We’ve all heard about the family that eats together, stays together. But who sits down for regular family dinners anymore? Reality just gets in the way. Does the lack of family dinner time really cause dysfunctional families, juvenile delinquency and worse—as experts such as those at Columbia and Harvard universities would have us believe?
For many, the Norman Rockwell image of the happy family sitting around the dinner table has gone the way of starched and ironed aprons. These days, frantic families treat dinner like pit stops, stopping only to refuel before rushing out to soccer or dance practice — or work. For many busy parents, trying to arrange an evening meal together spells a scheduling nightmare. How did the Brady Bunch do it?
Chances are, family dinners are more likely to be watched on TV (The Sopranos, Roseanne, the Simpsons) rather than experienced in real life.
I polled my friends and their friends, even their kids, to find out if they have time for family dinners. I also asked for their comments regarding a recent ColumbiaUniversity study that said teenagers who eat with their families at least five times a week are likely to get better grades in school and are less likely to become alcoholics or drug addicts.
Nobody’s disagreeing with the experts who say that kids should eat dinner with their parents. But experts also say children should participate in sports and other activities and get at least nine hours sleep a night. Phew! Just how many hours are there in one day?
“I think the thesis that nightly family dinners are better for kids is probably true, but that’s easier said than done,” says Kate Shewchuk, who these days has a hard time getting her four family members at the table at once. “It doesn’t take into account all kinds of things, from a teenager’s need to be with her friends and show up for her job, to the annoyance of picky eaters and the irritable family dynamic they help create.”
When Shewchuk’s two kids were young, they always ate dinner together. She wasn’t a soccer mum with numerous obligations and hectic schedules. But even then, it wasn’t easy. There were food issues, beyond fussiness. ”My family has a lot of allergies and food intolerances, so while one child can’t eat peanuts or peas, one parent and the other child can’t eat dairy or gluten,” says Shewchuk.
As a result, like many parents, she and her husband (both enthusiastic cooks) had to keep family meals simple. ‘When supper is as boring to make as it is to eat, it’s a little discouraging.”
Nevertheless, says Shewchuk, “Parents who insist on their children being home for dinner are, at the very least, paying attention to where their kids are and probably to their demeanor – if the kids turn up stoned or drunk or freshly tattooed, the parents will notice. It’s important for adults to keep at least that much track of their kids, especially when they’re in the 13-to-15-year-old age group. After that, teens tend to have their own lives and only occasionally squeeze you into them. And then, believe it or not, you miss those awful chicken nugget dinners and all that spilled milk.”
Chicken nugget overdoses notwithstanding, the Columbia study says that regular family dinners are making a comeback. The study found an increase in the number of children ages 12 to 17 who said they ate family dinners at least five times a week.
This is hard to believe when you talk to the people on the front lines. Shewchuk’s 12-year-old son has long been known as “three-bite-Jake.”
“ I’m always in a hurry to finish dinner,” he says. “I can’t sit down for a long time focusing on nothing….Maybe I could sit down to a family dinner for an hour but that’s not gonna happen until I’m 20.”
Jake would much rather be watching TV, playing video games and hanging out with his friends. “It’s not that I don’t want to have a family dinner,” he adds, “I like cooking and it’s fun, but it isn’t that important.”
Maybe Jake needs a talking-to from nutritionist Victoria Pawloski. She says the meal’s function goes far beyond making sure your child is eating the right foods. “The family meal is a grounding place for your family to come together and we don’t have a lot of that,” she says. Pawloski believes the supper table is a checking-in place and if people start from a young age, a habit develops–they will soon bring themselves to the table—willingly.
Yet another study, from HarvardUniversity, found that family dinners were the most important family events in helping children acquire language skills, not to mention table etiquette.
When Pawloski’s two kids were young, conversation skills were taught around meal time. “I would ask them to describe one good, one bad and one interesting thing,” she says. “They learned that it is OK to have good and bad and they developed listening skills.”
She notes that the rule doesn’t have to be dinner on the dining room table every night at the same time. “I had good times with my teens but occasionally, if we didn’t sit down and watch TV while we had dinner, we would kill each other,” says Pawloski. “We would eat in the car when we had 10 minutes to get to the soccer game. But a few times during the week, say Sunday brunch or Saturday lunch, it wasn’t negotiable—no matter how busy they were.”
The reality is that most families will only eat a few meals per week together. “That is OK, but try not to eat in front of the TV,” says Pawloski, laughing.
On many grocery lists, moveable meals—anything that can be eaten in the car on the way to evening activities– are ubiquitous. And heat-up meals that take a few minutes to prepare have replaced the traditional meat, potatoes and two veg.
But what you serve is important, Pawloski says. Fast food takes seconds to wolf down and that speed of preparation and consumption defeats the purpose of mealtime. “Focus on food being pleasurable–don’t nag, fight and discipline during meals,” she suggests. “It is a time-out place where everyone relaxes. It’s not about problem-solving or complaining about each other or even defending the food.”
After all, dinnertime is a way to master life skills. “Bring healthy food into the house and let your kids decide how much they want to eat,” advises Pawloski. “It builds respect and kids learn to trust their inner knowing of hunger and satiety and intuition—their gut feelings.”
It’s a Culture Thing
Does the family that eats together stay together? In some cultures, definitely. Anna Fung, along with her parents and four siblings, moved to Vancouver from Hong Kong decades ago and they still live close to each other. In Chinese families, as in many other cultures, food is a huge part of the social and family network. Fung points out that the traditional greeting amongst Chinese people is not “How are you?”, but “Have you eaten yet?” Still, Fung family dinners fell by the wayside after high school. Before that, it was seven days a week, always at the same time.
