How to Bring Back Family Dinner

Think back to dinner last night. Last year. Ten years ago. When you were in college. When you were a kid. The further you go back into that blurry montage of faddy kitchen designs and bad hairstyles, the less you probably recall about what exactly was on your plate. Sure, there was that brief but thrilling fascination with fondue, but if you’re like me, the food itself is an impressionistic smorgasbord compared with the real memories—setting the table with paper napkins and armfuls of salad-dressing bottles, balancing precariously on the hind legs of your chair, Dad’s corny jokes—which are as easy to recall today as what you ate for lunch two hours ago.

The point is: Psychologically, we aren’t so much what we eat as how we eat it. And that trusty meal, as much as we griped about it then and stress about it now, paints an intimate portrait of our families and of us as individuals. So it wasn’t too surprising when experts studying obesity, depression, drug abuse—you name it—recently started shining a spotlight on shared meals as a valuable insurance policy for our kids. According to an 11-year survey conducted by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA), teens who eat with their families at least five times a week are less likely to do drugs, drink, and smoke cigarettes than those who share meals less frequently. They’re also more confident, less stressed-out, more likely to get As and Bs, and more inclined to confide in their parents. They eat better, too. Another study shows that family-dinner devotees consume more fruit and vegetables and less soda and trans-fatty food, both at home and outside it. They even have a better vocabulary.

The Logistical Challenge

Okay, okay—we get it. But the sad reality is that 8 out of 10 American households find shared meals a logistical challenge, according to a 2004 study. Between parents who get home just an hour before toddlers’ bedtimes, single-parent juggling acts, and kids whose after-school activities chew up the dinner hour, when are we supposed to eat, let alone cook? And all the studies lead to more questions: Do we really have to eat together every night? Starting when the kids are in diapers? Always at home? Does wolfing down pizza pockets in the minivan count?

Thank goodness for the clarity served up in The Surprising Power of Family Meals, by Miriam Weinstein, a documentarian and mother of two grown children in Manchester-by-the-Sea, Massachusetts. “I am not advocating a return to some Neverland of meatloaf and ruffled aprons,” she writes. “If an institution is anywhere near as good as I’m saying supper is, it must be flexible, reflecting who we are at this time in our culture, in our lives.”

Changing the Rules

Take a look at most American families that dine together and you’ll see lots of adaptations to the tradition. Kasia Chodyla, a biologist in Tallahassee, Florida, pushes dinner as late as 8 p.m. so everyone can be present. Wiley and Malcolm Turner, ages 6 and 4, who eat with their babysitter in Brooklyn, have a “second dinner” (more like a sit-down snack) when their parents get home from work (click here for full testimonial). To make the weekly dinner grind less daunting, Jill Geyer of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, enlists each of her three daughters, ages 7, 9, and 11, to help cook one dinner a week.

The Microwave Did It

Tweaking the tradition is fine. Forgoing it completely is not—and that, Weinstein explains, is exactly what started happening over the course of the last generation, when many of us became too busy for our own good. Some would argue, though, that dinner was doomed even earlier. By the time the foil was peeled back from the first TV dinner in 1953, “the reigning value in the modern kitchen was convenience, not coziness, or even apple pie,” writes Laura Shapiro in Perfection Salad. Fast-forward from Hamburger Helper to Lean Cuisine and it’s no wonder boomers and Gen Xers have a reputation for getting lost in their own kitchens.

Geared toward professional—and not necessarily domestic—success, we grew up channeling the extra time granted by kitchen conveniences not into our family lives, but into extracurriculars and work. And so, in many households, dinner gradually devolved into quick meals at the kitchen island, in cars to and from activities, and, in extreme cases, alone in front of the TV or computer.

“I don’t know anyone who eats together with their family during the week, and I live in the burbs!” says Barb Burg Schieffelin, a publishing executive from Irvington, New York. She and her husband don’t get home until after their kids, ages 9 and 11, have eaten. But on Fridays, the family celebrates Schieffelin Shabbat, a candlelit take-out feast that’s a modern-day twist on her fond memories of before-temple meals.

Is It Chicken or Egg?

It bears mentioning that the positive effect of family dinner is a bit of a chicken-or-egg issue: Are kids better off simply because they’re eating with their parents? Or are there other forces at play in the lives of families who make eating together a priority? “Families that sit down together for dinner have a greater likelihood of being more involved with their children in general,” says Beth Le Poire, Ph.D., the author of a textbook on familial communication. In other words, they head potential problems off at the pass. There’s also the routine of dinner itself: “Rituals provide stability and structure for children’s lives,” she says. “Children do better when they know what to expect.”

Set the Tone (and the table)

Of course, the dinner table isn’t always a sea of calm, what with picky eaters, raging hormones, and garden-variety familial dramas. “So be it,” says Robert E. Emery, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia and the author of The Truth About Children and Divorce. “Children learn both good manners and emotional regulation when you say, ‘Will you please try to get along and just enjoy dinner?’ ” (Parents might want to remember this, too.)

At least we know what constructive family dinners look like: The TV is off. Everyone is accounted for. Adults eat sensible portions of healthy food so the kids can learn to do the same. But only one study, commissioned by the television channels TV Land and Nick at Nite, demonstrates how busy families manage to achieve this: Two-thirds of respondents said they eat prepared foods. Ironically, convenience food—the very thing that initially pulled us away from the table—is now steering us back, this time with a family-centric result.

Good-for-You Fast Food

According to a 2006 CASA study, the number of families eating together has increased from 47 percent to 58 percent over the last eight years. It’s no surprise that this rise has coincided with the new breed of feel-good fast food—from grab-and-go supermarket dinners to boxes of organic mac-and-cheese. Skyrocketing Crock-Pot sales and the success of seemingly improbable businesses like Dream Dinners (which lets shoppers assemble weeks’ worth of freezable meals in a couple of hours) also exemplify a society ready to reclaim family dining (click here for full testimonial). Families are even hiring chefs—not private ones employed by well-to-do households, but personal chefs who prepare meals for multiple clients and freeze them for future dinnertimes (click here for full testimonial). Candy Wallace, founder of the American Personal Chef Association, says her industry has jumped from next to nothing 10 years ago to 8,000 personal chefs serving some 70,000 people in 2005. “Many of our clients are two-income families, some of which have never turned on their stoves,” she says.

Commit to it … and skip soccer

Creative solutions like these make shared meals—plus a liberal approach to dining out—possible for today’s busy families. But yet another hurdle for those with school-age kids is finding ways to carve out time from the extracurricular rat race. Jill Geyer, in Winston-Salem, keeps dinner in mind when she’s signing her three daughters up for after-school activities. “We try to limit it to one sport per child,” she says (click here for full testimonial).

Miriam Weinstein realizes her advice touches a raw nerve. “Parents are led to believe that if they drag their children around to more activities, the kids will be better off. But the evidence does not support this,” she says. “When you talk to the kids separate from their parents, they really would rather be with their families.” And frankly, Weinstein adds, few of our kids are going to turn out to be professional soccer players or concert flutists. “Most, however, will have families of their own.”