Waiting in line at the grocery store check-out, the woman behind me pointed to the bags of apples, flour and sugar in my shopping cart and remarked, "Looks like you're going home to do some baking."
"We're going to have apple pie for dessert after dinner tonight," I replied.
"Dinner?" she asked in a surprised tone of voice. "Dinner with the whole family sitting around the table? About the only time my family eats dinner together anymore is at Thanksgiving."
Unfortunately, this way of thinking is becoming the norm for American families. According to the Food Marketing Institute, only 40 percent of American families eat meals together, and then no more than two or three times a week. Is that bad? Is the family meal worth saving? Or is it destined to become a thing of the past, something seen only on reruns of old U.S. television shows like Leave It to Beaver and Father Knows Best?
Nutritional reasons alone make the family meal worth saving. Kids left to themselves to find something to eat are likely to choose a diet of toaster pastries, potato chips and frozen pizza. When parents present children with a variety of foods at regular mealtimes, they better their chances of developing good eating habits in their children.
But, perhaps most important, the family dinner gives family members a chance to reconnect with each other after a long day at school or work. "Eating together as a family can help give your children a feeling of security and a sense of knowing who they are and where they come from," says Margaret Mackenzie, a nutritional anthropologist and member of the American Institute of Wine & Food's Resetting the American Table project. "The family meal is much more than food on the table. You are creating warm, happy memories and meanings your children will carry with them the rest of their lives."
Clifton Saper, Ph.D., a family psychologist in Evanston, Illinois, adds: "Sometimes the whole focus is on manners and eat your vegetables, and then the meal becomes a negative experience for both the parents and the kids.
"But, if parents can get beyond that, if their focus instead is on open communication and creating an atmosphere that's relaxed and comfortable, then the meal is going to help strengthen family ties."
Keep the interaction positive, though. As Proverbs 17:1 says, "Better a dry crust with peace and quiet than a house full of feasting with strife" (New International Version).
Here are some suggestions for restoring this endangered tradition and making mealtime a positive family experience.
Get everyone involved
After a long day at work, making dinner may be the last thing Mom wants to do. One solution is to make dinner a family project. "The whole family can be in the kitchen together, one person setting the table, someone else doing the stir-fry, another making a salad, and everyone can help clean up afterwards," says Barbara James, an associate professor of family and consumer sciences at Ohio State University Extension. "Not only does this take the load off Mom's shoulders, it's also a good opportunity for communication and for teaching children how to cook."
Even preschoolers and toddlers can have a part to play. Give your 4-year-old a step stool and let him stir the muffin batter or rinse raw vegetables. Your toddler will enjoy sitting in his high chair, watching you as you cook. Talk about what you're doing as you do it. For example, "This is how we crack eggs for omelettes."
Turn off the television
For many American families, dinner means grabbing a plate of food and a TV tray and sitting down in front of the television. "People are often uncomfortable talking to each other, and television takes away the obligation to do so," Dr. Mackenzie says. "Most people are not terribly good at developing listening skills and talking in terms of what somebody said and hearing their point of view. Under these conditions, television is a refuge."
Make it a goal to eat at the dining- room table for most meals, without a TV on in the background. You may think your kids will hate you if you tell them there will be no TV during dinner, but assure them you are going to abide by the same rules yourself.
Keep conversation pleasant
The family meal is not the time for discipline, lectures, arguments, criticism or sulking. Talk should be light, happy and upbeat. If you had a rough day at work and need to blow off steam, try to do it before you come to the dinner table. Set the tone for your children. Show them that dinner is supposed to be a pleasant time.
Get the whole family involved in the conversation. You may be tempted to use up the mealtime telling your spouse about your business meeting, but don't leave out your children. Tell them what you did at work today in terms they can understand. Ask your children how their own day went; talk about the family's plans for the weekend; get their ideas for family projects.
Backyard cookouts, TV trays on the porch and picnics in the park are enjoyable meal alternatives for the summer months. Try ethnic-food themes. One night everything you serve might be German, and another night it might be Italian or Chinese. Fondues, making minipizzas together and Mexican dinners with plenty of tortilla chips and salsa are also fun, and they slow mealtime, allowing for more time to talk.
If your evenings are booked solid, get together with the family for afterschool snacks, late-night desserts or Sunday brunches instead of dinners. If you're not much for cooking, pick up a giant submarine sandwich at the sub shop and a ready-made tossed salad at the grocery store.
What matters most is that the family gets together, not that it has to be at dinnertime or everything you serve has to be homemade.
Build family traditions
By creating family traditions, you give your child a sense of unity and stability for the present and happy memories for the rest of his life. Traditions can be simple, like every Saturday morning you have blueberry pancakes or on Friday nights you have banana splits for dessert. Maybe after church services your family always has a formal dinner with the good china, candles and a fresh-flower centerpiece.
Lifestyles may have changed a lot in the last generation, but the importance of the family meal has remained constant. Make shared meals a tradition in your household. Give your children warm family memories they can pass on to their own children.