The Value of Family Meals Together

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Kids who have regular family dinners have better grades, better behavior and are less likely to smoke, according to a new study. Essayist Bonny Wolf argues that despite the challenges of getting the family together for a sit-down dinner, it is almost guaranteed to be worth the time and trouble.


With two-income households, soccer practice and glee club rehearsals, getting Mom and Dad and Heather and Zeke to sit down for dinner together isn't as easy as it was back in the days of "Leave it to Beaver." But as WEEKEND EDITION food essayist Bonny Wolf notes, it's worth the trouble.

BONNY WOLF reporting:

June Cleaver has left the building. She's taken with her Ward's slippers, her good pearls and the illusion of the perfect family sitting down to dinner together every night. It seems pretty self-evident that the family dinner is important, but only about half of the families in America can get it together most nights, according to a stew of sociological studies. Life has gone to warp speed in the decades since June Cleaver smilingly set the dining room table. There's soccer practice, play rehearsal, SAT prep and video games. Everyone's on a cell phone or IMing friends. And when both parents work, or a single parent runs the household, there's often nobody home to make dinner.

Now researchers from Harvard University to the National Pork Board have found that Wally and the Beav got more than a hot meal every night. Kids who have regular family dinners have better grades, better vocabularies and better behavior. They are less likely to smoke, drink, do drugs, have eating disorders, become depressed or to have sex: things the Cleavers never seemed to worry about. Oh, they also get better nutrition.

The dinner table is where children are civilized, at least in theory. They learn not to talk with their mouths full, to say `please' and `thank you,' and to keep their elbows off the table. A friend says she and her husband have dinner with their two young sons almost every night. When everyone's seated, Will, a second-grader, says, `So how was your day, Mom?' Their dinner conversations have covered everything from what happened on the playground to a discussion on the finer points of "Star Wars" and the Senate filibuster.

What these kids get along with their pot roast and mashed potatoes is a serving of safety, stability and a sense of belonging. The ritual of dinner tells kids there are some things in life you can count on. It doesn't have to be every night, it doesn't have to be dinner, and it doesn't have to be complicated. Modern-day moms and dads have a lot of things June Cleaver didn't have: microwaves, slow cookers, food processors and a drawer full of carryout menus. There's pre-washed salad mix, rotisserie chicken and what the industry calls `meal solutions,' things like pineapple chicken wings in a microwavable box.

In the old days, kids stopped playing hopscotch in the alley when they were called for dinner. If it was still light out, they finished the game after dessert. Missing dinner was not an option. The food wasn't always great, the dinner wasn't always relaxed, but you could count on it.

HANSEN: Bonny Wolf lives in Washington, where she tries to gather her family around for dinner together whenever she can take a break from writing a book of essays about food.

It's 22 minutes before the hour.

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