[Reader-list] Why hectic times call for a return to the family meal

Chintan Girish Modi chintan.backups at gmail.com
Mon Nov 29 12:35:09 IST 2010


*You Are Who You Eat With*

By Katherine Gustafson

When the 10 Garcia-Prats boys got together every night for dinner, they
shared more than food around the table. They talked about the successes and
frustrations of their days. The older boys helped the younger ones cut their
meat. They compared their picks for the World Cup, a conversation that
turned into an impromptu geography lesson.

Their mother, Cathy, author of *Good Families Don’t Just Happen: What We
Learned from Raising Our Ten Sons and How It Can Work for
strove to make the dinner table warm and welcoming, a place where her boys
would want to linger. “Our philosophy is that dinnertime is not just a time
to feed your body; it’s a time to feed your mind and your soul,” she told me
over the phone from her Houston, Texas, home. “It lets us have an
opportunity to share our day, be part of each others’ lives.”

Today, families like the Garcia-Prats are the exception. According the 2007
National Survey of Children’s Health, fewer than half of Americans eat meals
daily with their families, a statistic that highlights the breakneck pace at
which we live and our grab-and-go food culture. Increasing economic
pressures only exacerbate these cultural trends, as many families are forced
to work two jobs to afford the basics and have little time to slow down and
have dinner.

But the deterioration of the family meal may be more damaging than we
realize. “Our lives have gotten so hectic and so busy that if you don’t set
aside time as a family, I think you just get lost,” said Garcia-Prats. “Then
you’re just individuals living in a building, instead of a family living in
a home, supporting each other and being there for each other.”
Dinner and Happiness

When food advocate and chef Tom French asked a student how she felt after
his organization, the Experience Food Project, began replacing the bland,
processed food in her school cafeteria with fresh, healthy school lunches,
he received an unexpected answer.
“She gave it some serious thought,” he told me over the phone. “Then she
said, ‘you know, I feel respected.’”

Moments like this make French believe that adults who prepare quality meals
for children are offering something more important than a nutrition lesson:
They are communicating that they care. This is why the Experience Food
Project teaches PTA parents about the importance of prioritizing family
meals and helps them schedule the logistics of dinnertime.

French says there are “mountains of statistical data” correlating family
dinner with benefits such as better communication, higher academic
performance, and improved eating habits. Having dinner together boosts
family cohesiveness and is associated with children’s motivation in school,
positive outlook, and avoidance of high-risk behaviors. Teens who frequently
eat with their families are half as likely to smoke or use pot than those
who rarely have family dinners, according to researchers at The National
Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University (CASA).

The correlation between family dinner and well-adjusted teens is so strong
that CASA launched the first Family Day on September 27, an annual event
honoring the family meal. The day recognizes that “parental engagement
fostered during frequent family dinners is an effective tool to help keep
America’s kids substance free.”

President Obama officially proclaimed Family Day 2010, noting that it served
as an opportunity to “recommit to creating a solid foundation for the future
health and happiness of all our nation’s children.”

Communities from all over the country held Family Day celebrations, and some
made the event into a week-long affair. Families found creative ways to
celebrate each others’ company over food—putting together homemade pizzas,
picnicking, doing activities from CASA’s Family Dinner Kit, and eating at
restaurants offering discounts for the occasion.

Such events draw attention to the ways in which meals together help families
strengthen their relationships, according to Joseph A. Califano Jr., CASA
Founder and Chairman and former U.S. Secretary of Health, Education, and
Welfare. “The more often teens have dinner with their parents, the more
likely they are to report talking to their parents about what’s going on in
their lives,” said Califano in a statement to press. “In today’s busy and
overscheduled world, taking the time to come together for dinner really
makes a difference in a child’s life.”

Family dinner also encourages the development of language skills and
emotional intelligence in children. During dinner conversations, children
learn how to articulate their feelings and experiences and to communicate
respect—whether that means asking politely for a dish or talking about their
day at school. Research shows that children who have acquired skills in
identifying and expressing emotion and negotiating conflict often experience
less distress, have fewer behavior problems, hold more positive attitudes
about school, and exhibit better academic performance.
Fusion Cuisine

Finding ways to connect is increasingly important as families become more
diverse and must negotiate cultural and generational difference. “People are
tired and they are working and they are blending cultures and blending
generations,” said French, who grew up in a household with his

Families of all types benefit from sharing life’s daily ups and downs around
the table. In a 2010 study of a group of racially diverse, low-income, urban
youth, kids who ate family dinner more frequently had more positive
perceptions of their communication with their parents. Extended and blended
families may find that dinner solidifies fledgling or fragile bonds. And
families that unite multiple cultures can make the sharing of specific
traditions and dishes—which, as French puts it, “carry generations of
cultural DNA”—into a centerpiece of family bonding.

As Garcia-Prats sees it, dinner is a time when families can celebrate their
differences. “We learn diversity appreciation in our homes,” she said. “It’s
going to be hard to appreciate someone else’s religion or ethnicity or
culture if we haven’t even learned to appreciate the uniqueness of each
person in our own family. It’s one of our philosophies: We are 12 unique
individuals in this home.”

At dinner, we bridge the gaps between us by sharing our food and the stories
of our lives. And the moments we spend together at the table form the basis
of something remarkably profound. Call it what you will—sibling bonding,
communicating respect, bridging cultures—but at the very least it is, as
Garcia-Prats told me, ”not just about food.” It is about the way food can
connect us.


Katherine Gustafson wrote this article for *What Happy Families
the Winter 2011 issue of YES! Magazine. Katherine is a freelance writer and
editor with a background in international nonprofit organizations. She is
currently writing a book about sustainable food.

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