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The New Family Dinner

Four or five nights a week, my husband and I sit down to dinner with our two sons, Will, 12, and Tim, 9. At this age, the boys are good company, and I know they enjoy these meals as much as Rick and I do, because they complain when we miss a few nights. But family dinner wasn't always like this. In fact, when the children were small, we called it "dining hell."

We endured whining, spilling, and endless struggles to keep restless toddlers at the table long enough to eat something. We weathered complaints about unacceptable food and whose leg was kicking whose chair.

But as bad as it often was, I always knew it was worth it. In fact, experts confirm that sharing regular meals as a family brings a banquet of benefits. Ben Silliman, Ph.D., a family-life specialist at the University of Wyoming's Cooperative Extension Service, says, "Children of all ages need to know that parents are accessible to them. One of the big messages that family dinner sends is 'You're important enough for me to spend this time with you.' "

"Mealtime is often the only time in the whole day when everybody's in the same room having a conversation," says William Doherty, Ph.D., author of The Intentional Family (Addison Wesley Longman, 1997), "so it's where the family's culture gets created." Even more impressive is the research suggesting that regular family meals can sharpen a child's intellect. Diane Beals, Ed.D., of the University of Tulsa, and Patton Tabors, Ed.D., of Harvard, studied 80 preschoolers and found that mealtime conversation built vocabulary even more effectively than listening to stories or reading aloud. And because gathering for a family meal is an inherently communal exercise, it naturally gives rise to basic courtesies, like saying "Please" and "Thank you," and keeping your mouth (mostly) shut when you chew.

Indeed, the phrase "family dinner" has become almost a metaphor for a commitment to family -- a commitment strong enough to survive the considerable odds against it. After all, in order to eat together, every family member must make it a priority: No band practice, no TV show, no late commute can interfere. Someone -- usually an exhausted soul who's already put in a long day -- must get the food on the table, and someone must clean up. Everyone must eat -- more or less -- the same thing. And everyone must behave in a way that's not going to horrify, or annoy, the other diners.

Getting all these variables to work at the same time can be so difficult that many families just give up. They believe that family dinner is a good idea -- they simply lack the stamina to pull it off. And then they feel guilty.

Yet the guilt and the giving up are as unnecessary as the linen tablecloth that graced your grandmother's table. The New Family Dinner is a flexible tradition that can be accomplished in myriad ways. The first step is getting rid of your preconceptions.

Fun Family Meal Tips: Laurie David
Fun Family Meal Tips: Laurie David

It doesn't have to be every night. Sixty-five percent of families with children under 6 eat dinner together five or more nights a week, but that number drops to 50 percent for families with children 12 to 17. As Dr. Silliman observes, "You get one kid in soccer, another in Scouts, and Mom's in a book club, and that can shoot three or four nights a week right there." The solution? "Eat together as often as you can," says Dr. Silliman, "and make it a pleasant experience." Even one night a week, though not optimal, gives your family an opportunity to connect.

It doesn't have to be at home. Nobody wants to spend a fortune taking the family out to fancy restaurants, but fast food can be a godsend when you're pressed for time or the logistics get complicated. The local McDonald's can provide a change of scenery even the youngest children appreciate. "When my children were preteens," recounts Dr. Doherty, "we got into the habit of going out for pizza on Friday nights. We found we had more interesting conversations and far fewer fights. You haven't had to work to fix the meal, and you're out in public, so you behave a little bit better." The whole experience is just that much more pleasant.

It doesn't have to be Mom doing it alone. Many of us still struggle with the stereotypes we see on late-night reruns -- Donna Reed in her apron (and high heels!), whipping up something tasty in the kitchen. Feeding a family is a big job, but it can be split into components that can easily be delegated: setting the table, making the salad, pouring the drinks, loading the dishwasher. "When kids are involved in preparing dinner," says Dr. Silliman, "they're invested in spending that time together." And, of course, you can always let your fingers do the walking and order takeout. After all, family meals will hardly stay enjoyable if one party resents the burden of putting on the show night after night.

It doesn't have to be dinner. Tom Price, coauthor, with his wife, Susan Crites Price, of The Working Parents' Help Book (Peterson's, 1996), suggests variations on the evening meal. "If Dad doesn't get home until 8:00, Mom and the kids can have dessert with him. Or the family meal can be Sunday brunch." Lois Feldman and her husband, Fred Stern, of New York City, often work late, so family dinners are irregular. When their son, Michael, was 8, says Feldman, "we instituted family breakfast. It's amazing how bonding it is, even just 15 minutes a day."

It doesn't even have to be food. Sure, that's the usual arrangement, but, as Dr. Doherty notes, eating together "is not the only way that family culture can be created." What matters is that family members make an effort to be together on a regular basis, focusing on one another, undistracted by TV, telephone, or Nintendo. Tom and Susan Price go for evening walks with their daughter, Julie. "We go out for half an hour just before bedtime," says Tom. "Somehow, Julie seems more comfortable discussing important subjects in the dark." For some families, driving time is ideal for bonding; others connect over gardening chores.

The only constant in family life is change, and what works this month may cease to work next month, or next year. The key is flexibility. If you can throw out your preconceptions of what mealtime should be, then you can fashion a style of family dining that offers regular, enjoyable time with the people you love most.

Copyright © 2004. Reprinted with permission from the May 1999 issue of Parents magazine.