Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Friday, July 29, 2005

The family that eats together...

Appropriately enough, Darwin and I were discussing this Wall Street Journal article at the dinner table, concerning the importance of the family meal. Here's a few tidbits.

The recent death of Gerry Thomas, whom many credit with inventing the TV dinner (think Swanson), draws to a close the kinder, gentler era when happy families gathered around a television set, aluminum trays in hand, enjoying their chopped sirloin beef and sweet green peas in seasoned butter sauce while laughing at the wacky antics of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. Today, televisions are a lot bigger (and flatter), the frozen-food industry has grown into a $30 billion business and the chances of getting everyone to sit down for dinner at the same time are a lot slimmer. Instead, we are a nation of take-outers and drive-throughers, eating our meals on the go, dining by ourselves and laughing alone. The family dinner has become an endangered species, the victim of our own ingenuity and productivity.

These days, fewer than one-third of all children sit down to eat dinner with both parents on any given night. The statistics are worse if both parents are working and the family is Caucasian (Latino families have the highest rate of sharing a meal). The decline in the family dinner has been blamed for the rise in obesity, drug abuse, behavioral problems, promiscuity, poor school performance, illegal file sharing and a host of other ills.

In my home, I rarely eat dinner with my two children and wife more than twice a week. Because I commute 55 miles to Manhattan, I seldom return before 7:30 or 8 at night, which is simply too late for our nine-year-old and six-year-old to eat. Instead, my wife feeds them microwaved chicken nuggets, hot dogs, plain pasta and other staples from the children's food pyramid. Sometimes she will wait for me; more often I pick up something at Grand Central and eat on the train.

Even on days when we are all together, our dinner table resembles a diner, with each family member ordering his own meal. My son will eat pasta with pesto, but not with red sauce, while his sister loves the latter but hates the former. She will eat hamburgers and chicken, while my son will only eat hot dogs. Neither likes cereal with milk, but my daughter adores milk and cereal (just not together). My son can't stand either. We accommodate their pickiness because we can and because it's easier than the consequences if we don't.


There is also another reason for the decline in shared mealtimes, one rarely spoken about: Parents don't want to eat with their children. Arlie Russell Hochschild noted in "The Time Bind" (1997) that as home becomes more like work, and work becomes more like home, there are fewer reasons to rush back in time for dinner. Most men say that, if given a choice between time or money, they would choose the former; in fact, they choose the latter. After all, who wants to deal with a six-year-old having a temper tantrum because there is green stuff on her pasta? Much easier to stay at the office, order in, drink a beer and trudge home when the kids are asleep. Even in families where both parents are at home, they often wait until the kids are in bed to eat. As one mother told me: "It's just not fun to eat with them."

As food preparation has become easier, meals quicker and distractions ubiquitous, it's tempting to view the family dinner as simply another choice from columns A, B or C. Just as television has splintered its viewing audience, TV dinners have splintered the dining audience. When anyone can eat alone, few eat together.

And that's a shame. Because dinner is like a formal poem, with a fixed meter and time. It can't be hastened by new technology or emailed as an attachment to our kitchens. Instead, it's one of the few opportunities for conversation in a noisy world, a place to take a slower measure of our frenzied days. By missing mealtime, we are missing a substantial part of our children's lives. Sooner than we realize, they will not be at our table. Sooner than that, they will not want to have anything to do with us.

Well, lots to chew on here. I was struck by his description of his own family's meals, with the picky kids and the fragmented menu. How is that a child learns to eat what is set before him (or at least politely and quietly push it around)? How is it that parents form good table habits in their children? They eat together. Accomodating a child's fussiness at the table may be the easy way out, but frankly, eating what's set before you builds character. Where's Calvin's dad when you need him? And of course dad doesn't want to eat with the little monsters when they throw fits and won't touch the green stuff, but who made 'em that way? Their parents, that's who.

The author notes that the kids will be gone from the table before ya know it, and even before that they won't want anything to do with their folks. Well, sure, if the folks can't even make time to sit down with the kids and eat with them.

This sort of problem seems like an effect of just having too much money. There are plenty of families who eat meals together at home, because they can't afford to do otherwise. (The article mentions that family dinners are most prevalent among Latinos, perhaps because of cultural standards and perhaps because of financial constraints on fast food.) It's simply not cheap to nosh on fast food every day. Darwin had a co-worker at one point who was trying to cut costs because she and her husband were expecting. She convinced her husband to stop eating out for every meal (they had staggered schedules and he didn't like to cook) and trimmed $500 a month from their budget. $500!

The author seems to realize that family meal time is important, what with all his "dinner is like a formal poem" and "few opportunities for conversation in a frenzied world" prose. However, realization is not the end of the journey. The next step is to actually make the sacrifices involved in getting home on time to eat with the family, in instilling the discipline in the children to make them pleasant mealtime companions, and in not rushing dinner in order to get back to the precious computer. You can track his progress at I guess it must be important to him, since he's started a blog about it...


Todd said...

I'm not terribly happy with the tv dinner phenomenon. One might suggest it began the downward spiral of parents not teaching their kids to cook. My dad, for example, was "traditional," in that he expected my mom to fix all the meals. But he could put together a handful of menus when needed. He knew his way around grilled foods. We rarely had to resort to tv or takeout.

Having a child solidified our meal habits. I prepare most of the meals, and I adjust my work schedule to ensure I have afternoon time to shop and put together healthy meals.

Our child expects a meal with vegatables, fruits, a main course, and dessert. She tries anything and will eat more of what's put in front of her than I did at that age.

Darwin said...

I suppose we're pretty basic in the Darwin household in that we almost never get farther than one side (salad or vegetable) and an entre. Still, we do manage to sit down as a family every day, even if that means doing so at 8pm because I'm late getting home from work.

It always seemed like the obvious thing to Mrs and me, perhaps because both of our families did the same. When we were first married (before monkeys) I worked 8-5 and Mrs stagemanaged from 4pm to 11pm. So I'd make dinner and we'd sit down when she got home at 11:30. When she was six months along with our oldest monkey, that schedule got to be a little much, so since then Mrs does most of the cooking in the Darwin household. Sigh... I miss making curry.

Anonymous said...

Eating with my family is something that my folks instilled in me (by example) as a youngin'. There were some nights when basketball/soccer practice didn't end until 8 or so. For a time, 8:30 - 9:00 suppers were common.

I guess the Mrs. & I never really gave it much thought, but we rarely have dinner apart. Having dinner apart usually means that I am not in the same town (usually state) as the rest of my fmaily. It has always been just a given. That's what families do.

As to not having dinner with my kids, that's just not going to happen unless I am away on business. Yeah, my little bubba can be quite the test at dinner, and our little princess is also becoming quite the demanding child (tonight she was offered a bread stick, but continued to fuss because she wanted salad greens. The princess is almost 7 mos.) Kids will be kids. They will also learn from their parents in regard to behavior etc...