What was your family dinner like last night? A hearty nutritious meal, served with a side order of stimulating conversation, offering a welcome dose of emotional warmth and relief in the dead of winter?
Or maybe it was a bit more like the scene in my house: the teenager mysteriously taking delivery of a Getir order at his review desk, the impending doom of a Zoom call with an American customer needing dinner with all the ceremony given to feed the cat, me hovering near the fridge debating whether adding a dollop of kimchi over the previous night’s pasta could significantly benefit my biome weight management aspirations gut / new year.
In our age of individualized and on-demand lifestyles, with our unpredictable long working hours, the myriad distractions and disruptions of digital culture, and wildly varying food philosophies and preferences, is it any wonder that the ‘traditional family dinner’ feels like being attacked?
The personalized nutrition market (which includes innovations such as Tim Spector’s Zoe app with its hyper-targeted diet prescriptions) is estimated to be a $6 billion (£4.8 billion) global industry.
Even though scientifically sound, personal diet plans seem pretty niche right now, simply aimed at a fairly average modern family — where one person might go vegan for January, another might try intentional intermittent fasting (ahem, that’s me), or just be obsessed with Joe Wicks McLeanie turkey burgers — can make a cook at home feels more alive than a quick order chef.
While researching this story, I spoke to former restaurateur and mother of three, Jules Bagnoli (who got a nod from Egon Ronay, and many others, for his sustainable restaurant Isinglass in Manchester a few years ago), what it was like at home – cooking for her twins as they were growing up, one of whom was a vegan, the other an omnivore, and she said to me: ” I would draw a mental line down the middle of the hob and try to meet the needs of both. It did not work. Both meals tasted horrible, they are such different styles of cooking.
But let’s put all that on the back burner for a moment, because it turns out that getting together and sharing a home-cooked meal on a regular basis is very, very good for us — mentally, socially, and nutritionally. And for the purposes of this article, let’s think of “family meals” as eating together with “the one who makes you feel at home.”
For this extended definition, I have to thank Anne Fishel, a Boston-based family therapist, clinical psychologist, and professor, who co-founded the Family Dinner Project 13 years ago, prompted in part by an epiphany during an arduous therapy session. with a father and teenage son in his home office.
When the lemony, garlicky smell of a roast chicken – cooked in Fishel’s family kitchen upstairs – took hold of the therapy room, the teenager asked, “Can we stay for dinner? Professional protocol meant the answer had to be no.
“But my internal dialogue was, ‘Let’s stop this family therapy, it’s not going well. Here’s a cookbook, go home, cook together, eat together, you’ll be so much better off,” Fishel recalls. And in that moment, she began to wonder how she could build a bridge connecting what she knew from research to be the benefits of family meals, to a larger community than she could ever reach in his practice: “Mental health, nutritional and cognitive benefits…There have been studies showing that there is better cardiovascular health in adolescents who eat family meals regularly and lower rates of obesity.”
“Family dinners are associated with lower rates of eating disorders, substance abuse, early teenage pregnancy, and behavioral problems at school. And for adults, eating with others is associated with better mental health, less feelings of depression and anxiety, and also less bulimia.
The Family Dinner Project offers free recipes, conversation starters, tips and inspiration to bring people together around the table. “When you ask parents, ‘Would that be a good idea?’ more than 90% say yes. But only somewhere between 40 and 50 percent actually have that,” says Fishel, who credits her own childhood dinner party experience as fundamental to who she is and what she does today: “I think a lot of what I needed to know as a family therapist I learned around my family dinner table – how to deflect conflict, how to tell stories, that even if someone is silent at the table, it doesn’t doesn’t mean it has nothing to say if you draw it outside.
“Family mealtime is the most reliable time of day for families to connect, and connection is a safety belt on the rocky road of childhood and adolescence.”
Nourish the body, the mind and the soul: it is a message that resonates. Even Gwyneth Paltrow, who you might expect to appear in a story like this as the queen bee signifier for the selfish wellness industry and hyper-personalized diets, is touting the merits of sitting for a regular family dinner.
In a recent interview for Ruth Rogers’ Ruthie’s Table podcast series, she recalled her parents, including Paltrow and her brother in the nightly dinner ritual as children: “We felt special to be included in the dinner table even though it was an evening event. If they received friends, we sat with them at the table and had long conversations.
Paltrow continues the tradition with her own children, focusing on weekends when she has free time and can cook: “We always all have dinner together, as a family, no phones at the table.”
In this country, dinner was mostly taken in the middle of the day until industrialization, after which the workers returned home to have their main meal, after a day in the factory or in the office. Some say the popularization of the microwave in the 1980s spelled the end of the post-war family dinner. My theory is that streaming TV – unscheduled – has really kicked in, ending communal viewing while eating, and all of its conviviality.