Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Family Dinner

I was reading this article at this morning, concerning a new type of business: the DIY (do it yourself) take-out kitchen. The idea is that people no longer have time to cook, and yet take out and TV dinners and catch-as-catch-can meals of chips and bean dip are not satisfying. In an attempt to bring back some semblance of the family dinner, a market has developed for this new method of feeding people.
...even the most optimistic studies peg the number of Americans sitting down for dinner with their partner and/or children almost every day at 41 percent.
These are national figures that include rural and small-town households, where traditional family patterns are still more prevalent than they are in urban areas.

Think about that. Only 41 percent of families sit down for dinner together almost every day. When I was growing up, if you were home, you ate with the family. By that I mean, we ate all meals together. Breakfast, lunch, dinner. Since we ate almost every bite that we ate at the table, we also had grab-'em-on-the-run snacks together. If Forrest and I had an afternoon snack, it was at the table, we used plates and flatware, and we were mannerly. Not formal, a little more casual than a regular meal, but mannerly. Woe to the child caught making snarky remarks to a sibling or teasing or grabbing his cookie.

When I was raising Julie and Richard, we ate all meals together. If one of us wasn't hungry (unless that one was sick), we still all sat down together. (I can remember sitting at the table with J & R when the doctor had me on the herb tea fast and I ate nothing.) It was meal time. It was family time. It was when I learned, by listening and not scolding or prying, what was up in their lives. It was a time of rare delight, as they said some of their best stuff there. It was where I could tell them family stories and we could discuss anything that interested us (and being us, that covered a lot of ground). It was where we kept in touch.

As an Alaska Superior Court certified expert witness in parenting, I can tell you that the single thing that you can do to keep your kids out of trouble, to increase their likelihood of graduating high school and going on to college or trade school, to increase their likelihood of success in life, to decrease the chance that they will smoke, drink, use drugs, get pregnant, or get involved with violence or gangs, to just give them a solid foundation is eat dinner with them five nights a week. Increase that to 3/7 (all meals, every day) and you practically guarantee them all good things. Taking the time to eat with your kids tells them that they are important to you. It tells them that you care. Hell, my step-father used dinner as an opportunity to review our sins for the day, but even under those circumstances, we still knew that he cared about us! He was there, at the table, and he was focused on us.

Having spent ten years working with families that were in trouble, I can also tell you that every single one of those families rarely ate together. (Some of the most dysfunctional all ate at the same time, each in their own room, while watching TV.) One of the first things I did with new clients was work to get them eating together. And I could always tell when that had really happened, because other things between the family got better faster.

Families are eating on the run, sometimes no two of them at the same time, often not in the same room, incredibly not always sitting down. They are not doing it this way because they want to or because they think it's a good idea. They are doing it this way because parents are overwhelmed with the effort it takes to support a family in the current atmosphere where family values has come to mean, not that families are valued and supported by our elected officials, but rather that those officials are willing to pander to their corporate contributors who overwork parents while underpaying them as well as to the religious right who consider only the patriarchal family of value. The family is under assault, but not by the liberal elite, not by the so-called "gay agenda", not by secular humanism. Rather it is under assault by corporate executives who take home scandalous amounts of money in stock options and perks while outsourcing jobs to countries that work people in conditions that would make a slave holder pause and by religious leaders who pass the collection plates down the rows that include thousands of people, send out their plea for cash to home bound widows who send in money they can not afford to give, who think that it is somehow possible to have anything spiritual going on in a mega-church!

Parents, children, the family -- they are under assault by the forces of evil: by the Pharisees that Jesus opposed and the money changers he chased from the temple stairs.

There, I've gone and done it again. Started to write a nice little piece on the joy of the family dinner, ended up rousing the rabble.


Deja Pseu said...

Ugh, we're one of those families that doesn't eat very many meals together. Mornings, we're doing our pas de deux to get Sam fed and ready and off to school, we're not home for lunch, and in the evenings Sam has already eaten by the time I get home from work and Doug often doesn't get home until after I've put Sam to bed. We eat 2-3 meals together on the weekends, though.

I also think for a lot of families it's not just the parents work schedules but the kids' activities that interfere with regular sit-down meals. At least two nights a week there are kids soccer teams practicing across the street until 8 or so at night.

Maya's Granny said...

Pseu, Sam is a child who needs a lot of time and attention to get out the door. I consider you one of the overwhelmed families who are doing heroic work. We are not meant to deal with these things with as little support as you and Doug have.

Go to and see J's post for Thursday, June 29, 2006, called "Children Who Feel Empty..." for an excellent discussion of the overscheduled child.

J said...

It's hard. During the school year, we eat one meal together. Otherwise, Maya and I would have to get up at 4 with Ted! And lunch, when you're at work and the child is at school, of course that doesn't work either. We do pretty well by modern standards, I think we eat dinner together every night. And Maya and I have breakfast together weekday mornings. Sat and Sun, she eats alone while we sleep in. ;)

I wrote about this same topic awhile ago, though perhaps not as well.

Maya's Granny said...

J. I just went back and reread your post. It was good then, it is good now. The interesting thing is that you were looking at it from a "what can the parent do" perspective, which is the personal responsibility angle -- valid and important. And today, somehow, I got to the political angle. What is society doing that makes this so hard for parents to do.

jay lassiter said...

Granny, I could not agree more. Parents go to such extremes to raise their kids the easy way. but if they'd follow the 3/7 rule, we could eliminate like 90% of the bullshit that plague the family of 2006.

It's a matter of priorities. if schedules prohibit families from eating together, then TRY HARDER!

The fact is, our schedules are so busy working hard to provide for our kids (and their myriad activities like soccer or ballet or whatever) and why do we do this? we do it because we want our kids to have these advantages. But we do so without remembering that THE BEST THING WE CAN DO FOR OUR KIDS IS TO BREAK BREAD WITH THEM!

my mother made it her business to bring us all to the table. and i am eternally grateful.

lorettambeaver said...

I sure want this entry to share with the people I work with. I have tried printing, because I wanted dad's photo that you have on your page, but it did not print and what did print was half a page and the article would be not be as readable in that form. Anyway little sister, the article is great. Your big sister in Kotzebue Alaska

Maya's Granny said...

Lori, So nice to see that you are reading my blog. Have you tried a copy and paste to your word processor to print the article?

Gina said...

We always ate dinner as a family until we hit the high school period, where sports dictated that we were kind of splintered, although I have to say my parents attended ALL of my sister's as well as my sporting events. Which was a LOT of events.

Ms. Mamma said...

Excellent piece and discussion! I'm right there with you Granny.

Zan said...

You know what else is good for kids? Cooking with them. Seriously, I'm the only one of my friends who can cook a real meal. And I remember lots of times in the kitchen with my mother and my grandmothers. My mother is probably the world's best cook and she just makes it up as she goes. It's unreal. She loves to cook and it's a joy to watch her. My brother and I both got lots out of being in the kitchen with her. (Even though we griped and moaned about it as teenagers.)

Also, if your kids cook for you, eat it. As much as you can, anyway. My poor father. When I was a little girl, I made him breakfast one day. Scrambled eggs, real simple. Except I put in some bottled Italian seasoning it in. Lots of Italian seasoning. And my poor, sweet father ate those eggs even though it made him want to gag, because I was so proud of myself for cooking them for him.

I remember learning how to make biscuits from my grandmother. You can't be Southern and not know how to make biscuits. They were flat and hard, but we ate them anyway. Of course, I was older at that point and thought the whole things was funny, but you can't buy those kind of memories. And you can't buy the sense of stability and value they bring. So together, cook together and do the dishes together as often as you can.