“My Chinese friends also grew up with family dinners and we all went to restaurants,” says Fung. As well, Chinese families tend to have grandparents living with them. “Grandmother or mother had more time to cook and most of them didn’t work,” she points out. “But it’s different these days—mostly families are feeding one child, and a nanny might be cooking. If you are lucky, your parents live with you (free day care).”
Michele Allaire also believes family dinnertime is a cultural thing—and a tradition. She spent her first 25 years in France with her family and grandparents. “The family dinner is basically two major things: half food and half connecting with family,” says Allaire. Being a serious foodie, she says that dinnertime means having control over a healthy balanced diet, made from scratch.
Every night, seven days a week, Allaire and her husband, Garth Rowan, sit down with their daughter, Carolyn, for dinner. It helps that Michele works at home and can pop a chicken into the oven or check the cassoulet during the day. “At 6p.m., dinner is ready,” she says. “The table is set in the kitchen and every electronic device is shut down including four telephones, TV and computer.”
Allaire sets the table with a tablecloth, candles, water and wine glasses every night (her teenage daughter doesn’t drink wine–yet). Dinner comprises a main course, then a green salad, a cheese plate with crackers, and always fruit, yoghurt or dessert. “What should take us 15 minutes to eat goes on for an hour,” she says. “Garth talks about work, Carolyn discusses her grumpy teacher, what she wants to do next Christmas or for the rest of her life, and I even get a word in–we are all very talkative.”
Allaire believes if this time were taken away from her family, something would be terribly amiss. She believes that Carolyn might withdraw, sit at the computer and just hang out with her friends. “ I wouldn’t know her life and I would be worried about what she eats,” she says. “ It’s OK twice a week if she eats a lame pizza or fast food.”
Allaire also knows lots of kids who don’t eat this way. “When Carolyn brings a friend for dinner, they are shocked that we aren’t eating in front of the TV,” she says with a chuckle. “Then they sit down and get excited about their food. They want to know what it is, how it is made, where it is grown…now they almost have to make reservations.”
It’s 8.30 p.m, and Eve McKenna is driving home from work. “We try to sit down but it only happens a few times a week,” she says from her cell phone. Her 15-year-old daughter has after-school dance programs and her 12-year-old son has to be at the top of GrouseMountain as part of the ski team by 5 p.m. Ready-to-go food is the norm.
“They learned from a young age how to microwave,” says McKenna, laughing. “I’ll often call the kids on the way home and instruct them to chop vegetables and put the rice on and I’ve had the foresight to defrost a chicken. I’m trying to wrap my head around slow cookers but you have to plan days ahead of time…”
In addition to the kids’ activities, her husband, Dan, is on a different schedule from her own. “Sometimes I think our lives are too busy and complicated,” says McKenna. “We set the table and light the candles but this is the reality: it doesn’t play out that way and I would never take away the kids’ activities.”
McKenna’s goal is to have dinner together, whether it means heating up leftovers or everyone eating in the car en route to his or her separate obligations. Most of us understand that sitting down to a solid meal is optimal, but time is a factor. Not everyone can work at home or stick to a 9 to 5 routine.
As for the ColumbiaUniversity study, “I think it has a lot to do with the family structure and it cuts a wide swath across North America,” she says. “Maybe those parents in the study aren’t around at all and it’s a symptom of something larger.”
Of course, nobody wants to rear what appears to be a feral child. Even Mark Twain’s Huck Finn had to deal with social manners when he arrived at the Widow Douglas’s house. “When you got to the table, you couldn’t go right to eating,” said Huck, “but you had to wait for the widow to tuck down her head and grumble a little over the victuals, though there warn’t really anything the matter with them—that is, nothing only everything was cooked by itself.”
In my opinion, Huck Finn and most children today have had it good. When I was growing up in England, we weren’t allowed to talk at the dinner table when my father was home (fortunately, he traveled a lot). And all five of us kids had to sit silently at the table until everyone had finished eating. If we didn’t eat everything on our dinner plate, we would get it again the next night. I recall my sister and me bawling our eyes out at the breakfast table because we had to finish last night’s mutton and barley stew before we went to school. We couldn’t afford to waste food. If one of us didn’t like a certain dish (I hated liver and kidneys), we still had to eat it. My mother swears that I wasn’t forced to eat kidneys but I beg to differ.
And how did we turn out? I’m bad to the bone. As for the rest of them, we don’t speak. As for the Shewchuk and McKenna families, the kids are alright.
The Virtual Family Dinner
International consulting firm Accenture has set up a videoconferencing system called the Virtual Family Dinner. It comprises a screen similar to a large flat-screen television and two cameras focused on a kitchen table.
Built-in software monitors the images from the cameras, and when it detects that the kitchen’s occupant is putting food on the table, the system tries to reach those people on a list of contacts until it finds someone available for a dinnertime chat.
Dadong Wan, the Accenture senior researcher who developed the prototype, sees a huge need for the growing number of separated families to be able to connect. He believes that the dinner table has always been a family gathering place, so The Virtual Family Dinner is intended to “restore a moment of tradition.”
“Many people focus on the socializing and bonding benefits that dinnertime gatherings have for families with young children,” says Heather Keller, an associate professor in the Department of Family Relations and Applied Nutrition at the University of Guelph. “It has a lot to do with a person’s feeling of who they are as a person and their connection to the world.”