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What if I told you that there was a magic bullet - something that would improve the quality of your daily life, your children's chances of success in the world, your family's health, our values as a society? Something that is inexpensive, simple to produce, and within the reach of pretty much everyone?
Then, after you had me committed to the Asylum for the Incurably Optimistic, you might come and visit me from time to time. And while you were there, if you were lucky, I would invite you to join me and my fellow inmates for supper.
Over a leisurely, delicious meal (remember, we optimists have our eye on life's glories), we would talk about the research that's been accumulating from very, very disparate fields. It shows how eating 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. (It even trumps getting read to.) 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.
When families prepare meals together, kids learn real-life skills. They assume responsibility, become better team members. (Where did we get the idea that the only teams are in sports?) Sharing meals helps cement family relationships, no matter how you define family. The word companion, which dates back to ancient Rome, means "one who breaks bread with you."
One thing family supper does not do: It does not correlate with higher rates of winning Merit Scholarships. That's an urban legend that is quoted with nodding certainty by high school principals at the start of every school year. It might actually be true, but it has never been tested. Still, it makes intuitive sense, which is why this particular myth lives on. Aside from the scholarship link, though, all the other good things you have ever thought about plain old family suppers (or dinners: for our purposes the same thing) are probably true. And the best part of all is that you should do these things not just because they are good for you, but because they feel good. The immediate goal here is for your family to get more genuine pleasure out of being together. When that happens, the other benefits will follow.
Because I want you to share my optimism about what you can expect from your family meals and, by extension, from your family, I invite you to come along with me to a Minnesota town where parents are doing their best to regain some purchase on family life: to a New Jersey community that is quite realistic about the enormity of a similar task. Together, we will see what family supper means for anorexics, theologians, family therapists. We're going to travel far afield, delving into linguistics, psychology, urban sociology, and history, while always keeping the family table front and center. We will see young parents who are hemorrhaging time, literally running to pick up their little ones from day care; then we will discover what every household can learn from the single-parent model. We will find out more ways that TV undermines the job that loving parents try to do. Above all, we will keep an eye on what is well within our power to effect, both in our own homes and in the world beyond.
One image I have of supper comes from my early twenties, when I got to spend some nontouristy time with Parisian families. The women all had jobs, but for men and women alike, work ended promptly at five, with evenings sacred to family and friends. The kids would come home from a full day at school and start their homework On her way home from work, Renee, the mother in the household I came to know best, would stop at the market and pick up fresh meat, bright vegetables, bread baked that afternoon.
As a foreign visitor with uncertain culinary skills, I was given only simple chores-soaking the loose-leafed lettuce in a bowl of water to wash out the dirt, and then putting the lettuce in a wire basket and swinging it in circles out over the tiny balcony, the droplets of water forming an arc in the oh-so-Parisian summer air.
Dinner began at seven or so, a leisurely affair fueled by conversation and the pleasure of being together, guests and family. The food was superfresh and tasty, with many separate courses that were, by current American standards, minute - a perfect slice of melon topped with a paper-thin glint of ham: a single flat cutlet: a helping of shiny (very thin, of course) green beans. For the French, in addition to the preparation and the freshness, it is the ensemble that counts: the way the courses fit together. The salad (modestly sized, with no cucumbers, carrots, peppers, or sprouts, no greasy croutons from a vacuum-sealed bag) comes after the meal, a palate cleanser before the creamy richness of the cheese course, which often serves as dessert. (So, you notice, the cook is able to present three courses while actually cooking only one.)
And the ensemble of people could shine as well: the variety of ages and opinions juxtaposed, sometimes melding, sometimes contrasting, but making, together, a humanoid whole. The kids had their place in the family; the family had its place in the world. Dinner had its place in the cycle of the day-a time for sitting back, for winding down, just as the fruits and vegetables that appeared in the neighborhood market served to mark the seasons of the year.
This is what I remember now: a wholeness, a balance: everyone sitting around the table talking or laughing or arguing or just listening, feeling comfy with the good food and the wine. The kids (les gosses, two sons at that awkward junior high school age) mostly just took it all in. They drank diluted wine; they cut their fruit into neat squares with fork and knife, eating whatever was on their plates.
