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Family Dinner: Treasured Tradition Or Bygone Ideal?
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Family Dinner: Treasured Tradition Or Bygone Ideal?

On The Run: How Families Struggle To Eat Well And Exercise

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block.

If you're listening to this as you head home from work, here's a question: Do you know yet what you're having for dinner? And if you've got kids to feed, will you be squeezing in a meal between after-school activities and homework?

We wanted to know more about family dinner for our new series about how families eat and exercise called On the Run. So along with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health, NPR conducted a poll. We asked parents how they navigate the many competing demands of weekday evenings.

And the answer: Dinner gets short shrift, as NPR's Allison Aubrey reports.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Back in the 1940s, when American artist Norman Rockwell painted the iconic portrait of an American family primly seated at the dining room table, he gave us more than an image. He gave us an ideal.

JESSICA LEICHSENRING: On the table, you see all the plates match, and everybody is there smiling, anticipating this succulent turkey that's being presented to them. And it doesn't look like real life to me.

AUBREY: That's mom Jessica Leichsenring. She lives in Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin, along with her three kids, two cats and her husband. And she says the Norman Rockwell painting is not her life.

(LAUGHTER)

LEICHSENRING: My family dinners, while they are surely Norman Rockwell in my head, in real life, it's more like the TV show "The Simpsons."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW THEME SONG, "THE SIMPSONS")

AUBREY: Even Homer Simpson feels the cultural pressure to measure up. There's a bedrock belief of the importance of family dinner in our culture. In our survey, we found the vast majority of families said it's a high priority. And in this episode, Homer is trying to rally the kids to the table.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SIMPSONS")

DAN CASTELLANETA: (as Homer Simpson) We've got to do better as a family. So tonight, we're not going to shovel food in our mouths while we stare at the TV. We're going to eat at the dining room table like a normal family.

AUBREY: Jessica says this is easier said than done. In her house, the whole family manages to sit down and eat together once, maybe twice a week.

LEICHSENRING: Annie, dinner.

AUBREY: As Jessica pulls a chicken pot pie out of the oven, the kids stream into the kitchen.

LEICHSENRING: Go sit down.

AUBREY: And as is typical, tonight she'll feed the kids first, then she and her husband will eat later.

LEICHSENRING: I actually cooked tonight.

AUBREY: She whipped it together in about 15 minutes this afternoon.

LEICHSENRING: It's homemade except for the crust because who needs to get bothered doing that?

(LAUGHTER)

AUBREY: Especially since she's got to get her kids to basketball, piano lessons, dance classes and Daisy Scouts. Our poll found after-school activities are just one obstacle to family dinner. We found about a quarter of children live in homes where, on a given night, they do not eat together as a family.

LEICHSENRING: Casey, sit down, please. You guys want forks or spoons?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: Fork.

LEICHSENRING: Fork? Casey, do you want a fork or a spoon?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: I want to get my own fork.

CASEY: Fork.

LEICHSENRING: A fork?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: Mommy, I want my own fork.

LEICHSENRING: Yup, you can have your own fork.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: Yay.

LEICHSENRING: All right.

AUBREY: For most families in our survey, a parent being at work was the top obstacle getting in the way of eating together. Jessica says she's fortunate she's working just part time now. But it's still tough. Usually, her husband is home by 5:00. He's an attorney. Right now, he's by the TV turning on the evening news.

LEICHSENRING: A lot of times, it's kind of a handoff. When my husband gets home, it's like, oh my gosh, I'm tired. The kids are driving me crazy.

AUBREY: It's unrelenting, but Jessica says she always manages to get food on the table. And tonight, it's 6:02 p.m. when her kids sit down to eat.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #3: Dinner, dinner, dinner, dinner.

LEICHSENRING: There you go.

AUBREY: And how long will they stay seated? Jessica says her expectations are low.

LEICHSENRING: Casey, can you get some vegetables on there too, please?

CASEY: I do.

(LAUGHTER)

LEICHSENRING: Use it as a scoop. Don't just stab it.

AUBREY: The perennial struggle to get kids to eat their veggies may sound trivial, but Jessica pushes it.

LEICHSENRING: Take two more bites, please.

CASEY: I don't like...

LEICHSENRING: Or you don't...

CASEY: ...veggies.

