Cover Story

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.

By , Correspondent

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    The right thing to do: the family dinner is back. The Dalmass family, of Moorestown, N.J, have dinner at home. This is part of the cover story project in the June 25 issue of The Christian Science MonitorWeekly.
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Most nights, the American family dinner is anything but haute. There are the peas fed to the dog; the fibs fed to the parents; the thing that looks like grace but really is heads bowed, hands fervently texting. Mom's on a diet. The diorama due tomorrow is half done. No wonder the evening meal, once a no-brainer, drifted over recent decades from the dining-room table to the kitchen counter to the minivan.

But lately, family dinner has gone upscale. In one of the most "duh" iterations of everything-old-is-new-again, dinner has regained the allure Mom always suspected it should have.

Bolstered by scientific data and an intensifying popular buzz, the family dinner has returned full force as the most important time of the day for many, and as the defining – nay, sacred – family activity. The ritual of breaking bread together creates family identity even as it conveys it. Soccer practice seems so yesterday.

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PHOTO GALLERY: The American family dinner

Studies show that roughly half of families eat together most nights. And while that number holds fairly steady, as a movement, family dinner seems to be reaching critical mass. Opinion leaders – like Tiger Mother Amy Chua, TV personality Cynthia McFadden, medical ethicist Ezekiel Emanuel – now dish about their personal experiences in The New York Times. The Huffington Post suggests table talk topics. "An Inconvenient Truth" documentary producer Laurie David takes the style elements up a notch in her book "The Family Dinner." Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg breaks from motherhood's don't-ask-don't-tell policy to fess up: She's always left work at 5:30 to eat with her children. Actress Gwyneth Paltrow spills in Harper's Bazaar that she's doing dinner for her husband and kids. The food-conscious Obamas share their own family dinner habits.

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.

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.

Experts say the benefits accrue whether the food is organically grown or taken out of a pizza box, whether the conversation follows a take-turns ritual or a more free-for-all format, whether it's actually family breakfast instead of family dinner that's being had.

And kids of all ages benefit. Even teenagers, stereotypically the most I'm-out-of-here bunch, think family dinner is important. A recent CASA poll reports that 58 percent of teens eat dinner with their families at least five times a week, and that 54 percent say they value the conversation as well as the food.

Professor Duke believes that the practice is more vital now than ever because family stories told at the table build the resilience kids need to navigate a recession-weary, post-9/11 world.

"The more that kids know about their family background, the more resilient they are. And not just about the positives, but about the times the family had trouble and people came through," he explains. They learn that relatives have made mistakes and recovered, and so can they; and that family identity can help them resist temptation, says Duke.

If it's resilience that kids need, it's prodding to take charge of their families that Mom and Dad need, says Weinstein, who often speaks to parent groups.

"Parents are feeling so incompetent, it's sad…. So many pick up the kids at day care, go through the drive-through, and eat in the car. I say 'why don't you take home the bag and eat [the food] on the table?' " says Weinstein.

Feeding a family is empowering for parents, say experts.

"There's a confidence about sharing something with your family, that you can provide something for your family, that your family can be together without having to send out for something," Weinstein explains.

But many just don't know how: They have no food in the house, no skills to prepare a meal, no confidence to turn off the TV and start a conversation. The feeling of incompetence afflicts the affluent and well-educated as well as the poor. Many are intimidated by what could be perceived as a need to be perfect – a standard suggested by celebrity chefs and by the call to wholesomeness and the home grown, to the requisite recipes, conversation starters, and let's-cook-together pressures.

But, actually, family dinner can be a balm for adults as well as kids, Weinstein says, citing an IBM study showing that, no matter how many hours they worked, employees who got home for dinner felt better about their families and jobs. Older studies, she says, have shown that even in homes of an alcoholic, the meal gave a sense that there was a family to hold onto.

The nonprofit Family Dinner Project, in Watertown, Mass., aims to shore up the practice. At its community dinners, mentors provide hands-on practice to families in preparing food, dining, conversing, and cleaning up. College students visit schools at lunch to model table manners during small-group dining. The project's website highlights families who've intentionally tapped dinner's therapeutic value to bond and counter discord.

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.

"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."

PHOTO GALLERY: The American family dinner

"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."

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