Their parents didn't worry about the kids not liking what was served, being bored or behind in their schoolwork or out of touch with their friends. After a long day at school, they weren't subjected to a spiraling round of lessons, practices, meetings, and games: their parents and siblings weren't subjected to the requisite chauffering, waiting, and cheering. It was assumed that the kids would learn something from meeting a variety of informed, chatty people in a relaxed setting: that in time they would grow up to become friendly and civil and balanced and well informed themselves, able to take part in the give-and-take of cultured people, capable of discriminating between a pear, or an argument, that was ripe and one that was still green.
My discovery of Paris was not exactly unique. Along with thousands of young Americans, I came home from my Eurail Pass summer ready to demand crusty baguettes, rich, soft cheeses, and a decent glass of inexpensive wine.
Well, we have them all now, but look what we've done with them. As any anthropologist will tell you, it's one thing for a culture to borrow an artifact: it's something quite different to incorporate an attitude or worldview. We think it's funny when a jungle tribe takes the visiting anthropologist's used batteries and fashions them into necklaces. But we've done the same thing ourselves.
Americans by the wide-bodied-plane load have discovered the wonders of carefully prepared, fresh, and flavorful foods. We've replaced our spongy packaged white bread with the best that Paris has to offer. Well, sort of We've skipped the part about stopping into the neighborhood boulangerie and exchanging courtesies with Madame. We've gone right to the part where we have our baguettes any way a demanding consumer might want them-flash frozen, whole wheat, mini and maxi, already covered with sauce and cheese for ersatz pizzas perfect for snacking. They sit, shrink wrapped, in our enormous freezers for months on end. We can eat them anytime we like, without waiting for the burden of human companionship. If the breads are rubbery and prone to freezer burn, we don't complain: that's the price we're happy to pay for instant, impersonal access.
We got the news about wanting to eat food that tastes good. But somewhere, as my daughter would say, we missed the memo about the pleasures of making it and eating it and sharing it with people we care about. We've perfected the segmentation of the family. Nobody has to eat the same food, watch the same show, listen to the same song, let alone sing it. We love to imagine the French with their lush tables, or the Italians with their big families, but we prefer to gobble our take-out, our home delivery, our single-serve microwave, on the run, in front of the TV, in the food court, or in the car, while we dream of quality time, of family vacations, of someplace far away.
Sure, there have "always been variations on the supper theme. In many patriarchal societies, the women serve the men, then eat with the children or only after everyone else has finished, picking at scraps. But we are talking in a general way about an institution - the shared primary meal - that is multiethnic, multicultural, multi- most things across the sweep of human history Certainly, it has been a feature of our Western civilization for centuries. But somehow, while no one was looking this most widespread way of relating has gone into a steep and dramatic decline. Breaking bread, reaching our chopsticks into the communal bowl of stir-fry, using our hands, or chapati, or banana leaf to scoop up the goodness our loved ones have labored over, seems to be in danger of extinction in the U.S. of A. As does talking while we do it; sharing news of what happened that day in the office, around the house, at day care or school. Shushing our children, or encouraging them to talk. Arguing politics, gossiping, trading jokes, ideas, or tall tales. It is the rapid decline of family suppers, the enormity of the potential loss, that has propelled me to write this book.
As I have gone about my life during the process, I've met lots of people - at parties, at the grocery store, at the transfer station (no longer called the town dump). Here's what happens when I tell them I'm what working on: Sometimes, if the people are around my age (empty-nester), they will tell me, with great feeling and pride, that the family made a point of having supper (every night/as often as they could) when the kids were at home, and they are so glad they did. Most often, though, whatever their age, they will launch into a spirited description of supper in their own childhood home. It doesn't matter whether they are eight or eighty; they want to give me a detailed scenario of the tone, the setting, the rules, of the everyday, ordinary, repetitive suppers of their youth.
