Category Archives: family meal

Please Just Shut Up About the “Family Meal”

The most remarkable thing about my mother is that
for thirty years she served the family nothing but leftovers.
The original meal has never been found.
-Calvin Trillin

Don't they look like they would talk in Comic Sans?   
Image Credit: She Knows.com

Every few months, someone publishes another article claiming that the “family meal” is dead or dying, and that if we could only revive it, it would help us fix a laundry list of societal ills from obesity to teen pregnancy. These stories usually make four main rhetorical moves:

1) Invoking Tradition and History: They universally portray the family meal as a long-standing tradition that Americans lost sometime in the recent past. For example, a post on Epicurious last week was titled “Radical Call To Take Back The Family Dinner,” which not only implies that it’s something we had at some point but also that something or someone took it from us, possibly without our consent. Frequently, these articles conflate cooking from scratch, eating at home, and eating with the members of your nuclear family, which makes it difficult to pinpoint exactly which behavior they think has declined, or what counts as a “family meal” in the first place—if a nuclear family eats together at a restaurant, does that count? What about eating take-out at home? Is eating in a car an automatic disqualifier, even if the food is homemade and everyone talks about their day?

The historical timeline is also usually pretty fuzzy. It’s almost never clear when the author thinks the “family meal” supposedly prevailed or when we “lost” it—the 1920s? the 1960s? The 1980s? And yet they’re sure it existed at some point. Much like the missing “original” meal in Calvin Trillin’s joke about leftovers, it’s an absent referent.

2) Explaining Why the Family Meal Is a Panacea: Whatever they think it was, and whenever they think we lost it, the authors are clear about at least one thing: family meals are a good thing and we need to get them back. That’s often exemplified by the titles, like the Huffington Post article linked in the Epicurious post: “How Eating at Home Can Save Your Life” or Miriam Weinstein’s 2005 book, The Surprising Power of Family Meals: How Eating Together Makes Us Smarter, Stronger, Healthier and Happier. The authors often point—or at least gesture vaguely—towards studies that have shown correlations between how often children eat with their parents and higher GPAs, lower BMIs, lower rates of alcohol & drug use, and a decreased likelihood of developing an eating disorder. Because everyone knows correlation = causation, right?

3) Blaming Individuals Instead of Structural Changes: Authors sometimes initially point the finger at structural changes like the increasing reliance on industrial-scale agriculture and processing to feed a growing & urbanizing population (dated either to the post-Civil War or post-WW II era) and growing numbers of women in the workforce after the 1960s. However, they all find a way to shift blame, and thus responsibility, back onto individuals. That’s rhetorically necessary, because the goal of the articles is usually to change individuals’ behavior. Also, it would be futile and/or offensive to suggest that the “answer” is a massive population cull, giving up city living, and/or  women leaving the workforce en masse. Indeed, many feminists were rankled by Michael Pollan’s article “Out of the Kitchen, Onto the Couch,” even though he specifically notes that the amount of time spent on food preparation has declined dramatically even for women who don’t work outside the home and specifically calls on women and men to “make cooking a part of daily life.”

The factors they end up blaming instead are nonsense or, at best, totally un-measurable. My favorite is when they claim that the problem is that Americans are busier than ever…but also lazier than ever. From Epicurious:

We’re certainly at a lazy point in history, though ironically, for all the conveniences at our disposal, we seem even shorter of actual time.

We’re working more hours than ever, but as a culture, we’ve gotten lazy. American kids are running around trying to do more extra-curriculars than ever, especially if they’re college-bound, but they also spend all their time on passive, mind-slushifying electronic entertainments. Chefs, farmers, and food writers have achieved celebrity status, the Food Network and shows like Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution and Bravo’s Top Chef achieve stellar ratings, and there’s never been more interest in eating organic, natural, fresh, local food…but we’re a fast food nation addicted to HFCS and cheap, industrially-processed, “empty” calories. Yadda yadda, a dozen other unsubstantiated, contradictory clichés that tell us nothing about what is responsible for Americans cooking and/or eating together less (if indeed they are cooking and eating together less).

4) Calling for Change: All of which leads up to the same old rallying cry: Even if you think you don’t have time, you should make the time! If you don’t know how to cook, you should learn to cook! If you and/or your kids prefer fast food and convenience foods, you’re basically a failure at life and you should learn to roast Brussels sprouts and grow an adult palate, stat. Then they make perhaps the stupidest claim of all: not only is cooking at home and eating together a moral obligation to your children, family, and nation, the real reason you should do it is because it will make you happier. After all, there is no greater joy than sharing a home-cooked meal with the people you love.

I make that face all the time, which may make me a snarky, whiny adoescent. But tell me how I'm wrong. American Beauty dir. Sam Mendes 1999 (from Orange Crate Art)

The “family meal” lecture would be annoying enough as it is—smug, hectoring, and totally unoriginal—but worse, it’s almost entirely based on myths, lies, and logical fallacies.

