Monday was Family Day – A Day to Eat Dinner with Your ChildrenTM. The initiative was sponsored by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University (CASA), a non-governmental think tank that focuses on the effects of substance abuse and develops innovative ways to prevent and combat it. CASA just published a study, The Importance of Family Dinners V, showing that "dinner makes a difference." Specifically, that the more often children - here, teenagers ages 12-17 - have dinner with their parents, the less likely they are to smoke, drink, or use drugs.
CASA's high-profile campaign came complete with a Presidential Proclamation from Barack Obama and endorsements from high-profile sponsors. And with a tool kit containing some recipes, courtesy of such sponsors, for items such as chili and cheese spirals (featuring Smucker's orange marmalade (!)) and fruit kabobs with creamy cherry peanut butter dip. (Cherry peanut butter?) And also with cues for conversation starters. Like "Using one word, how would you describe your family?" And "What is your favorite smell in the whole world?"
Now, before you get the idea that I'm mocking Family Day, I want to make clear that I'm not. Family Day is an excellent idea. It's just that I just can't imagine any kid - especially my preschooler and kindergartner - chowing down on some of the suggested fare. (Orange marmalade with green chiles?) And I can safely predict that my three-year-old's response to the "smell" question would end, rather than start, a dinnertime conversation.
I truly believe in family dinners. (For a different view, see this guest post, Giving Up on Family Dinners in last week's Motherlode blog.) Not just because of the correlation between frequent (five or more per week) family dinners and decreased risk of teenage substance abuse in the CASA study. Because of all of the benefits for kids. Like better academic performance, enhanced language development, and lower rates of obesity and eating disorders. (Here's an interesting link from the PBS Parents website about how to reap the benefits for your family in creative ways.) Plus, family dinners can also be good for parents too. Especially for working parents as this article from Slate points out.
We actually have family dinners most nights. And we sort of did on Monday night. (Family Day coincided with the end of the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur, which involves a 24-hour fast for observing adults. So, the grownups celebrated the end of the holiday by stuffing ourselves with the traditional bagels, cream cheese, and lox (and sweets!) while the kids ran around with their friends and ignored the food on their plates.) But I have to say that as convinced as I am about family dinners in theory, I often wonder if ours meet the mark in practice.
In my ideal world, our family dinner would involve all four of us sitting down to a beautifully set table with a home-cooked, multi-course, multi-colored meal. We'd give the kids our undivided attention, and they, in turn, would finish all the food on their plates and really talk to us - to the best of their small child abilities.
In reality, our family dinners are more scattered. Table settings are spartan. We don't all eat the same food - my husband is a vegetarian, the rest of us are not - and the adults' palates are more extensive (and spicier) than the kids' repertoire. (Each of them, though, has a favorite green (daughter: broccoli, son: salad) that they will eat. Most nights.) And, I have to confess, dinner is not always home-cooked. (I will try out Laura's turkey tacos recipe from Meal Monday soon, though - it's tailored for busy working moms.)
Our family dinners also do not involve much sitting. There's usually one person out of his or her chair for an extended period of time. Sometimes its me standing over the stove finishing up our dinner after a hectic day at work. Other times its one of the kids soaking the bathroom while purportedly washing his or her hands.
And the conversations are not notable. "Please sit," "Sit," and "Sit down now!" (from the parents) and "Nothing" and "I don't remember" (from the children) are frequently-repeated phrases. And then there's "gross," which my son picked up recently and now uses regularly to describe food he ate happily last week.
And, yes, sometimes (just sometimes) an adult peeks at a Blackberry or iPhone. (The CASA study's findings on "distracted" dinners, though, does reinforce my pledge to take technology completely off the table.)
Still, I do think our family dinners are an important if imperfect part of our lives. Eating together, most nights, helps us connect and forge our family identity. Sometimes, we even laugh! A lot! I plan to persist even (especially) as the kids get older and our lives, inevitably, become even more hectic.
Now, yesterday - Tuesday - was National Coffee Day. There was no Presidential Proclamation. No tool kit. Just some encouragement to drink coffee. Unlike Monday's Family Day, it didn't require meal prep, manners, clean-up, or, significantly, a family. I embraced it fully. Maybe I can substitute family coffees for family dinners? I guess not. Then we'd all be too wired to go to bed!
Photo by Stacy Feuer