The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

Columns

August 30, 2013

Study says the happy family meal is pure nostalgia

The kids won’t behave. We work late. We sold our dining room table. Who wants to cook these days? And the kids don’t want to eat with mom and dad anyway.

Those are just a few of the reasons parents are showing a declining interest in dining with their children.

In fact, according to some studies, the happy family meal is pure nostalgia.

Many youngsters now take their meals — such as they are — in their rooms.

“I don’t eat with my folks,” one teenager told me recently. “I eat in my room where I can watch TV. Besides, my parents aren’t keen on the idea of eating with me, either. And why would they be? Dinner is about the only time they see each other.”

It’s not surprising that 21st century American parents have all but abandoned the ritual of the afternoon meal. Kids grow up, eat out with friends, work after school or just hang out at the mall.

Pizza and sub sandwiches have replaced the kettle of beans and pan of cornbread. Hamburgers and fries have replaced homemade spaghetti. Microwaves have replaced kitchen stoves. Much of the food that is consumed at home is “nuked” rather than actually cooked.

“It’s too much bother to cook a meal nowadays,” explained a 35-year-old mother of three. “It’s much easier to hit the drive-thru on the way home than it is to plan an entire meal and cook it. There just isn’t enough time.”

Soccer moms and Little League dads have too much on their minds already. It’s not unusual for parents to shuttle kids back-and-forth to the ball fields and gyms in separate vehicles. They often pass each other on the road.

Not to mention the new restaurants that opened recently in the area. “We’d rather dine out and let everyone get what they want,” said 45-year-old Mason Hensley of Mount Hope as the family dined at a local eatery recently. “It’s too much of a hassle to make everybody happy with home cooking.”

Hensley isn’t alone. The typical American family normally dines out at least three times a week.

During most of the year, children eat breakfast and lunch at school. It’s rare that there’s a home-cooked meal waiting for them when they get off the school bus. Reason: Too many parents work. It takes two incomes just to keep up with the mortgage payments.

It’s possible, however, that some parents regularly sit down to dinner, or more likely breakfast, with their children — not every day, but often enough that they recognize them. But which American family meal should we revive? Sunday chicken and dumplings? Pork chops, fried potatoes and corn on the cob?

The American family meal — by which most people mean the evening meal — has been dead for so long that chances for reviving it seem remote at best. Anyone who advocates family dinners likely would be accused of living in the past.

Many of the parents I know probably wouldn’t remember the last time they ate with their kids at the dining room table.

“People don’t sit down to dinner the way they did on the ‘Brady Bunch’ or ‘Bonanza,’” a colleague explained the other day, laughing hysterically. “You’d have to go back to ‘Dennis the Menace’ or ‘Father Knows Best.’ Talking about your day over the family dinner table died decades ago. It went out with black-and-white TV.”

My colleague isn’t the only one, yet that kind of honesty is rare. “We seem to cling to the myth of the family meal,” she said, “hoping that perhaps if we keep on trying, we’ll eventually morph into the family of our dreams.”

At what age do you think children are capable of meaningful conversation over dinner? “Whenever my husband and I try to have a family dinner one of us ends up screaming because we feel the children are out of control, babbling away and then we cannot stand it, so we leave the room,” another parent offered recently.

“It feels like a terrible defeat.”

The woman concluded wistfully, “My own sons are 10 and 12, and their behavior at dinner still veers without warning between jokes and giggly nonsense. If you have more than three boys together, forget it.

“I just let them go and hope they will run out of steam before bedtime.”

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Top o’ the morning!

— Blankenship is a reporter for The Register-Herald.

E-mail: jabbb@suddenlink.net

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