Families That Dine Together Grow Wiser Together

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We’ve all experienced the hectic holiday rush that comes upon us this time of the year. During the holidays, there is shopping, visiting, decorating and merrymaking to do along with the responsibility of running a household and caring for our families.

Today, mom, dad and kids spend more time away from home, at work, play, or shopping at the malls then ever before and the first thing to get sacrificed is dinner at home with the family. Cooking at home and sharing dinner with the family, somehow just doesn’t make it on our to-do list.

Today’s experts are finding out what my parents and grandparents already knew about sharing mealtime, that making family meals a priority is more than worth the nourishment it brings to the body and soul, but it also sharpens our mental faculties as well.

family meal
Family at the dinner table.

Consider a recent survey from the National Merit Scholarship Corporation. The NMSC profiled National Merit scholars from the past 20 years trying to find out what these stellar students had in common. They were surprised to find that, without exception, these kids came from families who ate together three or more nights a week.

Not only can family meals make your kids smarter; spending quality time together over dinner can also contribute to your children’s emotional and spiritual growth. After all, it’s when you’re all together sharing the details of your day that real bonding happens. And kids who feel close to their families are more likely to take the family’s value system to heart.

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Years ago, Papa, as head of our family, always gave a few words of gratitude for the meal we were about to receive; he would thank grandma who prepared the food for us, and gratitude for the job that paid for it, and sometimes he added a little practical advice for the family to dwell on.

His little ritual was always a part of our family’s holiday meal. And, like most Italian-American kids, I grew up with anticipation for this dinner time meal and the closeness shared with family.

As each family milestone occurred – baptisms, first holy communions, confirmations, and birthdays, graduations and marriages – festive dinner tables were set so that all the family members could partake of the celebratory dinner ritual. And today, as I sit down at this same old table, I can’t resist the urge to stroke my hands over its rich wood surface, and to feel all the tiny nicks and scratches left behind by each passing generation.

grandparents table

At every meal, Grandma’s dinner table was covered with platters of her home cooking. I’ll always remember the lively chatter and heart-warming laughter that passed over the table at every meal. It was a reason for celebration just to be seated all together at Grandma’s table.

The aroma of her kitchen spices and slowly simmered spaghetti sauce teased our appetites all day long so that by dinnertime we were famished. We couldn’t wait to indulge in a platter of handmade noodles and meatballs covered in tomato sauce.

Immediately after dinner it was a family ritual to clear the dishes from the table and then sit down again to play card games, dominoes or to play the mysterious and intriguing Ouija board. Some of my happiest times were spent at that table, where we would visit late into the night, sipping on cups of Grandma’s strong espresso and playing board games. Sometimes, we’d just sit quietly listening to the oldest member of the family spin exciting tales. Other times, our Grandparents would recall some funny little anecdote about each of their grand kids.

Recently, I went out shopping for a replacement chair for my beloved but aging family dinner table, I was told by a sales clerk that dinning room table sets, as I once knew them, are not as popular as they once were. And that most new homes don’t have a formal dining room. And finding a chair to match my table would be almost impossible.

old family table
Our old family table.

It turns out that the salesperson was right about one thing, families aren’t sitting down together at big dinner tables every night, not like they did in my youth. I decided to do some research on this new trend in family dining and what I found out really wasn’t too surprising.

Reasons listed for this new trend included, conflicting work schedules, no time to cook, don’t know how to cook, or they just preferred to watch television. According to Tufts University, national studies show that more than 80 percent of parents consider eating dinner with their children very important, but less than 50 percent actually sit down together on a daily basis.

What’s more, these percentages decrease as children get older. Soccer practice dates, shopping at the malls, homework, and hanging out with friends, take a toll on family mealtime. Then, too, as children age they become more independent – physically, emotionally and financially.

at the table
Family at the big old table.

Most teens can – if they wish – remove themselves from family either by foot, bike or car. And many teens and preteens have enough cash to buy fast food away from home. Things have changed, no doubt about it, In my generation we ate only the food mom prepared from her kitchen goods. Even if there were shopping malls or fast food chains my generation of kids never had enough money of our own to eat there, nor would we ever want to!

Harvard Medical School has documented this new trend in America’s eating habits. In a Harvard study, only 43 percent of more than 16,000 children ate dinner daily with members of their family. More than half of the 9-year-olds ate family dinners daily, whereas only about one-third of 14 year-olds did so. The decrease in family dining has evolved over time as families are pressured to divide their time and interest into a range of endless sports and school activities and committee meetings.

I sure hope the sales clerk was mistaken, when he said the big dinning table is on its way out. If you notice, in a lot of these pictures of real estate homes on the market today, they feature lots of living rooms and computer rooms and bedrooms and the dining room is usually a combination entertainment room and dinning. I’d hate to think that the coming generation is going to miss out on the fun and enjoyment my generation experienced as a kid growing up in the 1950s.

How we all sat together around Grandma’s big oak dinning table exchanging stories, and inspirations, as we enjoyed wonderful home cooked meals and created good eating habits. Like my grandmother always said: “Out of our habits we build our character on our character we build our destiny.”

Cookie Curci is an experienced freelance writer, born and raised in San Jose, California. Cookie writes syndicated columns across the country, and wrote a “Remember When” column for The Willow Glen Resident for 15 years. Her work has been published in 15 Chicken Soup for The Soul books, and in the series of “Mother’s Miracle” books ( Morrow books).

She has a short story in the new book “ELVIS”, Live at the Sahara Tahoe; has been published in San Francisco Chronicle, San Jose Mercury news, Woman’s World, Primo magazine, Mature Living, and many websites.

Cookie is currently writing for several Italian American newspapers and magazines, they include LaVoce Las Vegas, Amici Journal, L’italo Americano, Life in Italy and Italiansrus.