LEICHSENRING: ...or you don't get dessert. Now, come...

AUBREY: Studies show that there are significant nutritional benefits tied to family dinners. Kids typically get more nutrients during a meal eaten at home and less salt, sugar and fat compared to when they eat out or are allowed to snack whenever they want.

ALLYSON AUBREY, BYLINE: Our polls sound that more than half of children on a given day were reported to eat at least some sweets like candy, cookies, ice cream, or other foods linked to weight gain, so Jessica says she limits snacks and everybody has to eat what's on the table.

LEICHSENRING: Whoa, whoa, whoa. Get back here. Drink your milk, please.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #4: Mom, Annie here is poking me.

LEICHSENRING: No, I want you to eat some more, Casey.

CASEY: I ate most of it.

LEICHSENRING: I want you to eat three more big bites, please.

AUBREY: There's not a lot of conversations. Mom's the referee of all the mealtime teasing. And while she does not allow electronics at the table, it doesn't mean that they're not around.

LEICHSENRING: The TV is on. And my dad is on his iPad, and my husband's on his phone.

AUBREY: Her dad is visiting for the night. With the TV blaring, her husband checks out Facebook on his smartphone. It's his way of decompressing. But the use of all these electronics seems to be distracting the kids away from their dinner.

LEICHSENRING: Well, Casey has left the table unceremoniously, and Jessie is yelling at him to come back and drink his milk.

AUBREY: Our polls sound that distraction is a way of life in many homes. It seems the plugged in, switched on culture we live in penetrates our dining rooms and kitchens too. About a quarter of all families in the survey reported that the TV was on or someone was using a phone or an electronic device during mealtime. So Jessica's certainly not alone. And where has Casey gone?

LEICHSENRING: Casey is playing his - oh, he's watching things on his iPad touch. And I would like to say I did not buy that for him. I do not - my - his godfather bought that for him. I thought he was too young. I'm not going to refuse a gift, though.

AUBREY: By 6:09 p.m., seven minutes after this meal began, two kids have bolted from the table.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #5: I'm done.

AUBREY: Annie fires up her Nintendo DS game. And that leaves Nate, the 10-year-old, at the table alone eating a second helping of pot pie, which, he says, he's used to since he's, by far, the least picky eater.

NATE: Yeah, pretty much, I'm usually the last person at the table.

AUBREY: So when will Jessica and her husband sit down to eat?

LEICHSENRING: Generally, what we do is, well, after the kids are asleep, we can eat in front of the TV like that, which is kind of sad.

AUBREY: There's a bit of a confessional tone here. It's kind of sad, Jessica says. And why? Well, it's easy to feel guilty, Jessica says. Dinner in the ideal world is supposed to be this happy, sacred time. You're supposed to instill this in your children.

LEICHSENRING: Because your parents tried to instill it in you. It's a tradition.

AUBREY: So does it matter if, as our polls sound, that on a given night, about half of families say they're not able to pull off a family dinner, at least not in the conventional way with everyone sitting together, sharing the same food. Are the benefits of a family meal still there if it's so slapdash, just a box to check?

KELLY MUSICK: We think family dinners matter because it provides an opportunity for families to sit down together, to relax, to communicate, to share happenings about their day.

AUBREY: That's Kelly Musick, a researcher at Cornell University, who has studied how family dinners may influence children's well-being. She says in such a fast-paced era, with so many competing demands on our time, it's possible that a nightly dinner may no longer be the prime time that families use to communicate or relax together. Perhaps that's why her research has found that the benefits of family dinner are not as strong or as lasting as prior studies have suggested.

It may be that quality time spent together in other ways is just as beneficial as eating together. For Jessica Leichsenring's family, that means reading together at night or playing outside together when dad gets home from work. So Jessica says she has come to terms with her eight-minute dinners.

LEICHSENRING: As long as I'm present in their lives and involved with them and showing them what it is to be a good person and to have compassion and to - things like that. I'm giving it the best shot I can, and I don't think that having dinner together is going to sway that one way or another.

AUBREY: So like Homer Simpson, Jessica says she'll keep bringing her kids to the table. But if dinner in her house does not look anything like a Norman Rockwell painting, Jessica says it's OK. That's life. Allyson Aubrey, NPR News.

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