The Salt
4:27 pm
Tue February 26, 2013

Family Dinner: Treasured Tradition Or Bygone Ideal?

Originally published on Thu February 28, 2013 3:06 pm

When we asked you (via our Facebook page) to tell us about the weekday challenges your families face, given the competing demands of work, commutes, schoolwork and activities, you didn't hold back. Especially on the subject of squeezing in a family dinner.

"This topic hit my central core," wrote Moschel Kadokura. "It's amazingly hard," says mom Samantha Kolber of Plainfield, Vt. "Lots of balls in the air," says Katherine Hennessy of Boston. "Witching hours" is how working mom Czarina Kulick of Pittsburgh, Pa., described the daily hurdles and tag-team efforts to feed, bathe and complete homework. "It often feels like no one wins."

"My family dinners, while they are surely Norman Rockwell in my head, in real life, it's more like the TV show The Simpsons," says Jessica Leichsenring of Wisconsin, mom of three kids. She referenced one episode where Homer Simpson cajoles the family off the couch. "We're not going to shovel food in our mouths while we stare at the TV," Homer says. "We're going to eat at the dining room table like a normal family."

If you listen to my story on All Things Considered, you'll get a shockingly honest and real snapshot of Leichsenring's family dinner: It's quick (eight minutes) and full of distractions (think iPods, TV and kids complaining they don't like milk). And Leichsenring is not alone.

Our NPR poll, conducted with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health, finds about a quarter of children surveyed live in homes where — on a given night — the TV is on, or someone is using an electronic device. (The poll was based on a nationally representative sample of U.S. households with children. About 1,000 caregivers are included.)

The poll also found that, despite families ranking a family meal as a high priority, about half of children live in a home where, on a given night, families don't sit down together to eat or share the same food.

Lots of families we heard from told us that family dinners are special times: They just don't happen every night. For many, it's a weekend dinner where everyone looks forward to being together. But for a choice few, it seems, family dinner is the glue that holds the family together. (We profile one such family, the Brown-Spencers, in our photo gallery above.)

So why are we asking about family dinners? Several studies have suggested that regular family meals contribute to healthy eating habits. For instance, one study found that middle-school kids who routinely ate with their families tended to be healthier eaters when they reached high school. And there also seems to be emotional benefits as well.

"We think family dinners matter because they provide an opportunity for families to sit down together, to relax, to communicate, to share happenings about their day" says Kelly Musick, an associate professor at Cornell University whose research focuses on modern family dynamics.

But in an era when so many families are stretched thin, it's possible that a nightly dinner may not be the prime opportunity for communicating or relaxing together. If a meal is slap-dash and stressful, is it really making a family stronger? Musick says it's not clear.

"Our research shows that the benefits of family dinners are not as strong or as lasting as previous studies suggest," says Musick.

It may be that quality time spent together — away from the table — is just as beneficial as eating together. For Jessica Leichsenring's family, this means playing outside together after school, or reading together at bedtime.

Leichsenring says she's come to terms with her eight-minute dinners, and she feels she's got strong relationships with her children.

"As long as I'm present in their lives and involved with them and showing them what it is to be a good person, I don't think having dinner together is going to sway that one way or another," she says.

So does family dinner matter? Tell us what you think.

This story is part of the series On the Run: How Families Struggle to Eat Well and Exercise. The series is based on a poll from NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health. If you want to dive deeper, here's a summary of the poll findings, plus the topline data and charts.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block.

If you're listening to this as you head home from work, here's a question: Do you know yet what you're having for dinner? And if you've got kids to feed, will you be squeezing in a meal between after-school activities and homework?

We wanted to know more about family dinner for our new series about how families eat and exercise called On the Run. So along with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health, NPR conducted a poll. We asked parents how they navigate the many competing demands of weekday evenings.

