly because my sister Merry is left-handed, but also because there was sometimes a scuffle over who landed the seat next to my dad. My parents pinned the ends, and I sat between my mother and my sister Cathy (who still jockeys to sit next to my father at all functions). My father would ask, “What was the highlight of YOUR day?” and we’d have to answer.

Supper was rarely anything fancy. Tacos and spaghetti and sometimes a Sunday roast beef, most every meal made from ground beef, which was affordable and stretched over six people. We did eat Hamburger Helper, which honestly didn’t seem that terrible to me, and jello with fruit, green beans from a can (I absolutely despised frozen vegetables) and applesauce from a jar, and sliced wheat bread with margarine to fill up whatever didn’t get full from the main meal. (Four growing teenagers can eat a lot!) When my father worked for awhile at a 7-Up bottling plant, he sometimes brought home six packs of Nehi, but we mostly drank Kool-Aid. (Hey, it was the ’70’s. Nobody had discovered cuisine, at least not in the suburbs.)

We talked, made conversation. Sometimes my father would ask us all to tell the highlight of our day, and we’d moan about it, but it was fun. We talked about everything, and if anyone had a problem, they stayed at the table after dinner to sort it out.

So naturally, when my own children came along, I also created a tradition of dinner at the table. American standbys had shifted a bit by then. Chicken and soups and Mexican food were my standbys, things that wouldn’t burn if I became distracted by my work. We drank milk and iced tea. Again, simple food on a simple rotation, the same 30 meals in endless rotation. In our house, we sat in the dining room with blue walls (light blue for a long time, then a bright, bold deep blue I loved madly), around a heavy wooden table someone gave us early in our marriage. The dogs were banished to the line on the other side of the door, and waited politely to finish. We talked about school, and I asked them sometimes to share the highlight of their day. Somebody would tell a joke. Someone would lodge a complaint.

But it was good.

There has been much made about some (flawed) studies of children and family dinners, and I’m not going to bother with statistics here. I’m an observer, not a social scientist; a curious writer, not a statistician. We don’t need statistics. Our gut knows that this is an important ritual. Time Magazine said it best in this article from 2006:

“There is something about a shared meal–not some holiday blowout, not once in a while but regularly, reliably–that anchors a family even on nights when the food is fast and the talk cheap and everyone has someplace else they’d rather be. And on those evenings when the mood is right and the family lingers, caught up in an idea or an argument explored in a shared safe place where no one is stupid or shy or ashamed, you get a glimpse of the power of this habit and why social scientists say such communion acts as a kind of vaccine, protecting kids from all manner of harm. Read more: http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1200760,00.html#ixzz0gEQfFb8l”

Yet, over and over we read that the family dinner is in decline. There are likely hundreds of reasons. Parents who work long hours to keep the mortgage paid, the decline in cooking skills, fast food, irregular schedules. I suspect, however, that we’ve simply fallen out of practice a bit.

In THE LOST RECIPE FOR HAPPINESS and THE SECRET OF EVERYTHING, family dinners end up playing a small but crucial part of the narrative. And I’m forced to admit that I believe in it, family dinner, believe that it has the power to cure all kinds of ills and problems. Not everything. Heaven knows family dinners didn’t keep me out of trouble as a rebellious (and obnoxious) teen. They did, however, give me a place to retreat, fall apart, even make reparation by showing up and behaving myself. “Pass the potatoes, please,” and “Does anyone want this last tortilla?” can go a long way to healing rifts.

Family dinners don’t have to look like they do on television. Maybe both mom and dad can’t be at the table. Maybe the family is mom and one child, or dad and his visiting children, or stepfamilies assembled in all their glorious and inglorious incarnations. Maybe it’s even grandpa bring home some chicken and biscuits from the local Kentucky Fried.

The important part is the regular-ish timing of it. It’s the setting of the table and the sitting down to a meal on plates, whether it came out of a bucket or an oven or is peanut butter sandwiches and a glass of milk. It’s the dumb requirements of conversation (What was the highlight of your day? What was one thing that happened today?) and the attempts to be present for each other, even if—as in the Time paragraph—everybody would rather be holed up in their rooms in front of the television.

So, those would be my rules for magical family dinners.

