Is the Family Dinner Still Sacred?

Two moms square off on an American ritual

by Cece Kaye | Updated 04 Aug 2015 at 6:50 PM

It’s 6 p.m. on a typical Wednesday in America. Do you know where your family is?

Flash back a few decades ago and the answer would be nearly universal: We’re around the dinner table. (Where else would we be?) Young and old and everyone in between would sit together and wolf down some pot roast, mashed potatoes and green beans … and talk. About the day. About life.

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It was lively, fun, heartwarming. It was togetherness. Chances are Dad brought home the bacon and Mom fried it up in a pan, and the kids got into scuffles about nothing and everything.

In the chaos of 2015 living, is the family dinner still important?

Things were different then, economically and otherwise, yet many of us still value sitting down as a family for dinner and do so faithfully. Others aspire to it but despite their best intentions can’t or don’t pull it off.

Others dismiss it entirely. For these people, it’s not remotely a gleam in the eye: It’s not possible, not desirable, and modern society neither demands it nor sanctions it.

Which begs the question: In 2015, is the family dinner still important?

We put this question to friends, friends of friends, and a wealth of others and scored some surprising insight. Here are two very different opinions from moms, plus expert input:

Yes!
Absolutely the family dinner is important. My husband and I both had nightly family dinners when we were growing up, and we feel lucky to continue that tradition with our 17-year-old daughter.

It’s not just important to us as a family. Nightly dinners are when you find out everything going on in your kids’ lives. Our daughter will share all kinds of things going on at school and socially when we’re at the dinner table. It’s a non-threatening environment where conversation just flows. We learn a lot about her friends, their boyfriends, the dynamics of their relationships.

It’s a non-threatening environment where conversation just flows.

Most of all, she enjoys hearing stories from our youth and how these situations aren’t that different from what she’s going through. For example, she asked if she could go to the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in California next year and my husband said, “Did I ever tell you how four of my college buddies and I took off in a station wagon to go to Woodstock?” It really helped my daughter understand that time (I learned a few things about my husband, too). The family dinner gives us a chance to pass along stories to Macy that we hope she’ll pass along to her children.

Related: The Family Meal is Real

There are other lessons learned at dinnertime. We always have music on, so Macy now appreciates Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles, Norah Jones and Harry Connick, Jr. Overall, I feel my husband and I are equipping her with skills to be successful, comfortable and sociable. Many important deals, both in life and in business, are conducted over the dinner table. — Stephanie Taylor Henson (Atlanta)

No!
I’ll be dang if either I or my hubby can get home in time for dinner, actually cook food, and have it on the table in some serviceable fashion to feed our two-parent, two-kid family every night. It eludes me.

Our two kids are elementary-school age and involved. They have practices and activities that also seem important and are a big part of their well-being and development. Dinner together almost always takes a back seat.

Dinner together often takes a back seat to everything else.

The real problem is that both my husband and I hold demanding jobs. Unless I work from home that day and have gone to the grocery (and the chances of those two things happening on any given weeknight are slim) — dinner will likely be a haphazard affair. I don’t see this changing any time soon and cannot envision remaking our lives and schedules to try to meet some unrealistic, days-gone-by goal of a family dinner that some hold dear from years ago.

Yes, I’m a hands-on devoted parent. No, I’m not going to change everything just for a regular meal at night. I can’t. Still, I’m not heartless. What is sacred to us are stories, the ones right before bedtime. We all read — kids read to parents, parents read to kids, kids read to each other. This is also sharing time, when the truth of the day comes out, though it takes place on various beds instead of around the dinner table. — Carol Smith (Washington, D.C.)

A Family Therapist Weighs In
It is essential to take a step back and look at what you’re trying to accomplish with a family dinner.

Think about what is realistic for your family and the situation at the time. It is easy to get consumed by a certain rule or notion such as “family dinner at 6 p.m.” or “bedtime at 8 p.m.”

Reflecting on what you’re trying to get out of these rituals will often open your eyes to new ways to accomplish them.

If dinner on the table at 6 p.m. works for you, by all means stick to it. But if just adds to the stress, figure out some alternatives. Those might include regular breakfasts or weekend brunches that everyone can enjoy. — Jill Kaufmann, MSW, Bend, Oregon

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