Under the Table: The Elusive Family Dinner

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Maddie had her dinner tonight in the shopping cart.
By Lisa Russ

It’s the back-to-school time of year, full of sharp pencils, clean notebooks, and heaps of advice about how families should handle the incessant balancing of act of parenthood.

A favorite topic for researchers is the benefits of families eating dinner together. Most of these groundbreaking studies say the same thing: families that eat together are more likely to thrive by just about every measure -- grades, happiness, family planning, drug use, and even divorce. You name it, it seems that by sitting down and eating together, you can solve it.

I was raised by a statistician (who was also a single parent) and so whenever I see data like this I wonder about cause and effect. And now that I am a working mother with two small children, I feel even more dubious about the magical impact of the elusive family dinner.

It’s what I call the “Under The Table Syndrome.” As in, what were all the invisible steps, the pieces hidden under the table, it took to get that food and that family, warm, nutritious, and ready to connect, all there at the same time? And isn’t it really all of those things, which mostly boil down to time and money, that give families the leg up?

I am typing this quickly, glancing nervously at the minutes ticking on the upper right corner of my computer. If I can finish this post and the next three items on my to-do list quickly enough, I might be able to scamper out of here 15 minutes early, which just might, if the lights are well-timed and the traffic is light, let me get into Trader Joe’s before I get the kids. That would let me put a semi-fresh vegetable on the table with their pasta tonight, and get me the bread I need for lunches tomorrow.

And how lucky and rare it is for a worker to control her own schedule enough to sneak a trip to the market before picking up the kids. Most workers, especially women, punch the clock. Others are paid in ways that mean they need to squeeze every last drop of productivity out of their day…cleaning, picking, selling, serving….before they dash off to their next obligation.

So one thing hiding under oft-mentioned dinner table is the time it takes to get the groceries.

The next is the wherewithal to cook. In addition to a working stove and fridge, that means that while any number of small kids, pets, chores, ailing parents, ringing phones, unanswered emails also beckon, somehow the food has to get from the bags to stove to the table…with a minimum of yelling, burning, salt or sugar.

And, of course, the glaring item under the table: the money to get the groceries.  Fastfood calls out: $10 for a bucket of warm love is waiting at the drive through. As more and more people are documenting, cheap food is full of things we know are killing us. To be able to afford fresh ingredients to prepare with love is beyond the reach of many.

And what does it take to actually have two adults at the table? In many families, it just isn’t possible. As a way to cover the gaps left by families living away from aunties and grandparents, we need to find ways to get kids up and fed and to school or daycare, and then picked up and home again. Most school schedules don’t start early enough or end late enough to let two parents work a full day, so many families with two adults swing-shift around it…one person is in charge of mornings and goes to work a bit later, the second leaves their job a little earlier, gets the kids and makes dinner. In many families, that means it’s a rare night that parents and kids actually sit down together for something that could be called dinnertime.

After all of the struggles have been overcome, and the family and the food arrive at the table, it can be another hurdle to beckon the energy and desire to sit down together. It’s no small miracle when after the stress and exhaustion of the obstacle course of the day, the family wants to talk and laugh together.

So, what does eating dinner together really measure? Time to get and prepare food, money to pay for it, the patience to cook, flexible job schedules, and short commutes. And the energy left over to enjoy each other’s company. So really, is it eating together, or is it a stand-in for a state of being that seems fleeting and inaccessible? A kind of work-life-love balance that is increasingly the province of the lucky and the wealthy?

If the studies talked about good grades in families did who all ate breakfast together every weekday, or the low divorce rates in families who take vacations together, we would know that more than marital happiness and good concentration are being measured. It is transparent that the miracle of sit down weekday family breakfast and the unhurried vacation together require money, time and peace that many families just don’t have. And yet…the romantic symbolism of the dinner table myth persists.

So what can we do with these studies? There is more than enough guilt spooned out for families slogging our way through. Here is my non-scientific summary of the real meaning of this data, and what we can do with it.

Key findings from the Dinner Data:

1. Together time is important.
2. Cooking food and eating together is lovely.
3. Eating healthy foods, when possible,  is a really good thing to do.

Maybe we can strive for balance among these on a weekly or monthly basis.  But for sure, shoving ourselves into boxes and bins of shoulds and have-tos based on research isn’t helping. A friend with older kids just told me this: the “research” had long held that kids should always do homework seated in the same quiet place every night, with minimal distraction. Another giant stretch for many families. And then guess what? Another survey came out and said, OOOPS, that was wrong. It looks like it’s GOOD for kids to do homework in noisy places, in a variety of locations, and at different times of day.

So here we are. All doing the very best we can with a patchwork of resources. Helping create community and family with children, neighbors, elders and friends, and nightly dinner round the table may not be a part of that for every family. Trust me…I don’t know how to measure it, study it, or bottle it, but any researcher who found their way into my house at the dinner hour would know that the most important ingredients on the table or under it are patience, acceptance and love.

Whether we are eating take-out or mac-n-cheese, are alone or together on any given night, understanding that our family is one small part in a giant national question mark gives me a little bit of comfort.

Quick PS:
I didn’t end up getting out in time to get to the store without the kids. By the time I pulled up to go shopping with them, it was 5:15 and my three-year old was hungry. Her dinner tonight was pizza in the shopping cart. And so it goes.


  1. You are absolutely right, Lisa. It's not necessarily the eating together that makes it work, it's the things that allow you to eat together that make it work.

    Aside: I remember that in our family, the dinner table was actually a kind of tense place some of the time. Kids and adults eating together isn't always fun, especially when everyone's a bit wrung out from their day.

    I have noticed that my family does better when we actually don't eat together every single night. Between the lessons on manners, the tendency of some kids to prattle on, and the whatever else....

    When we make it to the table together twice, three times a week, it feels more special and we all pay more attention to each other, which ultimately is the point. Paying positive attention to each other and connecting.


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