In A Date With Your Family, a 1950 educational 10-minute film, Mom knits while dinner is being made. She and daughter change from their daywear to something more formal. Brother and Junior comb their hair and wash their hands in preparation. Father comes back from the office and hangs his hat on a stand.
“The dinner date has started and everyone is happy about it,” says the narrator. “Napkins on your lap, the family is waiting for the service. They talk amiably while Dad serves – I said pleasant because that’s the essence of dinner. It’s not just good manners, it’s common sense. Pleasant, sober conversations promote good digestion.”
As he continues to explain the dos and don’ts at dinner, the narrator advises complimenting Mother on the food and avoiding speaking unkindly about her siblings.
“The dining table is no place for dissatisfaction,” says the narrator. “That doesn’t mean you should be stuffy or formal — with your own family, you can relax. Be yourself. Just be sure it’s your best self.”
That version of the family dinner, if it ever really existed outside of TV shows, is long gone. But being together over a meal together is still a concept that many families aspire to today. But how is that supposed to happen? It’s a mixture of loosening up and not scrapping the whole idea.
Almost everything has changed, starting with the family itself.
“The idea of a mother cooking at home? This ship has sailed,” says Dr. Anne Fishel, CEO and co-founder of The Family Dinner Project.
“About 50% of American families are either single parents or blended families,” says Fishel. She also notes that if two parents are present, they could both be mothers or fathers. And sometimes a grandparent is there too. Some people have expanded their definition of family to include their adopted family — the people in their inner circle who make them feel at home even if they aren’t relatives.
Dinner itself has also changed. For many people, it rarely means cooking from scratch. They may prefer other options such as subscription meal packages, frozen food, delivery, takeaway, and restaurant dining.
“Family dinner doesn’t have to be dinner and it doesn’t have to be family,” says Fishel.
“I think it’s two people,” she says. “It may be unbearable to get everyone together night after night. Some families I know have a rule that no one eats alone. In some families, the kids eat veg and hummus at 5 p.m. because they are very hungry and are more likely to eat with a parent later.”
One of the few perks of the early stages of the pandemic, when many people were staying home as much as possible, was that hectic family commitments that came with going out were literally off the table. You were more likely to have dinner at home, whether you cooked or baked (sourdough bread, anyone?) or ordered more than usual.
A little over a year into the pandemic, Fishel has teamed up with Making Caring Common, a Harvard Graduate School of Education project, to survey more than 500 parents about family meals.
“Over 60% said they eat dinner with family more often,” says Fishel. And most of those parents – 80% – said they wanted to keep it that way. “Parents even reported an improvement in the quality of their family meals,” says Fishel. “They talked more about their days, laughed more, bonded more and shared the news.”
As we settle into the “new normal,” what will it take to keep family dinners in the mix?
If the family meal is important to you, it’s probably because it was part of your childhood.
If you grew up in the era of strict family dining, you might not have liked being told to eat everything on your plate or being given a late-night lesson in table manners. But even so, as an adult, you’re more likely to prioritize family meals.
“Family meal traditions can encourage more frequent family meals across generations,” says Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, PhD, chief of the Department of Epidemiology and Community Health at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health. “Parents who ate six to seven family meals per week during childhood reported significantly more family meals with their current family.”
Some even make a career out of it.
“Family dinner is at the heart of what we do,” says Caroline Galzin, who with her husband Tony owns Nicky’s Coal Fired restaurant in Nashville, where family home evening is held on Mondays. “Everything is inspired by Tony’s large Italian family and the atmosphere around meals when he was growing up,” says Galzin. “Everyone brought something different, and many people gathered to eat together.”
Children who have regular family dinners are less likely to suffer from depression, anxiety and eating disorders, have larger vocabularies, get better grades, have higher self-esteem and eat more fruits and vegetables, says nutritionist Maryann Jacobsen, author of The solution for the family meal.
“But we don’t need studies to know that coming together as a family in a positive atmosphere is good for us,” says Jacobsen. “It brings us together, fosters closeness, and teaches kids that food matters.”
It also establishes eating habits that can last a long time.
“Even though children don’t eat everything we serve, we know from research that the foods children are most exposed to in childhood are the same foods they prefer in adulthood,” says Jacobsen.
The table can be a difficult place to navigate family dynamics. That is, if you can get there at all.
“When I speak to families across the country, employment is the number one barrier to family dinners,” says Fishel. “Parents work different shifts or kids have extracurricular activities around dinner.”
Other common problems include picky food, table conflicts and tight budgets.
The key is to be flexible — and not give up, says Jacobsen. Make it something that works for your family — however you define it. Fixed prices, imperfect participation or a stunning menu.
“I won’t lie: It takes commitment to plan and host family dinners every week,” says Jacobsen. “But now that my kids are older, I see it’s worth it.”