Most often this is told with great loyalty and affection. We always ate this; my brother sat there: boy, did we kids love to ... Occasionally, this recital is tinged with fury. My mother insisted: my father forced us kids ... But I am amazed at the small percentage of bad meal memories I encounter, and the strength of the recall, the sense of how much those meals shaped the person before me. We always ... Every night we ... For a treat we would ... This is not a question of haute cuisine or shocking emotional revelations or brilliant analyses of world events, but rather a no-big-deal time when kids can count on seeing their parents, and parents know they can spend a bit of time with their kids. Even siblings will sometimes admit to feeling more secure, knowing that they will all be together at regular intervals with no particular agenda other than filling their bellies and checking in. What counts is the sitting around together, sharing life, doing what families do.
Or do they? On this topic, contemporary statistics are all over the place, depending on your definition of family, or supper, or together. You can find statistics that say that hardly anyone is eating together, or that a hefty majority are. (In those studies, we have to be aware of the tendency of people to tell interviewers what they want to hear: to make themselves sound a bit better than they are.) You also have to be careful about how the asker is framing the question: If everyone takes a helping of the same meal, but then retreats to eat it alone, in the bedroom, in front of the TV, does that count? How about if a couple of family members sit down together but eat different, prepackaged things? What if everyone sits and eats, but one kid is wearing a headset while another is instant-messaging friends?
My sense is that, without much thought, we have let this basic human ritual slide to the point where it has dropped below critical mass. In the United States, across class, race, and economic lines, everyday family supper is no longer a given. Staff members of an eating disorders clinic have told me that the anorexics they work with rarely know how to set a table. Cause or effect? You can argue that it's both. I met a woman in Minnesota who was shocked to discover that the nice middle-class family next door did not even own a dining room or kitchen table. I was surprised as well, the first time I heard that kind of report. Now I just nod.
Here is what I see: Because, as a society, we do not favor supper with preferential treatment, because we schedule everything constantly, all the time, that humble shared meal is no longer expected. And because it is not expected, it is less likely to happen. And so it is expected even less. We stay late at the office. We stop by the gym, or catch up on our e-mail. We drive one kid to soccer, and bring another one along in the car. (According to a recent study by the University of Michigan Survey Research Center, between 1981 and 1997 the time that children spent watching other people, like siblings, play sports rose fivefold.)
We grab fast food, or let the kids open the freezer and fend for themselves. Our supermarket aisles are bulging with single-serving, idiot-proof, heat-and-eat meal substitutes. And the more of them we buy, the less practice we have in putting meals together. Who even knows what a meal means? How do we learn what constitutes a reasonable portion, what tastes good, what our grandmothers cooked, what we should combine with what to make a tasty, nutritionally complete, appealing whole?
We are living in a time of intense individualism, in a culture defined by competition and consumption. It has become an article of faith that a parent's job is to provide every child with every opportunity to find his particular talent, interest, or bliss. But somehow, as we drive-thru our lives, we have given up something so modest, so humble, so available, that we never realized its worth. Family supper can be a bulwark against the pressures we all face every day.
And no, I am not advocating a return to some Neverland of meat loaf and ruffled aprons. If an institution is anywhere near as good as I'm saying supper is, it must be flexible, reflecting who we are at this time in our culture, in our lives. Today's supper will not be like yesterday's. Except that, in terms of meeting basic human needs, it will be. It will be much the same as the long-ago time our ancestors squatted around the campfire in front of the cave and doled out pieces of nicely charred venison accompanied by fresh-picked berries, and retold the story of the day's hunt.
At my own house these days, supper is rather quiet: just my husband and me and our arthritic, deaf dog. We eat lots of fish and fresh veggies. If you had come by for supper ten or twenty years ago, you would have found a raucous scene, and been offered something like hamburger and cheese grits, or maybe bangers and mash. In my own 1950s childhood, suppers tended toward plain broiled chops and canned veggies, and were timed to my father's schedule. He was an old-fashioned doctor with evening office hours. We are counting the minutes to the time he had to walk downstairs to a full waiting room. My mother, who had been a nurse, was desperate to get back to work after we kids were born. But my father saw her working as an insult to his ability to provide. So my mom changed careers, took a job at the far end of the subway line, and dashed home to get supper on the table on time. When she didn't make it, my sister and I, from age ten or so on, would run around the corner to Joe the butcher, heat up the canned zucchini, broil the chops.
Excerpted from The Surprising Power of Family Meals by Miriam Weinstein Copyright © 2005 by Miriam Weinstein. Excerpted by permission.
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