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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A Cornell University study questions whether the benefits to teens may be due to family environment, not dinner itself. In fact, whether family dinner as a practice actually produces successful children or simply reflects parental ability to organize a home and family is a matter of ongoing debate.Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures The Family Dinner Table
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"It could be a bellwether of how stable family life is overall," says Ashley Merryman, coauthor of the book "NurtureShock." The character-builders inherent in the family meal – structure, ritual, commitment, discipline, sacrifice – are well-established parenting positives, but the interpretations are individual.
Even what appears bad can be a plus, says Ms. Merryman. If yours is an arguing family, maybe you'll be good at getting raises from the boss someday. If you're complainers, maybe you'll be good at effecting change. Resist the temptation to bring out the good china and instead lower your standards, she advises parents. It's the predictability that's key.
The Rev. Leo Patalinghug, whose "Grace Before Meals" Web-based cooking show, website, and cookbook aim to promote family dinner, says all religions consider food a central element in bringing people together. He points to the parable of the prodigal son, where it was literal starvation that prompted the son's return to his father, who fed him lavishly. The Roman Catholic priest advises parents to aim to "be faithful, not perfect" in their meals, and to recognize the spiritual role they play: "Feeding his children is how God shows his love for us. In the simple act of feeding their own children," parents echo the divine love.
Ms. Schwartz of Yale, along with many others, praises the health benefits of the meal: "If you have dinner as a family, it's more likely that someone [at home] made the meal, and meals are more healthy when made at home." There tend to be more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains; less added sugar, fat, and sodium; and smaller servings than restaurant-prepared meals, she explains. In her own house, Schwartz says, togetherness is the tastiest ingredient. "There aren't other opportunities for everyone to sit down together, to have the feeling that we are a family."
"These are the good moments life is giving us," says producer and author Ms. David. Her family dinner began as soon as her now-teenage daughters could sit at the table, and has been one of her life's great pleasures ever since. Dinner sometimes includes her ex-husband, "Seinfeld" co-creator Larry David. As a parent coming down the homestretch with her kids, she gives credit to the family dinner tradition for her close relationships with her daughters, and with helping prevent them from "falling through the cracks" of an affluent, busy culture. And she credits it with helping her feel successful in her parenthood. "All this happened because I did this ritual," she says. "It's comforting to know I did this thing right."
But what happens when the couscous dries out or the preteen storms off or there are last-minute Lakers tickets?
Well that's kind of the point, experts say. Life – especially family life, and even in Hollywood – rarely goes according to script. But, as Ms. David puts it, "The great thing is you get to try again tomorrow."