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Commodifying the family dinner

Benefits of eating home-cooked meals together are numerous.

By Donna_Freedman Oct 1, 2009 1:55AM

Americans not only need to be reminded to eat with their families, they have to be told how to do it. At least that’s the impression I got from radio spots touting "Family Dinner Night" as a way to, among other things, keep our kids off drugs.

Then there's the print ad for a brand of frozen entrees: mom, dad and two kids enjoying lasagna from what looks like a glass dish, not a microwave tub. "Real dinner and great conversation any night of the week," the ad copy exults.

It goes on to say, "Get your family talking!" -- and provides a Web site to help the conversation along.

Let's see: We don't seem to know that families are supposed to eat together. Once at the table, we need cue cards to help us talk. Oh, and a frozen dinner is helpful, too.

•    You’ll save a lot of money on food up-front.
•    Over time, you’ll save money on health care.

'Food deserts,' tired parents
Americans spend almost half their food dollars -- $415 billion per year -- on meals and snacks away from home, according to a report  from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Division. That’s a 58% jump since the early 1990s.

And here’s a news flash: Food eaten away from home tends to be kind of salty and/or greasy. By contrast, says a study reported in the Archives of Family Medicine, home-cooked meals are associated with "healthful dietary intake patterns, including more fruits and vegetables, less fried food and soda, less saturated and trans fat, lower glycemic load, more fiber and micronutrients from food."

I don’t think American parents are trying to murder their kids with burgers and fries. They may want to eschew fast food and chew healthier chow. But some live in "food deserts," areas without access to affordable, healthy ingredients. Poorer neighborhoods tend to have convenience stores rather than supermarkets, along with high numbers of fast-food restaurants. 

Or it's 6 p.m. and exhausted parents are listening to kids clamor for meals that come with toys. According to Douglas Rushkoff’s book "Coercion: Why We Listen to What 'They' Say," the average American kid can recognize the golden arches before age 2.

Family dining 101
A quick Internet search for "family dinner night" turns up lots of companies that want to help -- by selling you everything from prime steaks to weekly recipe subscriptions. Some also offer advice with their ads:

  • Make some dinners casual -- a cookout or an "indoor picnic."
  • Let family members take turns picking favorite menus.
  • Have breakfast for dinner.
  • Get a slow cooker or pressure cooker.
  • Turn off phones and TVs, and insist that everyone stay at the table until the meal is over.

I found those last two pieces of advice extremely depressing, and the rest of it to be common sense. Then again, when I was a kid everyone we knew had family dinner night. Where else would you eat? 

And yes, my mother worked full time, as did a lot of my friends' mothers. Even so, meals out simply were not on the radar. Kids learned early how to help in the kitchen, and by age 11 or so we could put together meals like meat loaf, baked chicken, chili, beef stew and the like.

Why can't today's children do the same? Or at least take part in meal prep with their parents: a fast stir-fry at 6 p.m., or weekend "batch cooking" of meals to be enjoyed during the week? Also, you’d be amazed how far slow-cooker recipes  have come; imagine coming home at night to the aroma of rosemary crockpot chicken or turkey and bean cassoulet.

Eating at home will improve your family's health, both now and in the long term. Little kids are now developing "adult" or type 2 diabetes, and youth obesity rates are shocking. 

And hey, mom and dad: How are you feeling these days? 

That's what I thought. So move away from entrees eaten without forks and from boxes. Consider a vegetable that isn't a french-fried potato. Sure, it'll be a tough transition, but so would teaching your kids to inject themselves with insulin. 

And please do turn off those cell phones. Mealtime talking should be done to people who are in the same room with you -- even if you need those cue cards to get the conversational ball rolling.

Published Nov. 2, 2007



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