Family Dinners: Mandatory Hell

Posted on August 21, 2012 by


family dinner

Look at this lovely family dinner 1948.

The family dinner is a thing I aspired to. I wanted to feed my children dinner and hear about their days. I really did. When our kids were little, my husband and I would sit with them around a large table and the whining commenced. But we kept at those tense miserable feedings, called dinner, because the practice was correlated to higher grades and less drug abuse — family dinner would save my children from academic failure or spiraling into heroine use. How naive we were, back when parenting books dictated our every move! This was the topic a friend and I considered, beaching-it, one of the last days of summer vacation. School will start next week.

My friend gave up on family dinners eight years ago, when she was hyperventilating nightly, and excusing herself to the living room to breath into a bag. She had three little girls in three years and she, like so many of us, thought dinner was a rule. Each night she would put dinner on the table and one of her girls would burst into tears. Now, her girls all grown, bikini wearing beautiful teens, the distance between toddler-mayhem and today, allows us to laugh.

But the family dinner is still toted as a benchmark of health. In a Google search for something pooh-poohing family dinners, I found the following instead:

8 Reasons to Make Time for Family Dinner

Soccer practices, dance rehearsals, playdates, and other scheduling conflicts make family mealtime seem like a thing of the past. During the holidays, it gets even worse with parties, school events, and last-minute shopping trips. Suddenly, we’re feeding our kids breakfast bars during the morning commute, sneaking 100-calorie packs at our desks, and grabbing dinner at the drive-thru window. If you’re finding it difficult to get together with your family at the dinner table, here’s a little inspiration:

1. Kids might learn to love their veggies. A 2000 survey found that the 9- to 14-year-olds who ate dinner with their families most frequently ate more fruits and vegetables and less soda and fried foods. Their diets also had higher amounts of many key nutrients, like calcium, iron, and fiber.

2. It’s the perfect setting for new foods. Most likely, a 6-year-old is not one day going to decide she’d really like to try Brussels sprouts. Parents have to introduce new foods to children, who initially need a little guidance in making healthy choices. A family meal is the perfect opportunity for parents to expose children to different foods and expand their tastes.

3. You control the portions. Americans spend more than 40% of their food budget on meals outside of the home. Eating out can be convenient but it’s also caloric—portion sizes in restaurants just keep growing! The average restaurant meal has as much as 60% more calories than a homemade meal.

4. Healthy meals mean happy kids. Studies have shown that kids who eat with their families frequently are less likely to get depressed, consider suicide, and develop an eating disorder. They are also more likely to delay sex and to report that their parents are proud of them. When a child is feeling down or depressed, family dinner can act as an intervention.

5. Family dinners help kids “just say no.” Eating family dinners at least five times a week drastically lowers a teen’s chance of smoking, drinking, and using drugs. Teens who have fewer than three family dinners a week are 3.5 times more likely to have abused prescription drugs and to have used illegal drugs other than marijuana, three times more likely to have used marijuana, more than 2.5 times more likely to have smoked cigarettes, and 1.5 times more likely to have tried alcohol.

6. Better food, better report card. Family meals give children an opportunity to have conversations with adults, as well as to pick up on how adults are using words with each other, which may explain why family dinnertime is also thought to build a child’s vocabulary.

7. Supper can be a stress reliever. Believe it or not, if you have a demanding job, finding time to eat with your family may actually leave you feeling less stressed. In 2008, researchers at Brigham Young University conducted a study of IBM workers and found that sitting down to a family meal helped working moms reduce the tension and strain from long hours at the office.

8. Put a little cash in your pocket. In 2007, the average household spent $3,465 on meals at home, and $2,668 on meals away from home, according to the national Consumer Expenditure Survey from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. When you take into consideration that the $2,668 spent on meals away from home only accounts for about 30% of meals (according to historical data), that’s about $8 per meal outside of the home, and only about $4.50 per each meal made in your own kitchen. You do the math!

-Sarah Klein

Even my nutty family of origin ate dinner together. We were not allowed to speak and Public Radio blared in the background. If anyone spoke my father pushed his finger against his lips and hissed, shhhhhhhhhh. The bludgeoning of baby seals, their mewing, was a dinner soundtrack I will always remember.

Another friend, a woman I haven’t known long was sitting with my longtime friend. The newer friend, a woman whose family is decidedly intact and pleasant, they eat dinner together every night.

“And you all get along?” I asked, leaning over in my beach chair to hear her answer.

“Oh, no. I’d say one out of five nights, nobody fights or has a fit.” She shrugged. She has more parental tenacity than I do and her kids? They are super high achievers, without tattoos, or a hint of hard drug use.

My children, when I suggest a family dinner, they slither out of my grasp, using polite excuses that have a heartbreaking similarity to the Cat’s and Cradle song: “We’ll get together soon, you know we’ll have a good time then….” Sigh.

Image: Flickr/Creative Commons/thstrand