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 the 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. roughly same hour
(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. Enjoy.
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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?

February 21, 2010

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