Resurrecting Dinnertime: The Family Dinner Conference

Bri DeRosa (Red, Round or Green)

Bri DeRosa (Red, Round or Green) › I like to think of myself as a young, cool, urban fringe locavore, but the reality ...

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On April 18, 2013, Time at the Table hosted the first (dare I hope, annual?) Family Dinner Conference at NYU. It was a whirlwind day that can’t adequately be summed up by any blog post; many of us who were in attendance have tried, but when you get a whole bunch of amazing bloggers, activists, and family dinner experts together in one room and let some of them actually take the stage for a while, the result is delightful and truly indescribable.

I’d promised the fabulous HandPicked Nation folks prior to the conference that I’d provide them with a report after the fact, but truthfully, I’ve spent most of my spare thinking time since the event trying to decide exactly what to say about it. There was a lot of information and a lot of energy swirling around in that room, which should mean that there would be plenty to report. I’m just finding that it all had the opposite effect on me–the saturation effect, the effect of “Soooo much to take iiiinnnn…not enough time to process…muuuust….write…post…”

In the end, I think the Family Dinner Conference really boiled down to the key message that despite the naysayers’ attempts to discredit its importance, family dinner is an institution that is worth our time and effort; and if you’re trying to make it happen, you’re on the right track. I know it’s not earth-shattering, but then again, the best truths in life almost never are. When you know something is simply and deeply right, you won’t be surprised by having it affirmed as the truth; you’ll just feel good about it, which is exactly how I think most of us felt about being family dinner advocates when we left that room at NYU.

All you need is a little bit of commitment and a good dose of cheer.

Beyond the core affirmation of our family dinner faith, however, there were some repeated themes that came up throughout the day, which probably bear reprinting here:

There’s no one right way to do it. Family dinner, it turns out, is not like Olympic diving, algebra, or using the Queen’s English. There isn’t one formula or one set of rules that will produce a single accepted correct result. (Also, there will probably not be a judging panel or a letter grade of any kind, unless you want there to be.) I talked about this in my presentation; other people touched on it in theirs as well. What we learned at the conference is that you can have family dinner once a week or more often than that; you can eat it at the dining room table or somewhere else; you can serve it family-style or as a buffet; and no matter what you choose, as long as it works well for you, it will be fine. If it’s not working well for you, then you should probably choose to do something differently, but that’s another subject entirely.

Everybody likes family dinner. Yes, everybody–surly teenagers and cranky, overstressed parents included.  Some of the people at the conference were able to relate lovely, heartwarming stories of how their older children and teens have finally begun to thank them for their family dinner efforts over the years, providing a ray of hope to those of us whose younger dinner denizens are still more likely to throw the food at us than thank us for preparing it. Their experiences are backed by surprising research, as luck would have it: according to Dr. Grace Freedman of Eatdinner.org, teenagers rate family dinner as being very important to them, and kids in older elementary and middle grades tend to consistently rank family dinner as being more likely to provide them with a vast array of social-emotional and health benefits than any other single factor in their lives, including organized athletics or academic success. And even if you don’t have kids, you should still make the effort to set a dinner routine in place for yourself, since Dr. Freedman also shared that adults are likely to feel less stressed and to enjoy their lives more if they make family dinner a part of their schedule.

A little know-how goes a long way. There may not be one right way to tackle family dinner, but it was pretty much universally agreed by all the participants that you’ve got to have some sort of a game plan to make it happen consistently, so you can get all those positive benefits. Whether you go with meal planning (either done yourself, or done with the help of a subscription service), batch-cooking and freezing, or delegating duties to capable family members to lighten your own load, you’re much more likely to enjoy and stick with a family dinner routine if you know how you’re going to achieve it each night.

“Family” is in the eye of the beholder. Sure, many of us at the conference have something resembling a traditional nuclear family–some permutation of parents and kids living under one roof and sharing the family table. But there’s no reason that people whose lives look a bit different in some way shouldn’t reap the rewards of a family dinner. Whether “family” simply means you and a spouse, partner, or roommate, or whether you expand the definition to include co-workers, friends, or people in your broader community, cooking and sharing a communal meal with others on a regular basis can lower your stress, improve your physical and emotional health, and strengthen your social bonds. My own fabulous sister, a single college professor with a busy career and full life, enjoys a regular “family dinner” in the form of a weekly supper club with some of her closest colleagues. They put no less time, effort, and thought into creating their dinner ritual than most of us do in our homes, and I’m sure the benefits they’ve gotten from the routine are just as rich as ours.

It’s no good if you don’t enjoy it. Possibly the most surprising–and definitely the most-repeated–statistic of the whole conference was Dr. Freedman’s unveiling of this particular nugget: The most necessary component of a high-quality family dinner experience is laughter. That’s right. Not organic, home-cooked food (though that’s important); not a set routine (also important); not the number of people at the table. What made people of all ages classify their family dinner experiences as high-quality, and therefore beneficial and memorable, was laughter.

So in other words, if you want to stress less, laugh more, and be generally healthier–and pass those benefits on to your family–the good old family dinner is still one of the best ways to address all of those goals in one fell swoop. And the good news is, your family dinner doesn’t have to look anything like the ones your mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother achieved every day in order to be worthwhile. All you need is a little bit of commitment and a good dose of cheer.

Photo credit: Staci Strauss

What do you do to ensure dinner around the table at your house?