Ties That Bind at Mealtime

By Jonathan Yardley,
whose e-mail address is yardleyj@washpost.com
Tuesday, August 30, 2005


How Eating Together Makes Us Smarter, Stronger, Healthier and Happier

By Miriam Weinstein

Steerforth. 257 pp. $22.95

The family that prays together stays together, as the saying has it, and perhaps that's true, but prayer isn't the only way to strengthen and enrich family bonds. So, too, as Miriam Weinstein argues in "The Surprising Power of Family Meals," is the simple act of sitting at the same table and breaking bread together. For generations it has been a "basic human ritual," but now "everyday family supper is no longer a given." Pressured by two-career households and soccer-mom-carpooling obligations, to cite two of the many distractions of contemporary life, more and more American families dine not at a common table but separately and/or on the run.

This may reflect inescapable realities of early-21st-century culture, but that doesn't necessarily make it a good thing. Family supper, as Weinstein calls it, isn't just a meal, it's a ritual from which all who participate benefit: "Family supper is important because it gives children reliable access to their parents. It provides anchoring for everyone's day. It emphasizes the importance of the family nonverbally. It reminds the child that the family is there, and that she is part of it."

All of which is true. The family suppers of my own childhood are more than half a century in the past, but they are among my most vivid memories. Actually they were breakfasts, not suppers -- my father was a boarding-school headmaster, and my parents had to be in the school dining room for lunch and supper -- but they served exactly the functions that Weinstein describes. They were regular, routine occasions at which we gathered as a family and functioned as a family: exchanging the trivial news of our lives, hearing tales about ancestors long since dead and relatives in faraway places, picking up bits and pieces of informal but invaluable education. All of the children -- eventually there were four of us -- came away from the table with firm if unconscious knowledge of ourselves as part of a human lineage to which, in time, we would contribute.

Precisely how much of an influence these repasts had on the reasonably productive and happy adults all of us became is impossible to determine, but probably they were a not insignificant part of it. A "child's rootedness in his family contributed to his stability and resilience," according to one of the gurus Weinstein consulted while researching this book, and researchers looking into the matter "decided that the most consistent, ongoing learning about our [forebears] takes place . . . at the family dinner table." My father was much more of an ancestor-worshiper than I am (a son's rebellion never ceases), but the hazy presence in my consciousness of those long-gone kinfolk has had an important influence on shaping me; almost all the stories I know about them were learned at the dining table.

Weinstein has emphatic and perhaps somewhat excessive opinions about the positive effects of family supper, opinions based substantially in the kind of sociological and psychological profiling that by its very nature is always open to argument. Here's what she says:

"[E]ating ordinary, average everyday supper with your family is strongly linked to lower incidence of bad outcomes such as teenage drug and alcohol use, and to good qualities like emotional stability. It correlates with kindergarteners being better prepared to learn to read. . . . Regular family supper helps keep asthmatic kids out of hospitals. It discourages both obesity and eating disorders. It supports your staying more connected to your extended family, your ethnic heritage, your community of faith. It will help children and families to be more resilient, reacting positively to those curves and arrows that life throws our way. It will certainly keep you better nourished. The things we are likely to discuss at the supper table anchor our children more firmly in the world. Of course eating together teaches manners both trivial and momentous, putting you in touch with the deeper springs of human relations."

What Weinstein is really saying isn't that family supper per se is a cure-all, but that it is one of the ways in which the institution of family provides stability, strength and support to its members. As she says toward the end: "Although I have spent this book ranting about supper, you may have noticed that, underneath it all, supper is not really the point. Supper is only the occasion, the excuse. The subject is actually family -- establishing, enjoying, and maintaining ties. The goal is creating and reinforcing a secure place for your loved ones in a society that can seem awfully uninterested in human needs."

Though Weinstein believes (as I do) that family supper is intrinsically important and valuable, she acknowledges that the world has changed and that familial institutions must accommodate it. In many American households today, for example, there is only one parent, who often is working and has trouble putting a well-balanced meal on the table at a certain time every evening. Yet they are still households and still families, and a meal with one parent at the table is still a family meal. In many other American families today, to cite another example, both parents work and their schedules simply don't dovetail in ways that permit, say, supper together every evening at 6:30. Well, Weinstein says, there are other ways and occasions the family can gather -- she cites one family that always spends Saturday morning together -- and she's right. It's being together that matters, not the where and when of it.

But family supper combines "two basic needs, for nourishment and for connection," and there's nothing else quite like it. Alas, there can be no question that it is vanishing, if not actually dying. So, too, are other occasions, which I well remember from childhood, at which the dining table served even larger purposes: "having the minister or teacher in for supper," for example, or "inviting the boss home for supper." Not so long ago, these were revered (if often dreaded) American practices, but now they're lost. Perhaps Dagwood and Blondie Bumstead still have J.C. and Cora Dithers in for dinner, but they're about the only ones who do. Socializing with the boss is now done, if it's done at all, at cocktail parties or business lunches; the family is no longer in on the occasion, and it may well have lost something as a result.

Whether family meals really possess anything that can be described as "power" certainly is open to question. Moreover, Weinstein stretches her argument further than it really needs to go; her sections about cooking are essentially irrelevant, though at least she spares us recipes. But though her breezy style is more grating than ingratiating, her essential argument is absolutely right. Family matters. Children who grow up with a strong sense of family are likely to become solid, healthy adults. Sitting down together for supper -- or any other occasion -- is essential to family, and its importance cannot be overestimated.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company