The death of the family dinner

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I love scenes in TV shows where families chat around the dinner table. Yet I believe all the happy banter and controlled chaos is pure fantasy wrapped up in cinematic device.

Let’s face it the family dinner is an archaic ritual that’s almost dead and buried.  In fact it exists almost entirely in fantasyland.

Society keeps trying to keep the dying institution.  Common wisdom and consensus states that it’s important to have ‘family dinners’.  They are presumed to be the cornerstone of good worthy lives; politicians often brag they learnt to argue around the table and parenting experts solemnly lecture us about the importance of such ‘together time’. This article even warns that families who eat together are more likely to have teenagers who will do better academically and won’t smoke, drink and do drugs.

Really? I don't think Pat (Bradley Cooper) was struggling with mental illness in ‘Silver Linings Playbook’ because he ate Jackie Weaver’s crabby cakes in front of the Eagles game and not at the family dinner table.

This stuff drives me spare.  Because, really who lives like the Waltons anymore?

My kids usually scoff their dinner up at the kitchen bench. We only have two stools so I stand opposite them and we chat. Briefly. Admittedly I’m often listening to the radio and grabbing a quick turn of the I-pad they’ve had to discard to digest.

After reading our kids stories and then putting them back into bed after they’ve slunk back up the hall endless times, we flop on the couch and balance a stir-fry on our lap while watching the latest TV drama or box set.  There’s a quick chat while we find the episode and fast-forward all the ads.  Then it’s munch and view.

When I briefly flirt with the ‘should do dinner’ brigade and insist we sit up together it rarely works. My son gags if he has to sit near vegetables.  My daughter slouches down under the stained tablecloth feeding the dog that is begging beneath the table. 

I know we are not alone.

People are just too busy and too plugged into their technology to pay homage to this ancient rite. And for those who tut-tut ‘this didn’t happen in my day’ should acknowledge the family meal hasn’t just gone out of style just in this generation.  I grew up eating chops, peas and mash potatoes at the kitchen bench. My mum ate with dad when he got home later (I suspect in front of ‘The Two Ronnies’). On those rare occasions we tried to have a dinner together my mother would fold her hands and prop them under her chin awaiting witty anecdotes and early signs of genius. We’d fight over who would be closer to the heater. She’d sigh and give up until she again forgot how tiresome the right way of doing things could actually be. 

We all think we should be doing dinner together, but why?  Anyone with a child knows if you sit down, make direct eye contact and grill them with “how was your day” they roll their eyes or go blank. The best conversations you have with kids are when they don’t feel it’s an inquisition – when they’re in the car and they aren’t looking at you, or while you're all walking the dog and laughing about the shape of the poo you are fighting about picking up. That's when they open up and say something like ‘there’s a girl who is totally my type, but my friend loves her too so we are going to take turns to marry her, one year on one year off.”  Or when they stop jumping on the trampoline to yell over at you at the clothesline “how do we know what happens when we die and if there is a God how can he control of us? We are not puppets”.

I’ve experienced more insight, connection, depth and development of argument with my kids on car rides than at a table where we are forced to affect affection and togetherness. I’ve experienced more true feelings and love during bedtime cuddles than over a roasted dead animal sacrificed to an archaic ritual of yesteryear.  More generosity of spirit and laughter come from doing a family dance routine than at a stiff dinner. 

In fact I would argue, the modern family dinner involving watching The Voice while eating chicken nuggets is highly useful in developing ideas and insight.  Discussing contestants during the ad breaks can lead to conversations about dreams, aspirations, body image, sadness and loss.

Family dinners are one of those things that we feel the pressure to do but rarely think it's a good idea anyway.  MasterChef is all very well and good but the ritual is all about the making not the eating.  Besides I know many parents who have quit family dinners because of the show – their kids starting to taste and rate the food and even criticizing the plating up. 

