Food, and Family Bonds

When I was growing up in Denver in the 1950s and ’60s, my parents insisted our family eat dinner together nearly every night. The food was homemade, and your excuse for not being there, especially for Friday night Shabbat dinner, had better be really good. With my parents, four kids and at least one or two dogs squished into our small kitchen, those dinners were often noisy and full of rivalries and arguments. But there we were, together. I don’t know if I actually turned out any better than those friends or other kids in the neighborhood whose families rarely ate together or who ate in front of the television, but now here’s a book telling me that, without a doubt, my parents were right.

In The Surprising Power of Family Meals: How Eating Together Makes Us Smarter, Stronger Healthier and Happier (Steerforth Press $22.95), Miriam Weinstein argues convincingly and with great optimism that eating together nourishes more than just our bodies.. .although bodies do get a boost as well because of better nutrition at these daily gatherings. What I as a child often thought of as a somewhat arbitrary family rule turns out to be Weinstein’s “magic bullet—a vital ritual full of all kinds of benefits and rewards, from higher self-esteem and academic achievement to stronger spirituality, coping skills and social relationships, especially within our own families. Apparently, table time together can help fight obesity, eating disorders, anxiety, substance abuse and asthma among other ills personal and societal.

It almost sounds too good to be true. Weinstein acknowledges there are confusing statistics on who is or isn’t sharing ordinary family suppers, but she backs up her argument in favor with impressive research from such institutions as the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, the Emory (University) Center for Myth and Ritual in American Life and the Eating Disorders Institute of Methodist Hospital in St. Louis Park, Minnesota. Her conversational style makes the book easy to digest and if you need further convincing, there are also Jewish connections such as the value of Shabbat, with all of its family food traditions, as an anchor in many Jewish homes and lives. Kashrut and the abundant blessings and prayers related to food emphasize the importance of eating with awareness and appreciation—”mindfully.” Some of the Jewish blessings are included in a special section, along with suggested discussion topics for table talk.

If family meals can do so much good, why don’t more of us partake? Because, Weinstein contends, it’s like eating all our veggies: knowing what’s good for us and doing it are two different things. So she offers some advice for those who feel too challenged to undertake family meals. At this point, the book gets a bit repetitive and much of the “how to” seems simplistic, but who can argue with her advice to slow down, connect and find pleasure around ordinary, everyday family meals? It turns out that, in the end, what we eat and how we get it on the table don’t even matter as much as just sitting down together over food.

Susan Barocas teaches cooking in addition to writing and producing film and video. Based in Washington, DC, she is at work on a cookbook about family food.