And the answer: Dinner gets short shrift, as NPR's Allison Aubrey reports.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Back in the 1940s, when American artist Norman Rockwell painted the iconic portrait of an American family primly seated at the dining room table, he gave us more than an image. He gave us an ideal.

JESSICA LEICHSENRING: On the table, you see all the plates match, and everybody is there smiling, anticipating this succulent turkey that's being presented to them. And it doesn't look like real life to me.

AUBREY: That's mom Jessica Leichsenring. She lives in Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin, along with her three kids, two cats and her husband. And she says the Norman Rockwell painting is not her life.

(LAUGHTER)

LEICHSENRING: My family dinners, while they are surely Norman Rockwell in my head, in real life, it's more like the TV show "The Simpsons."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW THEME SONG, "THE SIMPSONS")

AUBREY: Even Homer Simpson feels the cultural pressure to measure up. There's a bedrock belief of the importance of family dinner in our culture. In our survey, we found the vast majority of families said it's a high priority. And in this episode, Homer is trying to rally the kids to the table.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SIMPSONS")

DAN CASTELLANETA: (as Homer Simpson) We've got to do better as a family. So tonight, we're not going to shovel food in our mouths while we stare at the TV. We're going to eat at the dining room table like a normal family.

AUBREY: Jessica says this is easier said than done. In her house, the whole family manages to sit down and eat together once, maybe twice a week.

LEICHSENRING: Annie, dinner.

AUBREY: As Jessica pulls a chicken pot pie out of the oven, the kids stream into the kitchen.

LEICHSENRING: Go sit down.

AUBREY: And as is typical, tonight she'll feed the kids first, then she and her husband will eat later.

LEICHSENRING: I actually cooked tonight.

AUBREY: She whipped it together in about 15 minutes this afternoon.

LEICHSENRING: It's homemade except for the crust because who needs to get bothered doing that?

(LAUGHTER)

AUBREY: Especially since she's got to get her kids to basketball, piano lessons, dance classes and Daisy Scouts. Our poll found after-school activities are just one obstacle to family dinner. We found about a quarter of children live in homes where, on a given night, they do not eat together as a family.

LEICHSENRING: Casey, sit down, please. You guys want forks or spoons?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: Fork.

LEICHSENRING: Fork? Casey, do you want a fork or a spoon?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: I want to get my own fork.

CASEY: Fork.

LEICHSENRING: A fork?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: Mommy, I want my own fork.

LEICHSENRING: Yup, you can have your own fork.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: Yay.

LEICHSENRING: All right.

AUBREY: For most families in our survey, a parent being at work was the top obstacle getting in the way of eating together. Jessica says she's fortunate she's working just part time now. But it's still tough. Usually, her husband is home by 5:00. He's an attorney. Right now, he's by the TV turning on the evening news.

LEICHSENRING: A lot of times, it's kind of a handoff. When my husband gets home, it's like, oh my gosh, I'm tired. The kids are driving me crazy.

AUBREY: It's unrelenting, but Jessica says she always manages to get food on the table. And tonight, it's 6:02 p.m. when her kids sit down to eat.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #3: Dinner, dinner, dinner, dinner.

LEICHSENRING: There you go.

AUBREY: And how long will they stay seated? Jessica says her expectations are low.

LEICHSENRING: Casey, can you get some vegetables on there too, please?

CASEY: I do.

(LAUGHTER)

LEICHSENRING: Use it as a scoop. Don't just stab it.

AUBREY: The perennial struggle to get kids to eat their veggies may sound trivial, but Jessica pushes it.

LEICHSENRING: Take two more bites, please.

CASEY: I don't like...

LEICHSENRING: Or you don't...

CASEY: ...veggies.

LEICHSENRING: ...or you don't get dessert. Now, come...

AUBREY: Studies show that there are significant nutritional benefits tied to family dinners. Kids typically get more nutrients during a meal eaten at home and less salt, sugar and fat compared to when they eat out or are allowed to snack whenever they want.

