Skip to main content

We have an image – drawn from the past that Norman Rockwell chronicled in his paintings – of dinner as a serene gathering of the family, a sharing and communion. In the eternal quest for balance, dinner is an important landmark of success or failure. It can therefore frustrate us when dinner fails to live up to expectations.

The reality, according to research by anthropologist Elinor Ochs, a professor at the University of California at Los Angeles, is that many families are failing to routinely prepare and enjoy this end of working and school day meal. "The Norman Rockwell version of everyone sitting down at the same table was relatively rare," she says in an interview. And the culprit is not just our busy lives. "Even when everyone was home they didn't necessarily eat dinner at the same time. Someone may start, a second person comes in later, while a child may be eating in his or her room."

Her study involved watching and filming 32 middle class families in the Los Angeles area for a week, couples with two to three children, one of whom was between the ages of 7 and 12. The research team documented for that week where everyone was every 10 minutes, developing what she calls "an intimate portrait of family life at the start of the 21st century" that she and other academics share in a book she co-edited, Fast Forward Family.

Only 17 per cent of those families ate dinner consistently together over the recorded time. Beyond busyness, the two barriers that emerged were the convenience foods filling refrigerators and cupboards that supplied individualized snacks and meals for the family members, and the fact family dinnertime often gave way to intergenerational conflict surrounding the childrens' food choices so that togetherness became unappealing.

These days we not only have huge freezer compartments in our refrigerators but also supplemental storage freezers in the basement and garage littered with convenience foods like pizzas, burritos, and chicken nuggets that can serve as a snack or meal. Kids come home from school, hungry, grab a bite to eat, and then they are not hungry at the designated meal time. Or they don't like what has been prepared for dinner – or taken out of the freezer for dinner – and choose their own, which they eat in their room while on their mobile phone with friends. Indeed, the research found that often dinner is convenience food that doesn't even need a plate – it might be a burrito warmed in the microwave that can be picked up and eaten anywhere.

Interestingly, the convenience food is attractive because busy working people feel they are too busy to cook. But the difference in preparation time between cooking a meal from scratch with fresh or raw ingredients and either using convenience, frozen meals or commercial food like Hamburger Helper and soups in a can was only about 10 to 12 minutes. There was no significant difference in the total cooking time for dinners made from fresh ingredients and those primarily made of convenience food or a combination of fresh ingredients and some or limited convenience foods.

She saw that as proof there was no need for convenience food. But her husband suggested the value of those 10 minutes may be more significant than she initially assumed. She compares it to when you're on an elliptical machine at the gym: "An extra 10 minutes is huge."

Freedom is an important concept these days, and convenience foods grant the individuals in a family the power to choose. For children striving for independence, convenience foods can be a valuable outlet. But an important finding of Prof. Ochs's research was that parents and children frequently are embroiled in negotiations over food complete with bargaining, enticements, and threats. "Some parents insisted that children eat certain foods considered healthy. Dinnertime, for these families, became a match of wills. Many parents dwelled on the nutritious value of food items and expressed appreciation for the meal. In contrast, children, especially at the start of dinner, often expressed their distaste for the food prepared for them. When some children were called for dinner and saw what they were to eat, they complained," she writes in a chapter of the book, along with Margaret Beck, an anthropologist at the University of Iowa.

Intriguingly, the researchers found that convenience food is not necessarily a solution for picky eaters but at times part of the problem. Those offerings come with pre-assigned ingredients, some of which the children may not like – the onion on the pizza, say. Or the pasta sauce out of a bottle is not to their liking. On the other hand, when the pizza or pasta sauce is made separately, it can be adjusted to their preferences.

So convenience food in some ways is dissembling the family body, the researchers note, making the Norman Rockwellesque family dinner difficult to achieve. "The devil is in the details. You can talk about big things like hours of work, which are true. But there are also these little details that are important for family life," she concludes.

Special to The Globe and Mail

Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter