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In “A Date with Your Family,” a 10-minute instructional film made in 1950, Mother knits while dinner cooks. She and Daughter change from their daytime wear to something more formal. Brother and Junior comb their hair and wash their hands in preparation. Father returns from the office and hangs his hat on a rack.
“The dinner date has begun and they’re all happy about it,” the narrator says. “Napkins on the lap, the family awaits service. They converse pleasantly while Dad serves — I said ‘pleasantly,’ for that is the keynote at dinnertime. It is not only good manners but good sense. Pleasant, unemotional conversation helps good digestion.”
As he continues to explain dinnertime dos and don’ts, the narrator advises complimenting Mother on the food and avoiding speaking unkindly about your siblings.
“The dinner table is no place for discontent,” the narrator says. “This does not mean you should be stiff or formal – with your own family you can relax. Be yourself. Just be sure it’s your best self.”
This version of family dinner, if it ever really existed outside of TV shows, is long gone. But connecting over a shared meal is still a concept many families aspire to today. But how to make that happen? It’s a mix of loosening things up and not scrapping the whole idea. Family Dinners: What Changed?
Just about everything has changed – starting with the family itself.
“The notion of having a mom at home cooking? That ship has sailed,” says Anne Fishel, PhD, executive director and co-founder of The Family Dinner Project. “Around 50% of American families are either single-parent families or a blended family,” Fishel says. She also notes that if two parents are present, both might be moms or dads. And sometimes there’s a grandparent in the mix, too. Some people have expanded their definition of family to include their chosen family – the people in their inner circle who make them feel at home, even if they’re not relatives.
Dinner itself has also changed. For many people, it rarely means cooking from scratch. They may prefer other options, like subscription meal kits, frozen food, delivery, take-out fare, and restaurant dining. “Family dinner doesn’t have to be dinner and it doesn’t have to be family,” Fishel says.
“I think it’s any two people,” she says. “It may be beyond the pale to get everybody together night after night. Some families I know have a rule that no one eats alone. In some families, k