Why Do We Eat Together? Food as Family Ritual

Bev Sykes.png
Bev Sykes
When my dad was a kid in the 50s, his family ate together once a week--on Friday nights before temple. The meal was built around a biweekly rotation of brisket or tongue with a few sides and requisite glasses of Manishevitz for the elders. The other nights the kids ate in the kitchen in between activities or grabbed food at friend's houses.

When my husband was a kid growing up in Baltimore in the 80s, he would travel to his grandmother's house in Philly once a month for a weekend meal. "There was always a centerpiece, tablecloth and a spoon and knife at each place setting even if you only needed a fork," he remembers. "You could never take a pot and put it on the table or set out a carton of milk from the fridge. Everything was presented in serving dishes." We eat like that about once a year in our house on Thanksgiving, when we blow the dust off china we forget about the rest of the year.

Last month, NPR aired this story on the state of the family dinner. A poll conducted alongside the Harvard School of Public Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation for the article found that these days about half of families actually sit down to eat together. When they do, it reported that kids develop better, healthier eating habits.

The study also found that if families manage to round everyone up for meals, the TV is usually on or someone is texting. Whether or not the American mealtime really used to be more consistent (or closer to that Norman Rockwell ideal) in previous decades is up for debate: My dad may not have had an iPad as a kid, but he and his four siblings were plenty distracted long before anybody had heard of a cell phone. When I ate dinner with my family growing up, the food was plopped from the pan to the table and we usually ate with the local news or Wheel of Fortune playing in the background.

It's hard to think up another part of the country where it's easier to teach kids about where food comes from than Seattle. There are farmers markets everywhere and local produce at just about every supermarket in town. An article published last week in The Atlantic talks about whether what we eat influences whether or not we eat together. Adapted from the book Fast-Forward Family, the piece is framed around a UCLA study that found that more than just being busy, other factors, including frequent snacking and the use of "convenience foods" (Hamburger Helper, nacho sauce) devalue the family dinner. In fact, the article reported that using commercially prepared food doesn't actually save time. When kids eat home-cooked meals they also consume less salt and sweets and gain less extra weight.

Now that I'm raising kids, I'm discovering that there's this visceral, fundamental way food connects us that's stronger than other activities. Everybody has to eat, and nothing's closer to us than the stuff we put in us. So why not make it as healthy as possible?

Sharing food is a meaningful ritual, and also a really simple way to practice intentionality and connect. But sitting down to dinner can also be completely unrealistic, especially if you're a single parent or work second or third shift. While the study reported on NPR suggests that family dinners are one way to connect, it found that other activities like reading together or going for a walk are similarly beneficial for families.

Do you pull off a family dinner every night? And if due to work schedules or other factors that doesn't happen, what do you do together instead?

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