ALLYSON AUBREY, BYLINE: Our polls sound that more than half of children on a given day were reported to eat at least some sweets like candy, cookies, ice cream, or other foods linked to weight gain, so Jessica says she limits snacks and everybody has to eat what's on the table.

LEICHSENRING: Whoa, whoa, whoa. Get back here. Drink your milk, please.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #4: Mom, Annie here is poking me.

LEICHSENRING: No, I want you to eat some more, Casey.

CASEY: I ate most of it.

LEICHSENRING: I want you to eat three more big bites, please.

AUBREY: There's not a lot of conversations. Mom's the referee of all the mealtime teasing. And while she does not allow electronics at the table, it doesn't mean that they're not around.

LEICHSENRING: The TV is on. And my dad is on his iPad, and my husband's on his phone.

AUBREY: Her dad is visiting for the night. With the TV blaring, her husband checks out Facebook on his smartphone. It's his way of decompressing. But the use of all these electronics seems to be distracting the kids away from their dinner.

LEICHSENRING: Well, Casey has left the table unceremoniously, and Jessie is yelling at him to come back and drink his milk.

AUBREY: Our polls sound that distraction is a way of life in many homes. It seems the plugged in, switched on culture we live in penetrates our dining rooms and kitchens too. About a quarter of all families in the survey reported that the TV was on or someone was using a phone or an electronic device during mealtime. So Jessica's certainly not alone. And where has Casey gone?

LEICHSENRING: Casey is playing his - oh, he's watching things on his iPad touch. And I would like to say I did not buy that for him. I do not - my - his godfather bought that for him. I thought he was too young. I'm not going to refuse a gift, though.

AUBREY: By 6:09 p.m., seven minutes after this meal began, two kids have bolted from the table.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #5: I'm done.

AUBREY: Annie fires up her Nintendo DS game. And that leaves Nate, the 10-year-old, at the table alone eating a second helping of pot pie, which, he says, he's used to since he's, by far, the least picky eater.

NATE: Yeah, pretty much, I'm usually the last person at the table.

AUBREY: So when will Jessica and her husband sit down to eat?

LEICHSENRING: Generally, what we do is, well, after the kids are asleep, we can eat in front of the TV like that, which is kind of sad.

AUBREY: There's a bit of a confessional tone here. It's kind of sad, Jessica says. And why? Well, it's easy to feel guilty, Jessica says. Dinner in the ideal world is supposed to be this happy, sacred time. You're supposed to instill this in your children.

LEICHSENRING: Because your parents tried to instill it in you. It's a tradition.

AUBREY: So does it matter if, as our polls sound, that on a given night, about half of families say they're not able to pull off a family dinner, at least not in the conventional way with everyone sitting together, sharing the same food. Are the benefits of a family meal still there if it's so slapdash, just a box to check?

KELLY MUSICK: We think family dinners matter because it provides an opportunity for families to sit down together, to relax, to communicate, to share happenings about their day.

AUBREY: That's Kelly Musick, a researcher at Cornell University, who has studied how family dinners may influence children's well-being. She says in such a fast-paced era, with so many competing demands on our time, it's possible that a nightly dinner may no longer be the prime time that families use to communicate or relax together. Perhaps that's why her research has found that the benefits of family dinner are not as strong or as lasting as prior studies have suggested.

It may be that quality time spent together in other ways is just as beneficial as eating together. For Jessica Leichsenring's family, that means reading together at night or playing outside together when dad gets home from work. So Jessica says she has come to terms with her eight-minute dinners.

LEICHSENRING: As long as I'm present in their lives and involved with them and showing them what it is to be a good person and to have compassion and to - things like that. I'm giving it the best shot I can, and I don't think that having dinner together is going to sway that one way or another.

AUBREY: So like Homer Simpson, Jessica says she'll keep bringing her kids to the table. But if dinner in her house does not look anything like a Norman Rockwell painting, Jessica says it's OK. That's life. Allyson Aubrey, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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