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The family dinner is back – not haute, but the right thing to do

The family dinner – bolstered by science and popular buzz – is back: From Hollywood to the White House and out there at the dinner tables of America, the family ritual is increasingly considered the right thing to do. The food may not be haute, but the gathering is believed to to be connected to lower rates of drug use, obesity, and pregancy among teens.

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The "new" family dinner has a designated day – Sept. 24 this year – along with corporate funding and recipes. Some communities have weekly activity-free nights to clear time for family dinner. Pediatricians are recommending the practice, as are authors, bloggers, and celebrity chefs. And now that dinner has gone, well, Hollywood, a meat-and-potatoes aesthetic has yielded to artfully folded table linens in Brooklyn, vintage monastery tables in Levittown, and, everywhere, the possibility of kelp.

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Who could ever question the communal breaking of bread? If nothing else, it simultaneously meets life's needs for physical, social, and spiritual nourishment. Until about 30 years ago, everybody got that. But the microwaves that enabled single-serving feeding converged in the 1980s with a woman-working/keep-kids-busy ethos. The result? A generation of picky eaters made more so by specially marketed kiddie foods served up by tired parents unwilling to pick a fight with kids they hadn't seen all day.

This, plus the idea of enforcing a family dinner routine when there might be a budding gymnastics superstar in the house bordered on, well, bad parenting. Didn't it?

Not anymore. In recent years, the family dinner has been returned to the manual of best parenting practices; and if you're not doing it, you know you probably should, says Miriam Weinstein, author of "The Surprising Power of Family Meals."

"It's become almost an article of faith that it's the right thing to do," says Ms. Weinstein. The tide began to turn, she says, with 2005-06 data from the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University in New York linking family dinner to a host of good outcomes for children. Other studies reinforced the link. Today, frequent family dinners – the magic number seems to be at least five times a week – are associated with lower teen use of alcohol, tobacco, and marijuana; lower risk of obesity, eating disorders, and teen pregnancy; and improved nutrition, physical and mental health, grades, and relationships with parents.

Today, more than half of families with children eat dinner together at least three to five times a week, according to Marlene Schwartz of the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at Yale University. US Census data suggest that the number may be creeping up, and advocates think the number may rise as those who schedule kids' activities clear time for families.

Some believe that the recession years' data may also boost the numbers of families eating together because unemployment leaves more time for cooking, and hard times spawn more appreciation for end-of-the-day togetherness.

"A positive spin" on the bad economy, Marshall Duke, professor of psychology at Emory University in Atlanta, calls it.

Census data suggest that family meals are most frequent in Hispanic households and in two-parent homes, and least frequent when a parent is divorced. The higher the parents' educational level, the less frequent the practice: Those who have not completed high school are the most likely to eat together, and those with advanced degrees the least.

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