In “A Date With Your Family”, a 10-minute educational film made in 1950, Mother knits while dinner cooks. She and her daughter are switching from their daytime attire to something more formal. Brother and Junior comb their hair and wash their hands in preparation. Father comes back from the office and hangs his hat on a rack.
“The dinner date has started and they are all happy about it,” says the narrator. “Towels on lap, family waiting for service. They converse pleasantly while Dad serves – I said “pleasantly” because that’s the key word at dinnertime. It’s not just good manners, but common sense. Pleasant, emotionless conversation aids in good digestion.
As he continues to explain the do’s and don’ts of dinnertime, the narrator advises complimenting Mother on the food and avoiding talking meanly about your siblings.
“The dinner table is no place for discontent,” says the narrator. “It doesn’t mean you have to be stiff or formal – with your own family you can relax. Be yourself. Just make sure it’s your best self.
This version of the family dinner, if it really existed outside of TV shows, is long gone. But connecting over a shared meal is still a concept that many families aspire to today. But how to make this happen? It’s a mix of letting things go and not letting go of the whole idea.
Family dinners: what has changed?
Almost everything has changed, starting with the family itself.
“The idea of having a mom at home who cooks? This ship has sailed,” says Anne Fishel, PhD, executive director and co-founder of The Family Dinner Project.
“About 50% of American families are either single-parent families or blended families,” says Fishel. She also notes that if two parents are present, both can be moms or dads. And sometimes there’s also a grandparent in the mix. Some people have expanded their definition of family to include their chosen family – the people around them who make them feel at home, even if they are not related.
The dinner itself has also changed. For many people, that rarely means cooking from scratch. They may prefer other options, such as subscription meal kits, frozen food, delivery, takeout, and restaurant dining.
“Family dinner doesn’t have to be dinner and it doesn’t have to be family,” Fishel says.
“I think it’s two people,” she said. “It may be beyond pale to bring everyone together night after night. Some families I know have a rule that no one eats alone. In some families, children eat vegetables with hummus at 5 p.m. because they are really hungry and eat more than one meal with a parent later. »
Family dinners: the COVID-19 effect
One of the few advantages of the first part of the pandemic, while many people were staying home as much as possible, it was that hectic family commitments that involved going out were literally off the table. Dining at home was more likely whether you cooked or baked more than usual (sourdough, anyone?) or ordered.
Just over a year into the pandemic, Fishel partnered with Making Caring Common, a Harvard Graduate School of Education project, to survey more than 500 parents about family dinners.
“Over 60% said they dined out with family more often,” says Fishel. And most of those parents – 80% – said they wanted to continue. “Parents even reported an improvement in the quality of their family dinners,” says Fishel. “They were talking more about their days, laughing more, connecting more and talking about the news.”
As we settle into the “new normal,” what will it take to keep family dinners in the mix?
Family dinners: it becomes a tradition
If family dinner is important to you, it’s probably because it was part of your childhood.
If you grew up in the strict days of family dinners, you might not have liked being told to eat everything on your plate or take a lesson in table manners every night. But even so, you’re more likely to prioritize family dinners as an adult.
“Family mealtime traditions can encourage more frequent family meals from one generation to the next,” says Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, PhD, chief of the division of epidemiology and community health at the School of Public Health at the University of Minnesota. “Parents who ate six to seven family meals a week growing up reported significantly more frequent family meals with their current family.”
Some even make a career out of it.
“Family dining is at the heart of what we do,” says Caroline Galzin, who, with her husband, Tony, owns Nicky’s Coal Fired restaurant in Nashville, where Mondays are family nights. “It’s all inspired by Tony’s big Italian family and the atmosphere around meals when he was growing up,” Galzin says. “Everyone brought something different and lots of people came together to share a meal.”
Family dinner: the benefits
Children who regularly eat family dinners experience less the Depressionanxiety and eating disordershave a larger vocabulary, get better grades, have higher self-esteem and eat more fruits and vegetables, says registered dietitian Maryann Jacobsen, author of The Family Dinner Solution.
“But we don’t need studies to know that getting together as a family in a positive atmosphere is good for us,” says Jacobsen. “It brings us together, fosters closeness and shows kids that food is important.”
It also sets up eating habits that can last a long time.
“Even when kids don’t eat everything we serve, we know from research that the foods kids are most exposed to in childhood are the same foods they prefer as adults,” Jacobsen says.
The table can be a tricky place to navigate family dynamics. That is, if you can get there at all.
“When I talk to families across the country, being busy is the number 1 barrier to having a family meal together,” Fishel says. “Parents work different shifts or kids have extracurricular activities around lunchtime.”
Other common issues include picky meals, table conflicts, and tight budgets.
The key is to be flexible — and not give up, says Jacobsen. Make it something that works for your family, however you define it. Price connection, no perfect presence or a spectacular menu.
“I’m not going to lie: you have to commit to planning and having family meals every week,” says Jacobsen. “But now that my kids are older, I can see it’s worth it.”