Culinary no-no #753


That is a beautiful picture. All those happy faces and smiles. Family members. Dining. Together as one.

To be perfectly honest I’m not sure when the Fischer family, Kevin, Jennifer, and Kyla all sat down at the dinner table. I could be in the office, typing away, TV on in the background. Jennifer is running around making sure Kyla and I are fed. Kyla might be in her bedroom multi-tasking (eating while on a device with a friend). Or Jennifer could be chauffeuring Kyla to Irish dance.

And while our dear Kyla is not a fussy eater (for a 13-year old she has an adventurous appetite) there are times the Fischers are not sympatico on what’s for dinner. So we dine separately.

Oh we completely understand the value of the entire complete family even our threesome eating dinner at the same table at the same time. But let’s face it. In 2022 that just isn’t always possible.

Reporters Julie Jargon and Andrea Petersen recently explored the issue in the Wall Street Journal:

Family dinners are key to children’s health. So why don’t we eat together more?

For busy families, gathering together for dinner can feel like an impossibility. Children could use it now more than ever.

Robin Black-Burns’s teenage daughter has after-school activities that fall over dinnertime, making evening meals at home a thing of the past. The SUV has become their de facto dinner table.

Ms. Black-Burns’s daughter, 14-year-old Athena Burns, has dinner in the car four nights a week, eating during the hourlong   drive   home from robotics-club meetings. Ms. Black-Burns usually arrives at her daughter’s school 15 minutes early to eat her own dinner in the front seat while waiting for Athena. 

Athena, a freshman at a private high school in Virginia, had a similarly demanding evening schedule in middle school. The mother and daughter have been eating on the go for years. Their dining table was so underused that two years ago Ms. Black-Burns donated it, converting the family dining room into a lounge. 

“We wonder why so many kids have anxiety,” Ms. Black-Burns says. “Well, gee, they have a rigorous academic schedule and after-school activities and they’re eating in the car.”

A youth mental-health crisis that was building for a decade before the pandemic has worsened over the past two years. In 2021, 44% of high-school students said they felt persistently sad or hopeless in the past year, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. At the same time, mounting scientific research shows that   gathering for regular meals and conversation might be one way to build children’s emotional resilience.

Nationwide surveys show that the number of dinners parents and children eat   together has fallen in recent decades. The primary reason: the conflicting schedules of working parents and kids.

“It’s so basic that people forget about it,” says Ellen Rome, head of the Center for Adolescent Medicine at Cleveland Clinic Children’s Hospital in Ohio. Gathering around the table, Dr. Rome says, is “a useful mechanism for creating connectedness and role-modeling behaviors that parents want children to emulate.

During the pandemic, even families that had sent children off to college found themselves together under one roof. Researchers say family meals did make a comeback, if briefly. The pandemic offered a glimpse of what they had been missing and a reminder of the trade-offs families have been making for years—but many families have reverted to eating together less often.

“We have a lot of adolescents who’ve devolved to having all of their meals in their bedroom,” Dr. Rome says. “It’s a significant step away from family connection.”

Teens who have frequent family dinners have lower rates of drug and alcohol use compared with those who share fewer family meals, several pivotal studies have found. The kids also have fewer symptoms of anxiety and depression and are less likely to attempt suicide. Family meals are associated with better nutrition and lower obesity rates among children. 

Such studies find a correlation between a family’s frequency of gathering at the dinner table and the positive outcomes for children, but researchers debate whether the dinners themselves are causing the benefits, or are a proxy for a family’s well-being and resources.

Parents and teens say in many surveys that they value family dinners but time constraints prevent them from having more. The pressure to excel in school and get into a good college pushes children into numerous after-school activities that often occur during dinnertime. For parents who work several jobs or have shifts  or commutes that run into dinner hours, family mealtime is just not possible.

From 1996 to 2008, the average number of family dinners a week among a national sampling of teens declined from about five days to a little more than four, according to researchers from Harvard Medical School and other universities. More recent studies have confirmed the decreased frequency of family dinners.

A continuing long-term study by the University of Minnesota’s Project Eating and Activity in Teens (EAT) research team aims to learn more about eating and weight-related problems that affect young people. It began in 1997 and involved nearly 5,000 adolescents from diverse backgrounds in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. A quarter of respondents reported eating seven or more family meals in the prior week. One-third said they ate together one or two times, if at all. The study found that higher-income families ate together more often than lower-income families did, a gap that has widened in subsequent phases of the study.

Eating on the Go

Last year, when Athena was in eighth grade and playing tennis and taking piano lessons, Ms. Black-Burns often bought fast food at drive-throughs. She and Athena both gained weight. During a routine checkup, Athena’s doctor advised Ms. Black-Burns, a single mother, to arrange healthier meals. 

