Growing up, I thought every family ate dinner together.
And maybe they did back then. (You know, when dinosaurs roamed the streets while my friends and I invented fire between games of Four Square and Red Rover.)
My mom or dad would cook. I’d set the table. We’d sit down and talk about … I don’t remember, to be honest. Our lives, I suppose. What was happening at school or church or down the block.
It’s different these days – or so I’m told.
A recent study showed that most American families eat dinner together about four times a week (actually, that seems generous). One in 10 eats together only twice a week. The remaining meals are consumed haphazardly and often alone – in the car or in front of a television, between soccer practice and piano lessons, standing over the kitchen sink.
Yet our passion for food seems stronger than ever. We watch the Cooking Channel and read food blogs and save recipes to our Pinterest boards with the fervor of Julia Child.
“Toasted sesame ginger salmon? Absolutely! … Portobello burgers with basil goat cheese? I’ll make those tonight! … Forty recipes using shredded chicken! How handy!”
Moms and dads still like the idea of cooking and eating together, but something happens between our good intentions and 7 p.m.
We’re busy, tired or uninspired. We have a big project due tomorrow. Someone is running late. We forgot an ingredient and don’t feel like tromping to the store one more time.
Jenny Rosenstrach gets it. The longtime blogger and author of a new memoir-slash-cookbook, “Dinner: A Love Story,” has felt the joy, frustration and guilt that comes with trying to achieve that elusive daily milestone: family dinner.
“When you’re a parent, all of us sort of walk around feeling like we’re doing something wrong at any given moment,” Rosenstrach says on her website, DinnerALoveStory.com. “But … sitting down with my kids every night for dinner – I still to this day feel like I am doing something right with that.”
I picked up her book recently after a friend recommended it and was relieved to hear a kindred voice, another busy mom/writer who struggles to merge modern life with the Norman Rockwell ideal.
Like Rosenstrach, I believe that gathering my family once a day – even for just a few minutes, even over a frozen pizza or some hastily prepared pasta with bottled sauce – provides order and unity amid the chaos.
Like her, I believe family dinner is worth planning and nagging and arranging and working for. And although we don’t manage to achieve our goal every night, we do most nights, and that’s good enough.
Recently one of my son’s teachers assigned students to create “culture quilts” on pieces of poster board. Jack had to identify 10 aspects of his life that represent his personal culture, things that may or may not set him apart from others, and illustrate them.
He labeled one square “Dinner Together,” and filled it with pictures clipped from magazines of people gathered around tables, eating and drinking and talking and smiling.
The paragraph Jack wrote to accompany the quilt block was something about how his parents “insist” that our family eats dinner together and how his mom is “a little crazy about watching cooking shows and trying new recipes.”
All I know is, no one complained the other night when I made Rosenstrach’s braised short ribs, and we sat down to eat, and Jack declared them “awesome with a capital AWE.”
Nope. No complaints.