A recent edition of our local paper picked up an article from the Associated Press by Libby Quaid on a topic we’ve preached about for years–decades, actually: the importance of eating dinner at home. In our paper, at least, it carried the headline “Grocers want families back at dinner table” with the subheading “Research shows teens less likely to acquire bad habits”.
When I was a kid, we gathered as a family around the dinner table every night for a hot, homecooked meal. There we all were, my brother, my sister, my mother, my dad, and me, just like Wally and the Beave at the Cleaver’s or David and Ricky at the Nelson’s or Paul and Mary, those two kids on the Donna Reed show. There was no buzzing through a drive-through on the way from soccer practice to ballet. That was in large measure, of course, because in the good old days there weren’t drive through burger joints on every corner.
Fast food establishments then–at least where I grew up–were limited to a little dairy bar that also sold hamburgers and fries, an A&W Root Beer stand, and a couple of barbeque joints (Hick’ry Pit, which was my personal favorite, and McClard’s Bar-B-Q, which was made mildly famous by former President Clinton, who reportedly had their ‘cue shipped to the White House.) A Burger Chef, a Dairy Queen, and a Pizza Hut entered the scene by the time I was in junior high school, but that was late in the game. Our family dining patterns were set. Last time I was back to my home town, fast food chains lined all the thoroughfares, thick as fleas and about as welcome to my way of thinking.
And it wasn’t just that we didn’t have choices back when, but more that eating away from home was a big event. We just didn’t casually dine out for dinner. Going out to a “real” restaurant was something reserved for Mother’s Day, the occasional Easter brunch, and once in a blue moon for some other reason.
No, at our house, we ate our evening meal together over what was sometimes a wide-ranging conversation in which all of us were expected to participate, even the youngest…me. The term ‘wide-ranging’ did have limits, though, as I learned when I was in about the third grade. One night my older sister (then in high school) was sent from the table for turning the conversation toward her biology dissection project by piping up with, “Did you know worms have lips?” Although not one normally to squelch any sort of educational experience (her motto was that no learning is ever a waste) our mother would brook no talk of worms at the dinner table.
And thus, a strong belief in the value of gathering together each day over a meal carried forward to my own dinner table. Ours was a two physician household, which meant long hours and unexpected calls and that sometimes dinner was late. Likewise, the hectic pace of getting us to the clinic and three boys to school often meant breakfast, for the sake of speedy nourishment, was a protein milkshake, quickly downed before the boys dashed out the door with their sack lunches in hand. About the only time we could linger over breakfast was on the weekend, and our family Sunday brunches were de rigeuer.
But despite the pressures of jobs, school, and extracurricular activites (which the boys had aplenty) we still managed to all sit down at the table together most nights for conversation over a hot, homecooked meal. It was the only time of the day when we could converse, could share what happened while we were apart, could discover each others likes and dislikes, fears and dreams, could laugh and sing and talk as a family.
I know what you’re thinking: I don’t have time to cook every night. Not with my kids’ schedules, no way!
Trust me, you can and for the sake of your kids, you should.
Nowadays, putting a homecooked meal on the table doesn’t have to mean slaving in the kitchen. I read an article just last week about a nationally emerging business trend of commercial “assembly kitchens” that offer busy moms or dads a place to quickly put together multiple high-quality whole food meals to take home to cook during the week. These places have done all the shopping, the prep work, all the washing, slicing and dicing, some precooking, and, most importantly, the recipe testing for you. They’ve assembled all the ingredients and tools and containers you’ll need, so that in an hour or two you can put together a week or more of dinners. You just select the dishes you want to prepare from their pre-tesed files, follow their easy instructions, assemble your meals and take them home to your freezer. Then each night just pop one in the oven, throw a salad together while it’s reheating, and voila a hot, homecooked feast.
And any more, homecooking doesn’t even have to mean cooking yourself. If you can point, click, and boil water, you can have a fabulous high-end-restaurant-quality meal on the table in 10 to 12 minutes. Online food delivery retailer Home Bistro offers a full line of delicious meals (even really good low carb ones) that are flash frozen, shipped to your door, and only require gentle reheating in hot water. We’ve actually toured their factory, met their chef, and seen first hand the quality of ingredients and the meticulous care with which they make this food. It’s not as cheap as Mickey D’s dollar menu, but it’s great value for what it is and darn well worth the splurge.
And most grocery stores (in trying to bring back their customer base) now sport kiosks of hot rotisserie chickens, meat loaf, or roast, a salad bar, and a hot counter of prepared veggies just waiting to be picked up and carted home. And as far as the social value goes, there’s a world of difference between a burger eaten out of a styrofoam shell in the car between shuttle stops and a juicy roasted chicken, some green beans, and a salad on plates around a family table, alive with spirited conversation. Heck, even the fast food burgers would be better eaten on plates around the table amid the communion of family or friends.
Our boys are all grown men, now, with homes (and, in two of the three, with kids) of their own. But the tradition lives on in the next generation. Dinner is eaten at home most of the time. And when we’re all together, whether at their house or ours, it’s still our family’s habit to enjoy hours of conversation and laughter over a hot, homecooked meal.
To my way of thinking, it’s possibly the most important hour or two in the entire day in terms of forging strong family bonds. And according to Ms. Quaid’s article, I’m right; to wit:
There is a cost to spending meals apart: Research shows that teenagers who don’t eat with their parents face a greater risk of drug and alcohol problems. The more often kids have dinner with their parents, the less likely they are to smoke, drink, and use drugs.
However you do it, if you’ve got kids, ring the dinner bell again. Make the grocers happy; meet your family around the table for dinner.