Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Families With Full Plates, Sitting Down to Dinner

Families With Full Plates, Sitting Down to Dinner

Published: April 5, 2006

For Cathy and Bill Powell, finding a time when all three of their children are home for dinner can be like working a Rubik's Cube. A recent Monday was typical: Valerie, 9, got home from dance class at 6:35. Brian, 10, had to leave for Boy Scouts at 6:50. That left 15 minutes to sit down for tacos.

"I actually have to take all their schedules and make calendars and put things in different colors," said Mrs. Powell, of Wantagh, N.Y.
Still, she said, the effort is worth it. "It's crazy, but having dinner together reinforces the family unit," she said. "That's when we get to hear about their day. We ask them questions, and the other two can't butt in."

After decades of decline in the simple ritual of family dinners, there is evidence that many families are making the effort to gather at the dinner table. A random nationwide survey by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University found a recent rise in the number of children ages 12 to 17 who said they ate dinner with their families at least five times a week, to 58 percent last year from 47 percent in 1998.

Getting everyone around the table can be a huge juggling exercise for overworked parents and overscheduled children. But many parents are marshaling their best organizational skills to arrange dinners at least once a week.

"There's definitely an awareness that was not there a few years ago," said Miriam Weinstein, author of "The Surprising Power of Family Meals: How Eating Together Makes Us Smarter, Stronger, Healthier and Happier" (Steer Forth Press, 2005). "All the factors that have been working against family dinners are still in full force, but it's very much a subject on people's minds."

Richard D. Mulieri, a spokesman for the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, agreed.

"People are really starting to understand that this is an important thing," he said. "Families that do have dinner together often are families whose parents are fully engaged with their kids. We're certainly not back to 'Leave It to Beaver' and 'Father Knows Best,' but it's heading in that direction."

The benefits of family dinners have been heralded for years by social scientists. A number of studies show that children who eat dinner with their families regularly are less likely to get involved with drugs and alcohol than those who do not. They also tend to get better grades, exhibit less stress and eat better.

The study by the Columbia center showed that compared with teenagers who have five or more family dinners a week, those who have two or less are three times as likely to try marijuana, two and half times as likely to smoke cigarettes and one and half times as likely to try alcohol.
Virtually every state in the nation has endorsed the center's initiative to encourage families to eat dinner together on the fourth Monday of September. Grass-roots efforts by individual communities to do the same — selecting a night months in advance that is free of homework, school meetings and sports practices — have also gained momentum, with Ridgewood, N.J., holding its fifth annual family night last month.

In perhaps the surest sign of a gathering movement, corporations are jumping on the family-dinner bandwagon. The maker of Crisco, J. M. Smucker Company, recently sponsored a "Family Dinner Challenge," with a $10,000 prize for the best home video showing parents and children assembled at the dinner table. The cable networks Nick at Nite and TV Land have run public service announcements urging families to break bread together.

Some parents say that for everyone to eat together, something else has to give, lamenting that a sit-down dinner can mean that their children get to bed later than they should.
Jean Tatge, vice president for development at the Municipal Art Society, a planning and preservation group in Manhattan, said she never got home before 7 p.m. Add to that her family's divergent tastes in food.

Her husband, Phil Collis, senior art director at Harper Collins Publishers, is a vegetarian. She and her sons, Aidan, 12, and Jack, 13, are not.
"We try to have dinner together every night, and sometimes that means not eating until 9 o'clock," said Ms. Tatge, who lives on the Upper East Side. "But I think it's really important. We always have candlelight. It sets the mood and calms everyone down."



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