Ms. Black-Burns began cooking meals for the week ahead on Sundays. Before she picks up Athena from school, she heats up the entree and packs it in an insulated bag. She also brings fruit or vegetables and salads, along with fancy plastic utensils to make mealtime feel special.

Ms. Black-Burns says she and Athena have both lost weight. Still, both say they wish dinner didn’t have to be this way.

Athena says she misses the elementary-school years when after-school activities ended by 4:30 p.m. and she could eat dinner at home with her mom. 

“Those were great times when I could give a summary of my day and my mom would tell me about her day. I miss that,” she says. “Even though we’re in the car together, it’s not the same as sitting down at a table.”

Two to Three Nights a Week

Jerica Berge, a professor in the department of family medicine and community health at the University of Minnesota and a co-investigator on the teen-eating study, has continued to follow Project EAT research participants from a 2010 survey group, then-adolescents who are now in their 20s.

Those who had eaten two to three family meals a week as teens had lower rates of obesity and eating disorders, as well as better mental-health outcomes than those who had eaten fewer meals together, she found. Those young adults now give priority to dining with their own children and partners.

Young adults who had eaten meals with their families three to five times a week as adolescents had even more-significant physical and mental-health benefits, Dr. Berge found. 

A family meal doesn’t have to be dinner. Any meal eaten as a family can be beneficial, she says. Dinners neither have to involve all family members nor must they last long, Dr. Berge says—20 to 30 minutes of family connection around a table is enough. (Researchers say that this kind of quality time can also include regular trips together in the car, as in the case of Athena and her mother.)

Dr. Berge and colleagues surveyed the same group of young adults in 2020 and found the frequency of family meals increased slightly across socioeconomic groups during the pandemic.

Other studies, including those conducted by the Food Marketing Institute, the food industry’s trade group, also found a rise in family meals during the lockdown phase of the pandemic, but “we’re seeing some reversion back to pre-Covid behaviors,” says David Fikes, executive director of the FMI Foundation.

Searching for the Special Sauce

Researchers are trying to unravel what it is about family dinners that yields mental-health benefits for kids and teens. Some psychologists believe family dinners are a proxy for other factors associated with better outcomes for children, such as higher household income, less family stress and strong parent-child relationships.

“What you’re measuring is probably a slew of social advantages that some kids have and other kids don’t,” says Frank Elgar, a child psychologist and professor of psychiatry at McGill University in Montreal. 

The presence of screens during dinner—something that is overwhelmingly common, according to several studies—can undo some benefits of communal meals.

Having the TV on in the background has been found to reduce the quality of children’s meals. More recent studies have shown that meals without digital distractions are associated with lower obesity rates and higher-quality family interactions. 

Rodney Lee, a lawyer, and his wife, Roxanne Lee, an executive at a telecommunications company, say they eat dinner with their three children four or five times a week. Electronics aren’t allowed at the table, but the kids sometimes want to rush through the meal to get back to their gadgets. Ms. Lee likes to use a deck of conversation-starter cards to get the children talking.

“I really want to know, who did you play with today, what did you learn, if somebody hurt their feelings,” says Ms. Lee. “Sometimes they don’t want to open up. They want to get on their devices or be done.”

With busy careers and two of the children playing competitive soccer, some nights family dinner for the Lees, who live in Woodland Hills, Calif., is Chick-fil-A. But two or three times a week, Mr. Lee cooks with 8-year-old Beckham and 7-year-old twins, Rohman and Remington.

“Part of this is just my love of food and sharing it with them,” says Mr. Lee, who often posts photos of his family’s meals on Instagram. “It’s just become a way for us to bond.”

Making It Work

Like many dual-career families, Saana Rapakko Hunt and her husband, Gareth Hunt, of San Carlos, Calif., have a hard time eating dinner together. But they created a routine to make sure one parent could always eat with their children, ages 4 and 6.

During the workweek, Ms. Rapakko Hunt, president and chief product officer at the Mom Project, an online job marketplace for mothers, and Mr. Hunt, a partner at a large accounting firm, each handle two evenings of kid duty. This entails stopping work by 5:30 p.m. to eat dinner with the children and oversee bath time and bedtime. The off-duty parent continues working while the on-duty parent often resumes work after the children go to sleep. The entire family eats together on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.

Ms. Rapakko Hunt places the weekly online grocery order. Mr. Hunt does most of the cooking. For a dish to earn a spot in the family’s dinner rotation, Mr. Hunt says he must be able to prepare it in 30 minutes or less. When Ms. Rapakko Hunt is on kid duty, she either serves something her husband has prepared, orders takeout or serves breakfast foods such as toast or cereal.

“The reality is, it’s hard, and we have to make sacrifices to make this work for our family,” Mr. Hunt says.


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2 thoughts on “Culinary no-no #753

  1. Pingback: Culinary no-no #754 | This Just In… From Franklin, WI

  2. Pingback: Culinary no-no #754 | This Just In… From Franklin, WI

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