75% sit down to the modern meal.

Family dinner: Have it your way - but have it

Posted: October 06, 2011

What does family dinner look like at your house? The Cosby Show or Leave It to Beaver but with texting teens? A scene from Modern Family? Or The Simpsons, but with better food? The ritual of gathering for a meal may look a bit like any of these. Or not.

That's the beauty of family dinner: It may bring together a mom, dad, preteen, and toddler - or a trio of fresh-out-of-college roommates for pizza, or a quartet of friends for a potluck - sharing different stories and different foods.

Yet beyond those variations and despite rumors of its demise, it's doing quite well, with many of America's 310 million-plus people sitting down together several times a week.

"In the total U.S. population, some 75 percent of all households that have children under 18 have at least five dinners together in the course of a week," says Harry Balzer, citing data from his just-released 26th annual Eating Patterns in America report.

That number is in line with a steady return to the family dinner table since the recession hit three years ago, says Balzer, who has been tracking what America eats for more than 30 years at NPD Group, a market research firm.

"Family dinner in and of itself is this sort of 'good' in family life. It's a way of fostering communication with your family, staying connected with your family, no matter how busy and crazy your life's schedules are," says Grace Freedman, a New York-based independent public health researcher who founded eatdinner.org several years ago.

The primary reason most people commit to family dinner, Freedman says, "is the positive benefit they see day to day. They're not looking 10 to 15 years from now," thinking, 'If I have dinner with my 5-year-old then they're not going to do drugs.'

"The thing kids benefit from is they expect . . . 'There's a time I'll sit with my parents and check in with them,' " she says. "Maybe it's a 15-minute dinner; you know [you're] going to get this little bit of time with [your] parents and family every day."

Artists and authors have been portraying "family dinner" for years, of course, since long before Norman Rockwell's Freedom From Want appeared in the Saturday Evening Post. Filmmakers and playwrights tackle it regularly, whether in 1938's You Can't Take It With You or 1997's Soul Food.

The clothes change. So does the food. But as Balzer says, "I bet the discussion, the activity at the table, is very much Cleaver-like. More Cleaver-like than you would believe, because I don't think there's been a mutation in parents' concern about their children. Your mother, your grandmother, your great-grandmother were all concerned about children just as much as we are today."

So what's on the table today? Bottled water, iced tea, and pizza are more likely to be found on the family dinner table today than a decade ago, while you're less likely to find glasses of milk, potatoes, and vegetables, says Balzer, who compiles data from several surveys including 14-day journals kept by 2,000 households.

"The movement continues to be: 'How can I eat dinner tonight that will be a full and hearty meal that will require fewer ingredients?' "

That doesn't mean we've stopped cooking. A generation ago (roughly 25 years), 75 percent of all dinners featured a main dish assembled from fresh ingredients or prepared with some labor. Today, it's 60 percent. "It's declining, but it's still 60 percent," Balzer says. "We're no longer cooking less - and for generations, we had been cooking less - we're cooking about the same."

And we've trimmed courses. Dinner in 1986 might have included a main dish, two sides, a dessert perhaps, and a beverage. Today? Time-crunched lives and a dicey economy have helped put one-dish meals (and slow cookers) in the spotlight.

"It's 'Can I get away with serving a main dish and a beverage?' " Balzer says. "The main dish will be there, the beverage will be there - all bets are off for everything else."

Juggling today's family dinner realities is one reason there are so many new family dinner-focused cookbooks and blogs (including dinnertogether.com and timeatthetable.org) offering guidance. Among them is Freedman, who offers strategies for getting the family to the table more often.

"Don't expect to have a Food Network meal on the table every night or expect it to be a laugh a minute every night," she says. "The unrealistic Waltons-type family dinner and a family dinner that is full of arguments - both of them work in the same negative way. They intimidate people from coming up with their own brand of family dinner."

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