Same time every night
(If evenings don’t work, make family time at breakfast.)
Seven days a week.
Every family member is required to sit at the table unless they have to work (and parents should not use this as an excuse very often. Aim for a time that’s realistic.)
Everybody has to participate even if they think it’s silly.

Bonus points:
Prepare meals from scratch together
Offer a blessing from your tradition over the food before you begin
Aim for one really great meal every week, maybe Saturday evening, and follow with family games or movies.

Triple points for teenagers showing up. I shamelessly used bribery with mine, but you may be more squeamish.

Eat. Talk. Prosper.
—————–
Do you find it difficult to arrange family dinners? What gets in your way? What tricks have you found to help? Did your family eat together?

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15 thoughts on “The Lost Art of Family Dinners

  1. We eat dinner together Monday through Thursday with few exceptions. We usually eat out on the weekends, one night together, one night date night, and Sunday everyone fends for themselves after lunch out together. The older the kids get, the higher chance one or more are missing for various school activities, etc., but they know we’re still here, sitting at the table, eating our rotation of dinners. :) The TV is off, with the exception of American Idol season, when we all sit on the same side of the table so we can see the TV and yell at the judges.

    We eat late, because it’s when we’re all here. Usually around 7:30 or 8. I don’t think we have any tricks. We’ve just been doing it so long, we wouldn’t know what else to do.

    I eat at the table even when I’m alone. I like eating at a table.

    And hey, who says hamburger helper, canned green beans, canned peaches, and bread and butter aren’t still in style?! We eat that about once a month or so!

  2. We eat dinner together every night. It was something that my family did when I was growing up and I have made it important to my kids. My daughter (who is 17) remarked on it the other night. That she liked sitting down and eating together and that only a few of her friends did. Dinners at our house aren’t always fancy, sometimes they are take-out and sometimes they are meals that the kids have cooked. We don’t have the tv on while we eat because we talk about our day. I make the kids tell me their high point and their low point to which one of my kids will inevitably said this game! But I think they enjoy it.

    I don’t know if its because I’m Italian-American or what but food is just central to my life and central to how I build bonds.

    My family had assigned seats growing up and when we are all home now with our kids we will make our kids move if they sit in our spot. I sit by my dad with a vacant seat next to me because we were only five.

    Kathy

  3. Family dinner in my home is casual but it’s there every night for my boy…even if that means it’s in a restaurant, just the two of us. But mostly, it’s the easy meals; soup and salad, cheese and crackers and dried sausage and and fruit dishes, or crock pot stews and hunks of french bread that are the most fun and the ones where we sit and talk about the craziest of things. Sometimes dinner is on a picnic blanket, sitting on the floor in the living room or on the patio. Yup, it’s a place to just be us and it’s a really important place.

  4. Vicki

    Loved this blog and love your writing. I just wrote a link for my husband’s Facebook page and writing 3 sentences makes me nervous.
    I have three kids, boy 13, boy 11, and girl 9, I try to keep dinner time for us. Sometimes my husband makes it, sometimes not, but at least 5 times a week the 4 of us sit down to dinner together. Time passes so quickly with kids at this age, I think I’d loose track of them with out it. Thanks again, Vicki

  5. The husband and I eat together every night, though usually it’s in the living room with the TV on. Still, we’re doing a lot of talking and not so much listening or watching. Catching up on both of our days. Love that time with him.

    My daughter in law and I decided this year we’d do at least one family dinner a month because we need to all get together more often. We did ours yesterday, and sat around the table afterward talking, with the nearly three year old grandson the only one who left to go Do Other Things. *g*

  6. thea

    I always had family dinner at the table, but with sports I’d sometimes have to push it back an hour or so. It is what my sons talk about when we get together and they also have their special meal requests. Number one is ham, mashed potatoes, canned corn, pilsbury crescent rolls (not the store brand). Okay, not totally from scratch! The only time we ate in the living room for dinner is when I’d make a huge tray of nachos and we’d circle around it like a campfire and scarf it down.

  7. Barb

    When I was growing up we ate most of our dinners together as a family. Even when my sister and I were in high school and had a lot of extracurricular activities, we still managed to eat dinner together as a family at least 3 – 4 nights a week. We also had a large extended family and all 21 of us would get together for dinner at some family member’s house at least once a month. We’d eat and then sit around the table and talk for hours; even the kids would do that.

