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Return of the Family Dinner: Food for Body, Mind & Soul

For the better part of the last decade,  pundits and nutritionists and social scientists have been lamenting the “death of the family dinner.”  Certainly it’s something I addressed as early as 2000,  in my book, the Food Allergy Field Guide, in my Kitchen Zen reflections.

Eating in America,” I noted at the time, ” once a major social endeavor, has been reduced to “power meals” and “fast food.” Our reverence of and appreciation for the fruits of the earth, our connection with the very essence of life itself, with nourishment, has been severed in our headlong rush to get to wherever it is we’re in a hurry to go.

“Whether this same frenetic rush has anything to do with the increasing prevalence of food sensitivities in the U.S.; whether it drives our hurry to feed our children solid foods in infancy to get them along the road to maturity faster, or fuels our predisposition to eat a lot of the same, mass produced, allergen-laden prepared foods and thus create our own food sensitivities, is probably better left to private speculation. ”

Most holidays, of course, many of us gather together – sometimes grudgingly, sometimes happily – for a big family dinner.  With Independence Day just around the corner, many of us will come together for picnics and cook-outs and meals together with family and friends.  But for the better part of the year, eating on the go was more the norm.

Then came Jamie Oliver, the Slow Food movement, locavores , and Michelle Obama’s health initiative and the White House vegetable garden , and slowly  the sundry and varied American family is moving back to the dinner table – or at least so reports the Christian Science Monitor this week, in their cover story, “Back to the Dinner Table.”

Bolstered by scientific data and an intensifying popular buzz, ” says CSM. “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. …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.”

There’s even a national “Family Day,” held annually on September 24, with the goal of informing parents, “that the engagement fostered during frequent family dinners is an effective tool to help keep America’s kids substance free. Dinner Makes A Difference!”  And the Family Dinner Project,a start-up grassroots movement of food, fun and conversation about things that matter, ” which notes, “Sharing a fun family meal is good for the spirit, brain and health of all family members. Recent studies link regular family meals with the kinds of behaviors that parents want for their children: higher grade-point averages, resilience and self-esteem. Additionally, family meals are linked to lower rates of substance abuse, teen pregnancy, eating disorders and depression. We also believe in the power of family dinners to nourish ethical thinking.”

Who can argue with that?  Not me!  Family dinners have always been a cherished part of our lives.  Almost every day of every week, we have a family dinner, with whomever is home at any given time.  In our family today, that includes my husband and myself, at least two young adults, and a grandparent.  Occasionally a friend or other relative joins in.  But there is rarely less than four people at our table for dinner, and usually five or more.   What I find particularly interesting is that even on those occasions when I’m feeling preoccupied or disinclined to eat, one of my now grown children will gently insist I come to dinner – a pleasant turning of the (dinner) table!

Because the fact is, sharing meals with those we love is vital for our health and well-being, for our families and our society.  The CSM noted at 2005-06 report from the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University in New York linked family dinner “to a host of good outcomes for children”. Among the benefits noted by that and more recent studies, eating dinner together at least five times a week

  • lowers teen use of alcohol, tobacco, and marijuana;
  • lowers the risk of obesity, eating disorders, and teen pregnancy;
  • improves nutrition, physical and mental health, grades, and relationships with parents;
  • helps adults felt better about their families and jobs.

Additionally, Marshall Duke, professor of psychology at Emory University in Atlanta, told CSM, “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.”

Clearly, the Family Dinner nourishes much more than the body.  It feeds the mind and the soul, as well, and builds a foundational story of who we are together, that will sustain us even when we’re apart.   I’m glad the tables are turning for the Family Dinner!


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