The standard has pretty much been set: Mother in a ruffled apron, serves up a balanced nutritious meal as her family - handsome husband and apple cheeked children - watch attentively from around a well appointed dining table. We all know by now that eating dinner together on a regular basis is one of the best ways to strengthen family ties. It may rival regular church attendance in healthy family values.
There are myriad sources and studies to tell you how important it is for families to have meals together. Benefits include enhanced communication among family members, better performance in school and improved social adjustment for children as well as healthier eating habits for the whole family.
The Journal of Adolescent Health reports the frequency of family dinner may be a protective factor in curtailing high-risk behavior among youth.
“Meals together send the message that citizenship in a family entails certain standards beyond individual whims,” says William Doherty, a professor of Family Social Science at the University of Minnesota at Minneapolis and author of The Intentional Family: Simple Rituals to Strengthen Family Ties. “This is where a family builds its identity and culture.”
The dinner table is where we civilize our children. It’s where we teach them table manners, and how to engage in the give-and-take of a group conversation. Cooperation and responsibility is reinforced as chores of cooking, serving and clean up are assigned or shared.
Yeah, wouldn’t it be lovely ...
But the reality is a lot of us, maybe most of us, simply don't. Busy and conflicting schedules can interfere with traditional family meal times. Mothers who constantly make adjustments and accommodations are often left feeling guilty for not providing that "heart of the family" mealtime experience.
I suspect it could have been some of this latent guilt being expressed when the ladies in my book group, all busy working mothers, on more than one occasion laughed hysterically over the ridiculous, yet somehow appealing notion of a restaurant where diners could eat standing over a kitchen sink.
Family meals aren't always warm and fuzzy family times. In fact, mealtimes can be occasions for airing resentments and jealousies, revealing secrets, and escalating conflict. In a popular Saturday Night Live skit, the dinner table serves as the scene for family warfare. Passive parents endure vicious verbal attacks from their teen daughter until the father explodes in frustration. The humor is grounded in reality as we recognize the scenario of family feuds acted out over food.
A picky eater as a child, myself, I remember routine anxiety around meals. Although my parents were not unkind, their well-meaning and relentless efforts to coax, convince or coerce me into eating (and my stubborn resistance) caused a lot of tension and not a few tears.
So, mothers, don't beat yourself up if you're not adhering to the cultural prescription of the family meal evangelists. The annals are full of examples of people who are doing just fine in spite of growing up in families with odd or alternative eating arrangements.
I think I’ll never forget Mary Karr’s description of dinnertime in her childhood home. A poet, essayist, memoirist and Peck professor of English Literature at Syracuse University, Karr rose to fame in 1995 with the publication of her best-selling memoir The Liars’ Club. In that book the unusual and dysfunctional dynamic of the household is expressed perfectly in her description of dinner hour as the family gathered to eat, not at a table but arranged in a circle on her parents' bed. They sat in pinwheel formation back to back, an arrangement that precluded conversation but conferred a strange comfort as their circle of backs formed a column of mutual support.
In her book You Came Here to Die, Didn’t You, Sherie Labedis tells how she spent the summer of 1965 as one of a handful of white college students registering black voters in the rural south. In the introduction to her memoir Labedis explains why she went.
“My parents, younger brother and I ate dinner each night on TV trays watching the national news,” Labedis explains. Viewing footage of the abomination of racial oppression from the safety and security of her home and family was certainly incidental to her decision to join the struggle.
A close reading of pro-family-dinner literature reveals that it’s less about the food and more about togetherness. It’s the shared and repeated rituals, so often associated with meals, that work to stabilize families and form a sense of tradition and structure. There are lots of "uncola" ways to achieve that bonding, in unconventional eating experiences as well as other activities.
When my husband decides to make potato pancakes, the rest of us hover near the stove to consume the yummy, gluey cakes directly as they come off the griddle. A mythic meal at our house, potato pancakes may not offer balanced nutrition or important life lessons, but we brag on them and without question we bond over them.
A few of our most memorable meals have been enjoyed standing around a campfire, eating chunks of roasted meat off sticks with ragged hunks of bread torn from a crusty loaf. With not a table or utensil in sight, no manners were learned there but memories were made to treasure for a lifetime.
Family bonds can be forged over a bowl of popcorn with family movie night. Game nights are great fun, teaming up and challenging each other over board games or a simple homespun game of dictionary. Another favorite is a museum excursion, which inevitably involves a road trip, with road food. All can be bonding experiences as well as fodder for family myth and oral history.
Each family finds their own way of building tradition and ritual. The experience doesn’t need to revolve around food, though food is often an integral part of the fun. What does count is that families share fun and interesting activities. The bonding part of the equation is the shared experience.