    It’s interesting that when the mother of a family I know of sat the family down to tell them that she would be leaving her husband and two kids, the first words out of the twelve year old child’s mouth were, “Are you leaving because you never have dinner with us?”

    I think family dinners make more of an impact than a lot of people will ever realize.

  8. SueD

    We’ve always shared family dinners, and it’s truly been a time to connect. I swear we’ve had fewer problems with our kids because of it. It’s an opportunity to find out what they’re up to, and what’s important in their lives. It’s also a chance to talk about the subjects they’re studying, and during this last exam period, it was a way of informally going over course content. No one was quizzing my daughter, we merely asked conversed about politics or literature, and we added information that she might not have previously had.

    Our time together is a gift. When the kids were in grade five or so, we started making them responsible for making part of the dinner, then they’d make the whole dinner. They became a lot more respectful of eating what people made. The bonus now is that they know how to cook when they go off to university/college and that they’re pretty clear that fast food is not a good deal compared to home cooked.

    When they were young, I was completely happy to have them make grilled cheese or tacos, and it was when they got bored making that that they started branching out and making more complex meals.

  9. Barbara Samuel

    Wish I’d spent more time teaching mine to cook. That’s a smart idea. We made things together, but mostly desserts.

    Love these reports. No one has said it was difficult, however. Or that there are big challenges to getting it done.

  10. We always sit down to eat together, but my guy and I were raised that way, plus we like having our meals with the kids. If my guy is going to be home late from work, I usually give the kids a snack and we wait for him. If they’re too hungry to wait, I’ll feed them and wait to eat myself until he comes home.

    Early childhood meals with my family were always a silent, crowded, grim ordeal for too many unhappy reasons, but fortunately my mom married a chef when I was seventeen, and he changed my whole attitude toward cooking and gathering at the table. Food became a celebration, every night. Thanks to him I learned how to have fun and keep things loose and casual. Now if we or the kids have friends over, they are always invited to stay and eat with us, and that’s the thing I love best — anyone is welcome at our table.

    Now that the kids are teens, I often turn the kitchen over to them and their friends so they can cook. Teenage boys are often more enthusiastic about cooking than girls, but I think it’s because most moms still don’t expect their sons to learn how to cook.

  11. I miss family dinners. Completely. Totally. I come from a large family, 5 kids. We sat around a table by age. Me, the youngest, by mom, right round to Jesse the eldest, by dad. Like you, there was lots of hamburger (“mixed up stuff”, tacos, hamburgers, stuffed hamburgers (everyone’s fave), and then the occassional exotica – egg foo yung, shrimp curry, pancakes). But every night, a meal together. Even if Jess ate his in 20 seconds flat and left the table, he was still there. Oh, and Annie, the dog, was right between my brother and me, ready to help out on broccoli and liver nights…

    But I am alone now, no kids or spouse, and as I eat my meals on the couch with a book, I really really miss that time more than anything.

  12. glee

    As a widow with children who now live elsewhere and whose own parents are long gone, I miss these family suppers. We had them in my growing-up family and I carried that tradition into my marriage and with my own family. But when we are able to gather, we cherish that time. One of my college roommates (who is now a much-published poet and whose father was a famous novelist) told me of her family’s tradition. It wasn’t the highlight of your day, but ‘how would today have gone if you were telling a story about it?’ Thus everyone was encouraged to be creative even if perhaps it was not longer clear what really happened.

  13. We eat together nearly every meal. My husband or I cook (sometimes my eight-year old helps)–it’s healthier and cheaper. One challenge is keeping the three kids from teasing/fighting and to eat–at least a few bites per hour. The other is to relax, listen, be present in the moment. Often we’re all spaced out from our day and staring out the windows that we don’t have much conversation. The thing is, we’re there together and it seems to be enough. I like your idea of a prompt and wonder how it will work on the introverts of the family (extroverts 3, introverts 2…we’ve got them outnumbered!)

  14. We always had family dinner, and as a newlywed, my hubby and I eat together at our table every night. Family time is so important, and I love family dinners. I love that you posted about this! Thank you!

  15. thanks for that mate! awesome idea and thoroughly interesting read. i been trying to convince my mates that we should have a guys curry night in instead of going out every week, and actually did it last week. effin great success, i can tell you! i found a tasty keema and a few others from this wicked curry recipe site, and even made the naan meself too. who said guys cant cook!

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