Every night of my childhood, and I mean every night, my mom cooked us a gourmet meal. Raising eight kids on a shoestring budget didn’t allow for steaks and lobster, but she put a lot of time, energy, and love into every dish. I worry sometimes that today’s kids are missing out on that kind of experience.
Links between family dinners and adolescent mental health, substance abuse, and delinquency have been well documented. More recent research has shown that some of the effects have more to do with the type of people who engage in family meals, with less frequent family meals associated with lower SES, maternal employment, single parenthood, and poor quality family relationships. Most researchers agree that kids who take part in family meals at least three times a week eat more healthy foods and experience less delinquency, greater academic achievement, less depression, and more positive family interactions.
Research aside, I appreciate the amount of pride and dedication my mom put into cooking. I can still see her with a kitchen towel draped over her left shoulder, a lucky strike non-filtered cigarette in her left hand, and a spoon in her right stirring a pot of chili or split pea soup. She’d send me out to buy a carton of cigarettes (yes, they’d sell an 8 year old kid a carton of cigs), and a fresh loaf of rye or pumpernickel bread for our feast. Her meals were a way to pass on family traditions, with special meals for birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, and holidays. The food connected us with our heritage, including my Italian, Irish, and Russian roots. Sitting around the table lent itself to hearing stories of past relatives, and these became a vehicle for transmitting family values in a more palatable manner.
I know that more mothers are in the workforce now than when I was growing up, and families are busier and on the go more as well. Yet there is something reassuring about being able to count on the whole family gathering around the dinner table for some good food and conversation. That kind of structure and routine is grounding for most kids. Best case would be for all electronics to be off and out of sight, including the TV, radio, phones, tablets, and music devices. Kids and parents might actually connect and make eye contact, remember that? A home-cooked meal provides a more warm, relaxed and homey feel than sharing a restaurant with 100 noisy people.
In this era of fast food, eating out, and rushing to and from children’s activities, let me put in a plug for bringing back the old-school tradition of preparing a meal together, sitting down without distractions, and having uninterrupted time to connect with your loved ones.