You Cannot “Take Back” What You Never Had, or Never Lost

Again, the lack of a coherent definition makes it a little difficult to say with any real reliability whether or not the “family meal” has declined, and since when. But here’s why Hyman thinks it’s dying: 

In 1900, 2 percent of meals were eaten outside the home. In 2010, 50 percent were eaten away from home and one in five breakfasts is from McDonald’s. Most family meals happen about three times a week, last less than 20 minutes and are spent watching television or texting while each family member eats a different microwaved "food." More meals are eaten in the minivan than the kitchen. (full article on The Huffington Post)

No sources cited, but let’s just assume that’s all true. Hyman seems to be setting a pretty high bar—his idealized meal has to be eaten inside the home, cooked without a microwave, last longer than 20 minutes, be more frequent than 3x/week and take place in the absence of television or texting. We know that in 1910 at least two of his criteria were being met—we had the eating at home part down and televisions and texting hadn’t yet been invented. But that doesn’t mean people were sitting down to eat together for 20+ minutes on a daily basis, or that the ones who did were cooking those meals themselves.

Actually, the idea of the “family meal” was invented in the mid-19th C. Before that, in wealthy families, children would eat in the nursery with a nanny or servants until they were old enough to be sent off to boarding schools or join their parents and other guests at formal meals, probably in what we’d now consider adolescence. In poorer families, everyday meals were casual affairs and often staggered. As Michael Elins writes in Time magazine:

Back in the really olden days, dinner was seldom a ceremonial event for U.S. families. Only the very wealthy had a separate dining room. For most, meals were informal, a kind of rolling refueling; often only the men sat down. Not until the mid–19th century did the day acquire its middle-class rhythms and rituals; a proper dining room became a Victorian aspiration. When children were 8 or 9, they were allowed to join the adults at the table for instruction in proper etiquette. By the turn of the century, restaurants had appeared to cater to clerical workers, and in time, eating out became a recreational sport.

Other food historians like Harvey Levenstein also agree that it was only in the Victorian era that the “family meal” became a preoccupation—and it emerged first among bourgeois families, for whom eating “correctly” became a crucial way of distinguishing themselves from the working classes. It was increasingly seen as inappropriate to delegate the feeding of children to servants because mealtime was such a crucial opportunity for training in manners, conversation, and taste.

Much of the advice published in the 19th C. aimed at Victorian mothers focused on the proper care of the adolescent female body, including how daughters should eat and exercise to cultivate the correct social identity and moral character. Meat and spicy foods were thought to stimulate and signal sexual desire so their consumption was seen as unsuitable for girls and women. In a more general sense, eating, food preparation, digestion, and defecation all became constructed as coarse and un-ladylike. According to Joan Jacobs Brumberg, this combination of smothering maternal concern about eating and the elevation of restraint and physical delicacy prompted the emergence of anorexia nervosa among middle-class girls in the Victorian era (Fasting Girls p. 134).

Furthermore, concerns that the “family meal” is dying are almost as old as the idea of the “family meal” itself. According to nutrition policy and research analyst Paul Fieldhouse:

[The] nuclear concept of the family meal is a fairly modern phenomenon… and there is evidence that every generation has lamented its demise. Already in the 1920s there were worries being expressed about how leisure activities and the rise of the car were undermining family mealtimes! (From Eating Together: The Culture of the Family Meal)

The fact that the “family meal” is a modern idea, was historically limited mostly to the wealthy, and has apparently always been on the decline doesn’t mean its prevalence hasn’t been historically variable. The statistics I find the most convincing are the ones Robert Putnam cites in Bowling Alone:

The fraction of married Americans who say “definitely” that “our whole family usually eats dinner together” has declined by a third over the last twenty years, from about 50 percent to 34 percent…. The ratio of families who customarily dine together to those who customarily dine apart has dropped from more than three to one in 1977-78 to half that in 1998-99. (Bowling Alone p. 100)

That’s a considerably more conservative definition than Hyman’s—Putnam is interested in togetherness, not what kind of food you’re eating or whether the television is on—and even so, neither its original prevalence nor its decline are all that staggering. The idealized "family meal": the Cleaver family in an episode calls "Teacher Comes to Dinner" first aired in 1959.The phenomenon of nuclear families eating together probably peaked sometime between the 1940s and 1970s, but it was still habitual for less than half of the American population and probably mostly limited to relatively affluent, dual-parent, single-income households. And despite how much more free time Americans supposedly had to cook, and how much harder-working they were back then, we know that most of those households relied on domestic servants, restaurant meals, take-out, and/or industrially-processed convenience foods at least some of the time. The heyday of the “family meal” was also the heyday of Jell-O salads and Peg Bracken’s I Hate to Cook Cookbook

By the 1990s, the percent of families “usually” eating together had declined by 16%, which is significant. However, recent trends point towards a revival since the 1990s, not further decline. According to the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University, the number of adolescents who reported eating with their families “most nights” increased 23% between 1998 and 2005. In CASA’s 2010 survey of over 2000 teens and 456 parents, 60% said they eat dinner with their families at least five times a week. And there’s more good news for people who think the “family meal” has to happen at home: in the last two years, restaurant traffic in the U.S. has fallen, probably due to the recession.

In other words, it’s not at all clear that the family meal is dying or that taking it back would be all that “radical.” More coming soon on why it doesn’t really matter if the television is on or who did the cooking (at least in terms of benefits for children), why increasing the prevalence of family meals—even if you could achieve that just by scolding people about it—probably wouldn’t fix anything, and what could be done that might actually improve American eating habits…