I’m not completely against family dinners. We try to go out to pizza or sit down together once a week (or two).  If kids think it’s an occasion they’ll sit up, chat animatedly; contribute to the conversation and pretty much do anything for a gelato at the end.  The once a week treat gives the night a sense of ceremony. I especially love it if the dinner is in our local square and they can run around while we finish our wine and pay the bill. I acknowledge it can be bonding and can help develop the art of conversation. 

I love Christmas and birthday dinners because I remember them as the rare occasions we’d all be together.  If dinners are rituals they inspire respect, if they are set up artificially because it’s the proper thing to do they become chores.

Besides, the main reason the family dinner is so used in movies is because it’s a perfect illustration of the dysfunction peculiar to that group. A dinner is where family dynamics are on display.  Dinner is where disaster happens; where repressed anger and regret can be unleashed like the cork that broke the urn of grandma’s ashes in ‘Meet the Parents’ or the asparagus plate smashed by Kevin Spacey in ‘American Beauty’. My brothers used to joke that if a boyfriend of mine could make it through dinner with us he was a stayer. They’d mercilessly pick on anyone I bought home, push us all to release bad blood and bring up terrible family histories. I confess a boyfriend once dropped me only twenty minutes after he was carved up as the sacrificial lamb.

So if you worry about the decline of the family dinner, don’t.  Just make sure you have a couch that’s easy to clean and let it go the way of the dinosaurs.

23 comments

  • I was just thinking about this last night as my girls and I sat on the couch eating dinner watching The Simpsons! Major mummy guilt sprung into my mind, this is not what it is supposed to be like I thought. I am supposed to be engaging with my kids and talking over dinner am I not? We do try to eat at the table more often than not, I do find it helps my youngest try to use a knife and fork properly, but does it aid our conversations? Not really I must admit. We talk more as we go for walks, and do the mundane jobs like shopping. So maybe we need to relax a little and just enjoy the time we have together in what ever form that takes and not forced formality.

    Commenter
    African girl
    Date and time
    June 04, 2013, 9:16AM
    • Wow. I thought this was a bit sad. It's true it's not an every day thing but I think calling eating together an archaic ritual was harsh. Calling it something we can aspire to without feeling like we HAVE to do it suits my way of thinking a bit better.

      That said, I find the notion of the breakfast table completely impossible. Breakfast just doesn't happen that way for anyone I'm sure. Weekends maybe, but on weekdays? No way. Only if you eat out. I don't think it's archaic though. Just not always possible.

      Commenter
      Helen
      Date and time
      June 04, 2013, 9:33AM
      • I have young kids and I do the family dinner thing at the table. Only because they haven't mastered eating food on the couch and those things are expensive.

        I can't wait to move to couch eating. I spend the whole time at dinner thinking hurry up and eat, I got some TV watching to do.

        Commenter
        butterball27
        Date and time
        June 04, 2013, 9:46AM
        • We normally eat together, if my husband isn't home I eat with the kids. Such a habit now I'm starving by 5.30! No tv, no phones. Honestly most dinners are me saying things like 'can you eat; stop dancing and eat. Don't hit your sister' but I stick with it. Habit as much as anything. While we don't often have meaningful conversations for me it marks the line between the activity of the day and the wind down for bed. It does give us a chance to talk about what is happening the next day which helps me remember things like it's uniform free day or a preschool excursion.

          Commenter
          Greenleaf
          Date and time
          June 04, 2013, 1:03PM
          • Greenleaf, keep doing these dinners, this is a great thing, and keep enjoying the banal things too...nothing wrong with that :)

