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 www.dinnerwithdad.com. I guess it must be important to him, since he's started a blog about it...