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Guess Who's Coming To Dinner

Sometimes dinner isn't on the table until 8 p.m. and sometimes it really sucks (like that glob of herbed bread crumbs and chicken stock I tried to pass off as stuffing with our turkey cutlets the other night), but we eat together practically every night in my house, which makes us sort of a poster family for National Eat Dinner with Your Family Day Monday, Sept. 26.

Except that I don't think some of our family dinner exchanges are going to make it onto the "tips for conversation" list at the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University, which started Family Day in 2001 to inform parents that frequent family dinners are an effective, anti-drug abuse tool. (Find out about the local movement at Informed Families/The Florida Family Partnership.)

This past week, my husband, 2 tween daughters and I had a very involved discussion about the definition of "pothead" over dinner one night because someone had compared their father to The Dude in The Big Lebowski, which in turn triggered me to swivel around on my stool and pull up YouTube videos on our home computer in the kitchen so the girls could see how much their father really looks like the pot-smoking king of slackers in the 1998 cult movie by the Coen brothers. This in turn led to a heated debate over when the girls will be old enough to attend such R-rated movies. (My final verdict: Not any time soon.) Things were a little tense, but by the time the chocolate chip freezer cookies came out of the oven, their mother's mean ways and their father's propensity to look like a famous pothead were forgotten.

Or were they?

Research claims that the conversations we have with our kids at meal time burrow deep down into their impressionable, unformed brains, teaching them about life lessons, family identity and cultural mores. Dinners together supposedly civilize our kids. Studies show that the more often families eat together, the less likely kids are to smoke, drink, do drugs, get depressed, develop eating disorders and consider suicide, and the more likely they are to do well in school, delay having sex, eat their vegetables, learn big words and know which fork to use.

I don't know what the families in these studies are eating, but I'm a little skeptical that my meatloaf is going to have the same results.

I'm a witch about us all sitting down to eat dinner as a family not because I want to keep my kids off drugs – it's mostly because I've just spent 30 to 60 minutes sweating over a hot stove and I want to see their little adolescent faces light up in appreciation. The family dinner is the final punctuation on a long day. Now that my kids are old enough to carry on an intelligent conversation, I look forward to these end-zone moments because I want to hear what they're thinking, I like a good laugh and I almost always learn something.

This past week at dinner we've discussed: Whether corn tastes better on the cob or off (it was a tie); the importance of looking down at the bench in the school cafeteria before sitting on it (wisdom imparted from my oldest daughter to her younger sibling, who did indeed have a stain on the back of her shorts that day); the new season of Glee (tonight!) and the proper way to hold a knife while cutting your meat.

Even though it's what goes unspoken that matters most, I'm hoping the topics pick up as time goes by. The dinner experts assure me they will. In a study of family eating patterns by CASA six years ago, researchers found essentially that family dinners get better with practice. Hopefully, so will my stuffing.

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