            Commenter
            BlondeGal
            Date and time
            June 04, 2013, 4:00PM
        • No one ever said a sit-down family meal has to done each day. There are plenty of days when most families don't have each member present; different work schedules and after-school sport training means most families won't have everyone at home every night. In my home, if we are all home together, we eat the meal together, what's wrong with that? There is nothing artificial about this, and it doesnt mean we '"live like the Waltons". My kids dont need bedtime stories any more, but they need to be fed, and I may as well eat at the same time they do, so, why not share a meal? It's a good time to turn off theiPad, mobile phones and iPods.Dare I say it, we dont always talk about politics ( my kids are part of their schools' debating teams, so we do discuss current affairs) ...we talk about banal things too, such as whether or not school band rehersals will be on the next morning, and whose turn it is to walk the dog, and, it is a chance for them to say, please mum, dont buy this brand of soy sauce when next at the supermarket. These dinners are not "set up because it's the proper thing to do"...no, apart from being fed, the children learn about food,cooking, table manners, politics and that there is beauty in the mundane things in life. I say, enjoy these moments, because pretty soon, when the children have left home, for many families, the only meals shared together will be the birthday and Christmas celbrations.

          Commenter
          BlondeGal
          Date and time
          June 04, 2013, 1:23PM
          • I'm not surprised that you don't do family dinners if the idea of them is so unpleasant. I wouldn't either. But my memories of family dinners growing up, as well as my experience of them now is quite different. There's no pressure to do it (so it doesn't happen every night), and we have fun. Dinner together, with the kids, is not dead at our house.

            Commenter
            BC
            Date and time
            June 04, 2013, 1:27PM
            • I love going home to my parents house and having a family dinner. Its awesome. (and incase you were wondering that i have a perfect family - i do not, they are divorced and we are by no means a perfect family). There is nothing like having a roast or BBQ and sitting around the table stuffed and happy, chatting. We dont eat at the dinner table at home, but on special occasion or just a nice dinner, I will sit hubby down at the table - he will groan at the fact that he cant scoff his food with the tellie in the background, but once at the table, the conversation flows and we sit there for an hour chatting away.

              Calling it an archaic ritual is pretty pathetic. If you live in countries within Europe, especially those like Greece or Italy, the family table is the heart of the family and is where food is enjoyed and family is together.

              Perhaps these things work for your families, perhaps they dont, but writing a scathing, judgemental piece about something other people like to do, its just sad.

              Commenter
              B
              Location
              Sydney
              Date and time
              June 04, 2013, 1:28PM
              • I agree with you B. Sarah contradicts herself....didn't we read her saying in a previous piece of writing that she was happy to be in the burbs, no longer in the hip inner city....and now here she won't sit down to a family meal with the kids during the week. It makes no sense at all. For some people too, there is no extended family ( in my husband's case, due to his parents' divorce, and in my case due to death of parents and distance from siblings)..,for us, the week night meals are very special, as we have no family outside our immediate family unit to celebrate Christmas with. So, Sarah, please appreciate that you actually have a family to go home to for e big ticket meals. I know there are other people in my boat.

                Commenter
                BlondeGal
                Date and time
                June 04, 2013, 4:10PM
            • This actually strikes a chord on me! I grew up in a highly conservative albeit kooky family that was completely devoid of tradition. This meant no family dinners. Ever. We would only eat around the table if it involved people outside our immediate family (e.g. Christmas). My partner was completely bewildered the first time I brought him home for dinner, because we didn't even eat it in the same room. Naturally, we are all very independent people.

              However, this also meant that growing up I always believed my family life to be inadequate. Friends would tell me I'm "lucky" that I didn't have to suffer through painful mealtimes being grilled by their dorky parents but I was just insecure about the perceived lack of connection with my own. I guess it was a mix of my peers and Hollywood that created this "norm" in my mind.

              Now that I'm All Grown Up, I still think about it sometimes. Although I adore the tradition and structure my partner's family has, there are traditions that he looks back on fondly that he wants to continue in our own future family that strike me as a lot of unnecessary effort and pomp. So I can now understand my parents' school of thought, but the lack of family dinners seem to have given me a complex that in turn will probably result in my teenage children wishing we didn't have to have so many dinners together!

              Commenter
              pj
              Location
              melbourne
              Date and time
              June 04, 2013, 1:29PM

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