In the 10-minute instructional film “A Date with Family,” made in 1950, Mom cooks while knitting. She and her daughter switched from daytime clothes to more formal clothes. The older brother and the younger are combing their hair and washing their hands. Father came back from the office and hung his hat on the shelf.
“The dinner date has started and they are all happy,” the narrator said. “The napkins were on their laps and the family was waiting to be served. They had a good conversation when Dad served it – I say ‘pleasantly’ because that’s the gist of dinner time. It’s not just good manners, it’s good Consciousness. Pleasant, calm conversation contributes to good digestion.”
As he goes on to explain the dos and don’ts of dinnertime, the narrator suggests praising your mother over food and avoiding being unkind to your siblings.
“There is no dissatisfaction at the table,” the narrator says. “It doesn’t mean you should be rigid or formal – with your own family you can relax. Be yourself. Just make sure it’s your best version of yourself.”
This version of family dinner, if it existed outside of the TV show, would be long gone. But connecting through shared dining remains a concept that many families crave today. But how? It’s a relaxing combination, rather than letting go of the whole idea.
Family Dinner: What’s Changed?
Almost everything has changed – starting with the family itself.
“The idea of having mom cook at home? That ship has sailed,” said Dr. Anne Fishel, executive director and co-founder of the Family Dinner Project.
“About 50 percent of American households are single-parent or mixed,” Fischer said. She also noted that if two parents were present, it could be either mom or dad. Sometimes grandparents too. Some people expand their definition of family to include the family of their choice – even if they are not relatives, people in their inner circle who make them feel at home.
The dinner itself has also changed. For many, that rarely means cooking from scratch. They may prefer other options such as subscription packages, frozen meals, delivery, takeout and restaurant dining.
“A family meal doesn’t have to be dinner, and it doesn’t have to be a family meal,” Fischer said.
“I think it’s any two people,” she said. “Having everyone together night after night can be a fantasy. Some families I know have a rule that no one can eat alone. In some families, the kids eat hummus at 5pm vegetables because they are really hungry and will eat more meals with their parents in the future.”
Family Dinners: The COVID-19 Effect
One of the few early advantages Pandemic, the hectic family commitments that involve going out are practically impossible when many people are staying at home as much as possible. There’s a greater chance of having dinner at home, whether you’re cooking or baking more than usual (sourdough bread, anyone?) or ordering.
More than a year into the pandemic, Fischer, in partnership with Harvard Graduate School of Education program Make Caring Together, surveyed more than 500 parents about family meals.
“More than 60 percent said they eat family dinners more often,” Fischer said. The majority of those parents — 80 percent — said they wanted to keep it that way. “Parents even reported an improvement in the quality of their family dinners,” Fischer said. “They talk more about their days, laugh more, connect more, talk about the news.”
As we’re adjusting to the “new normal”, how can family dinners be included?
Family Dinner: Become a Tradition
If family dinners are important to you, it’s likely because they were part of your childhood.
If you grew up in the era of strictly family meals, you probably didn’t like being told to eat everything on your plate or every evening table manners class. But even so, as an adult, you’re more likely to prioritize family meals.
“Family meal traditions may encourage more frequent family meals across generations,” said Dr. Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, chair of the Department of Epidemiology and Community Health at the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health. “Eating six to seven family meals a week growing up of parents report that they eat with their current family members much more often.”
Some even make a career out of it.
“Family dinner is at the heart of what we do,” said Caroline Galzin, who owns Nicky’s Coal Fired restaurant in Nashville with her husband Tony, and Monday is family night. “Everything was inspired by Tony’s extended Italian family and the atmosphere when he grew up dining,” Garzin said. “Everyone brought something different and a lot of people got together to eat.”
Family Dinner: The Benefits
Children who eat family dinners more often experience less frustratedanxiety and eating disordershave a larger vocabulary, get better grades, have higher self-esteem, and eat more fruits and vegetables, says dietitian Marianne Jacobson, who is Family Dinner Solutions.
“But we don’t need research to know that being a family gathering in a positive atmosphere is good for us,” Jacobson said. “It brings us together, fosters intimacy, and shows kids the importance of food.”
It also establishes eating patterns that can last a long time.
“Even if kids don’t eat all the foods we offer, we know from research that the foods kids are most exposed to in childhood are the same foods they enjoy as adults,” Jacobson said.
The table can be a tricky place to navigate home dynamics. That is, if you can get there.
“When I talk to families across the country, being busy is the number one barrier to family meals,” Fischer said. “Parents work shifts, or kids do extracurricular activities at dinner time.”
Other common problems include picky eaters, conflict at the dinner table and tight budgets.
The key, Jacobsen says, is to be flexible — not to give up. Make it something for your home – however you define it. Prize ties, not perfect attendance or glitzy menus.
“I’m not going to lie: Plan and schedule family meals every week,” Jacobson said. “But now that my kids are older, I can see it’s worth it.”