Family Dinners Provide Food for Thought as Well

Timme Davis hasn't had a day off in two weeks. He's tired. He'd like to go to bed. But it's 7 p.m. - and time for the focus of his family's day: dinner.

As he joins his wife and three boys for meatloaf in their Berkeley, Calif., duplex, talk turns to the boys' grades and baseball games. ''It's the only time we tell each other what's going on,'' Mr. Davis says.

Many assume the dinner hour has been elbowed aside by the demands on families who, like the Davises, deal with two careers, longer working hours, and children with numerous extracurricular activities.

But the numbers tell a different story: A recent Roper Center survey found that 86 percent of families are juggling commitments and cooking creatively in order to eat together ''often'' or ''fairly often.'' And that's a good thing: Aside from promoting family unity, dinner conversation is the best predictor of children's success in learning to read, say Harvard University researchers.

''It's critical for families to have that quality time,'' says Ellen Galinski, co-president of the New York-based Work and Families Institute. ''The actual amount of time is less important than that it happens at all.''

Her organization found that 66 percent of families with children 18 or younger eat together at least five times a week. And 23 percent share the dinner hour between two and four times a week.

Claire Regan, a Boston resident who has two young daughters, has little doubt that her family's nightly dinners benefit her children, including academically. Their dinner conversations span the spectrum, from how candles burn to the childrens' artistic endeavors. Given their frequent discussions, Ms. Regan says, ''They'll probably get 200s on the math part of their SATs, but I expect them to ace the verbal section.''

Indeed, Harvard's study, an ongoing, eight-year research effort, says that the less-harried exchanges at mealtime help children learn to define more difficult words - from ''oxygen'' to ''roller coaster'' - in the context of regular conversation.

They learn too from what the Harvard researchers call ''non-immediate'' talk. It goes beyond 'pass the salt' and 'I don't like the broccoli,' to include discussions of the day's events, plans for tomorrow, or even more abstract topics.

A key finding of the study - which is based on 65 low-income, less-educated families - is that children expand verbal and reading ability regardless of their parents' educational and income levels.

''However poor or poorly educated the parents are, they know a lot that kids can benefit from,'' says Catherine Snow, professor of education at Harvard. ''They don't have to buy the children computers or take them to library,'' she says, ''It's what's in the parents' heads'' that kids learn the most from.

Aside from its educational benefits, many families value the dinner hour as simply a time for recementing ties. Lynn Fredericks, who lives in New York City with her two sons, 10-year-old Alexander and four-year-old Stephan, found the ritual particularly helpful after her recent divorce.

Alexander had become increasingly distant, she says. But after several months of cooking and eating dinner together - something new for their family - Alex's shell disappeared.

''He's changed his whole demeanor - he's softened,'' his mother says, attributing the change to the regular family bonding that cooking and eating together provide.

Ms. Fredericks was so heartened by her experience that she began teaching family-cooking classes at the New School Culinary Arts program in New York. The concept is just one way families are adapting the old institution of family dining to the fast-paced realities of 1990s life.

''This is no June Cleaver style of cooking'' where the mom spends hours in the kitchen alone, Fredericks says. She involves her children in all phases of the meal: making the shopping list, going to the store, washing, peeling, chopping, or baking.

While it's messy, she warns, as well as time-consuming, the time spent together is well worth it.

Debbie Willsea and her four children - ages 5 to 16 - also take the team approach to dinner at their Rochester, N.Y., home. ''There's plenty to do - and they appreciate that,'' she says. As everybody gathers nightly, the kitchen becomes ''a conversation center'' where the ''family connection'' is established.

But in the drive to preserve the family meal, other families have, ironically, chosen to drop cooking altogether. The Roper poll found a steady increase in fast-food dining in recent years, with 18 percent of families now saying they have sat down to fast food at least once in the past week.

The trend toward simplifying dinner preparation has not gone unnoticed by entrepreneurs, who now offer parents a growing menu of quick-fix dinner options.

Some families are turning to personal chefs, who, for between $6 and $14 per individual meal, arrive on their clients' doorsteps with groceries, pots, and cooking utensils in hand. They will prepare about 10 days' worth of meals, which they leave labeled in the refrigerator and freezer.

''We're geared at bringing a sit-down dinner back into the '90s,'' says Belinda Clarke, a partner of Dine by Design in New York. The idea has taken off: The Albuquerque, N.M.-based US Personal Chef Association, started in 1991, now boasts 800 members.

Other 1990s modifications of the family meal include cooking co-ops in Dallas. Several families take turns cooking for each other. Most nights, co-op members come home to a fully cooked dinner. Then one night a week, they deliver meals to four or five families in the neighborhood.

Even some businesses are getting into the act. Miami Baptist Hospital lets employees call the cafeteria before leaving work to order up a hospital-subsidized take-out dinner. Hospital food for dinner? ''It's really a cut above,'' a spokeswoman insists.

While families may differ in how they get their food to the table, many find satisfaction in making sure the chairs around it are filled each evening. ''It would be easy for all of us to eat independently,'' Mrs. Willsea says. ''The difference is in what happens as a family - the family connection.''

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