All together at the dinner table

Strategies to make mealtime family time

April 21, 2004|By Sara Engram | Sara Engram,Special to the Sun

For our parents' and grandparents' generations, the daily dilemma for any household cook was the question: "What's for dinner?"

These days, as calendars grow dense with activities and obligations, the question in many households is not so much what to have for dinner but whether there's time for dinner at all.

If you can't seem to get your family together for meals, take heart. You've got good allies, both in terms of practical advice and in research that backs up the common-sense hunch that there is something inherently healthy about a family chattering around a dinner table -- something healthy enough to prompt a reassessment of the frantic schedules that rule many American households.

For the past eight years, the Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University has surveyed American teen-agers. Early on, says communications director Richard Mulieri, researchers picked up a correlation between the risk of substance abuse and the number of times teen-agers ate a meal with their families.

The more often families ate dinner together, the less likely teens were to engage in risky behaviors, whether drinking, drugs, smoking or sex.

CASA's 1998 Teen Survey found that teens who eat dinner with their parents twice a week or less were four times more likely to smoke cigarettes, three times more likely to smoke marijuana and nearly twice as likely to drink as those who ate dinner with their parents six or seven times a week.

In 1999, the survey found that teens from families that almost never eat dinner together were 72 percent more likely than the average teen to use illegal drugs, cigarettes and alcohol, while those from families that almost always eat dinner together were 31 percent less likely than the average teen to engage in these activities.

The secret isn't in the menu or the food preparation, says Mulieri. Rather, it's what CASA calls "parent power," the connections that enable parents and kids to touch base with each other, to find out how their day has gone.

"Parental engagement is simple, and it's one of the most effective tools in helping children grow up healthier," Mulieri says, noting that government programs spend millions of dollars to try to get the positive outcomes that CASA's survey finds in a simple habit like regular family dinners.

Yet if family dinners are a simple habit, ensuring that they happen is far from easy. Parental job pressures, together with children's schoolwork and extracurricular activities, leave little room for a ritual that has held families together for centuries.

Melinda Cianos, a nursing student and Rodgers Forge mother of three, is a firm believer in family dinners. "It's what I had growing up ... and I wanted that for my kids," she says. But in the Cianos household, as for many families, there are compromises.

As a regional sales representative, Cianos' husband Michael spends many days on the road, so more evenings than not, family dinner is Melinda and the kids -- Claire, 15, Michael, 12, and Andrew, 7. But Dad is home on weekends and Sunday evenings are reserved for the whole family.

Whether weekday or weekend, dinner doesn't have to be a special menu, says Cianos. And it doesn't have to last forever -- even 15 or 20 minutes is worthwhile. "We have a lot of fun conversations during that time," she says.

"When we're riding in the car, I do a lot of listening, but I'm busy driving and I don't get to respond with a well-thought-out answer. Dinnertime is when I get to do that."

Preserving a family dinnertime is "a struggle every day," Cianos says, especially as her ninth-grade daughter gets interested in more extracurricular activities.

Finding the right balance between schoolwork, wholesome activities and down time is "constant. I'm constantly writing schedules, constantly checking schedules and constantly changing schedules," she says.

Dinner doesn't happen at the same time every day, and it's sometimes a little more rushed than at other times. But more often than not, the Cianos kids know that they will be gathering around the dinner table with at least one parent.

Meanwhile, many families rely on grab-and-run food, whether from fast-food restaurants or prepared meals warmed in the microwave as various family members stop to refuel.

As a result, says food columnist Leanne Ely, dinnertime conversation for too many families consists of the quintessential fast-food question: "Do you want fries with that?"

Ely first began writing about food in the traditional way -- focusing on good recipes. But as responses poured in from readers, particularly from the 225,000-plus members of, where she posts a weekly Food for Thought column, Ely has taken on "a more pointed mission" -- bringing back family dinners.

Her book -- Saving Dinner: The Menus, Recipes, and Shopping Lists to Bring Your Family Back to the Table (Ballantine Books, 2003, $14.95) -- is a tool to help families do just that.

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