Dinnertime in America

At 7 p.m. every weekday evening, the Ford family in Austin, Texas, gathers for dinner. It takes only about 20 minutes to eat, but Deanna and Glaston Ford and their four daughters, ranging in age from 2 to 11, happily linger at the table about twice that long. They take turns talking, with conversation enlivened by a favorite game called "High, Low, Victory," which involves each person reporting on the peaks and valleys of his or her day. The TV stays off, and the answering machine remains on during this time, which Mr. Ford calls "sacred" and 9-year-old Victoria considers special, because "we get to hear what people have been doing all day."

Sound too good to be true? Think again. According to a recent Christian Science Monitor/TIPP poll of 932 Americans, 63 percent of family members eat dinner together either "frequently" or "always." The numbers are even higher for families with children age 18 and under: 59 percent responded that they always eat together, and an additional 18 percent say they do so frequently.

Clearly, reports of the death of the family dinner hour have been greatly exaggerated. Of course, those numbers would have been much higher a generation ago, but many of today's families are making the effort to break bread together despite schedules that often tug them in different directions.

At the same time, even the Fords admit that everything about modern life seems to conspire against this important family ritual. And they realize that as their daughters get older and soccer practices or band rehearsals creep into the dinner hour, they might have to carve out other times to be together - perhaps more time during the weekend.

But, they say, the extra effort is worth it. "Our family is closer, we talk more, and we hope that since this foundation of open communication has been laid, the girls will keep sharing their feelings as they enter their teen years."

Easy-flowing communication is just a start, say the experts. The benefits that come from making family dinners a priority are numerous. Recent studies have found that regular family meals strengthen intellect, broaden vocabulary, and develop well-adjusted teenagers. This is also when values and beliefs can be imparted, manners learned, listening skills developed, appreciation for various foods acquired, and, perhaps most important, when children gain a feeling of connectedness and belonging, which can yield big rewards later in life.

"A baby's first social experience is to be brought to the table, where she sees people together and begins to feel part of a group," explains parent educator Evelyn Petersen, who has authored several books, penned a parenting column, and doles out advice online. "Also, with early man, the primary social activity was to sit and have a meal with extended family, tell stories, and make up games. This same sense of belonging is crucial in today's fast world, where we all need to hold onto an anchor as information whizzes by."

Much of what is learned while sharing a pot of spaghetti with Mom and Dad can be learned while doing other activities such as hiking, taking a road trip, or engaging in sports together, say parenting experts such as Ms. Petersen. But, they add, there's nothing quite like the experience of sitting down together, looking into one another's eyes, and listening to one another's stories.

The Monitor/TIPP poll reveals that 83 percent of Americans believe dinnertime is the best time for family members to get together and talk. Of those, 86 percent with children agree strongly with this statement, as do 81 percent without children.

"It gives me the opportunity to study my children's faces," says Susan Nielsen, the mother of two boys from Spokane, Wash. "My husband and I hear things at dinner that would never come up in any other conversation. We're all notorious for talking to our kids as they walk away, when they are upstairs and we're downstairs, or just firing off a list of to-dos at them. At the dinner table, the only thing we can do is be together and talk to each other."

The Nielsens try to keep conversation loose and never arrive with an agenda. "Any subject is fair game," says Scott Nielsen, who works for the state of Washington as a pesticide investigator. "Sometimes Susan and I will talk a little about our days at the office, and the children learn about our jobs." Eleven-year-old Peter confirms this: "I learned at dinner that mom is her own boss," he says, "and that dad hears a lot of complaints about chemicals and plants."

When it's his turn to talk, Peter might share "something exciting or something that went wrong, such as getting invited to a birthday party or getting in trouble at school," to which he quickly adds: "Of course, that last part doesn't happen much - anymore."

Humor often works its way into the Nielsens' time together. "We laugh a lot during dinner. I'm not sure why," says Mrs. Nielsen, chuckling. "Maybe it's because my husband has this incredible sense of humor. He really shines at dinner, and gets us all cracking up."

With two active boys, the Nielsens' dinnertime isn't always interruption-free. In fact, says Mr. Nielsen, "our evening schedule goes out the window with the boys' baseball season."

During their spring/early summer games, which run from 5:30 p.m. until about 8:30 or sometimes 9 p.m., the Nielsens play a bit of tag-team parenting. "The key," says Scott, "is to be sure that on nights when there's nothing going on, that you are consistent and all together. We will also make an extra effort to all be together on weekends, especially Sundays."

Kudos to the Nielsens, says Susan Newman, teacher at Rutgers University in New Jersey and author of 11 books on family/parenting topics. "It's the rare child today who doesn't have some kind of practice, rehearsal, or other commitment. Parents need to improvise to come up with ways to meet as a family as often as possible. Sometimes attending one child's sporting event during dinner and bringing a picnic can be a good solution."

If the Nielsen boys aren't playing baseball, they might be watching it - yes, even during dinner. "As a rule, we don't allow TV during dinner," explains their mother, "but we're a bit caught up in Mariner madness at the moment."

The Nielsens aren't the only ones who switch on the tube occasionally during dinner. The Monitor/TIPP poll shows that 37 percent of families with children tune in now and then (as opposed to 49 percent of those without children).

Even the Ford family succumbs to the small screen as they butter their potatoes, but only for a major event, such as a televised presidential speech.

In general, television remains a bad word among parenting pros. They call it everything from a "distraction" to an "intimacy-avoidance tool," insisting that even the most educational program thwarts communication and closeness during dinnertime.

Knowing that it can be hard work to carve out time for a family supper several times a week, Ms. Newman still urges parents to give it their best shot.

"Years from now," she says, "your child will look back and remember dinner, the fun they had, and the things they learned. Dinner can become a fond memory of growing up and not something the family just tried to fit in."

THE FAMILY HOUR

Families with children under 18 eat dinner together always or frequently 77% of the time, they told pollsters. But for those with no kids at home, the percentage falls to 57%. Hispanics dine as a family 67% of the time; more than whites (65%) or blacks (53%). Although 86% of parents predictably agreed - completely or somewhat - that dinnertime is the best time for family members to get together and talk, those without children felt the same way 81% of the time. Even 76% of the 18-to-24-year-old crowd concurred.

FEASTING WITH FRIENDS

Of those who eat dinner out, 69% go to a restaurant more frequently than someone's house. But 48.2% of Hispanics say that when they eat out, they either go to the home of a friend or family member, or they're equally as likely to eat at restaurants or someone's house.

THE FREQUENT-DINER CLUB

A majority of Americans eat dinner out at least five times a month; 26% say they avoid cooking 10 or more times a month, with 18-to-24-year-olds grabbing a bite away from home 12 times monthly. Men dine out nine times; women, seven. Whites average eight restaurant meals; blacks, five.

Please pass the remote

Q: How often do you watch TV when eating dinner?

28% say they always watch when eating.

16.1% say frequently

19.1% say sometimes

The South and West are biggest TV-while-eating regions, tying at 49.1%.

Males watch while they eat (47.1%) slightly more than females (43.1%).

Young adults and older folks watch and eat the most. 48% for 18-to-24 year olds, 47% for 65+.

The less money you make the more you watch 'n' eat. 56% under $20k, 32% over $100k.

Blacks (59.2%) are more likely to watch TV at dinner than Hispanics (53%) or whites (41%).

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