TV, texting distract family dinners

When American families sit down to dinner today, it will be a familiar ritual for most of them.

But between blaring televisions, ringing phones and little fingers pounding out text messages, it may not be the Norman Rockwell vision of family dinner.

A recent Associated Press-iVillage Food poll found that most nights, most families manage to eat dinner together. But those meals come with a heaping helping of electronic distractions.

Altogether, more than 60 percent of those who live with family said they sat down with family for dinner at least five nights in the past week.

A quarter of families said a television is always on in the room where they have dinner. More than half have it turned on more often than rarely.

For 5 percent of families, someone is "always" texting or e-mailing on a cell phone during dinner. It's more than a rare intrusion for 15 percent. And nearly 40 percent have the radio or stereo going at least occasionally.

"It's become part of our culture," said Chuck Smith, a professor of family studies at Kansas State University. "Televisions and BlackBerrys are white noise to some people, so you don't want to automatically assume that it's an intrusive thing.

"But parents do have to be vigilant," he said. "Dinnertime is part of the way you bond as a family, the way you build a sense of community and togetherness. Having a TV nearby that's blaring and distracting, you could lose that opportunity."

The poll, conducted earlier this month by GfK Roper Public Affairs and Media, involved landline and cell phone interviews with 1,006 adults nationwide.

It looked at family behaviors during dinnertime as well as what they are eating, where recipes come from and who's doing the cooking.

For those who don't pull a family dinner together regularly, it's most often because someone is working late. Almost half said kids' activities conflict with dinner at least occasionally.

Almost one in 10 family members surveyed said they had no dinners with family in the past week.

Andrea Weir, a Derby mother of five, said family dinners are a challenge with her brood, who range in age from 1 to 12. But she and her husband, Tom, make it a priority.

"It wasn't something I grew up with, but it was something Tom grew up with, so he was the one who initially thought it was really important," Weir said. "But it's become important to all of us."

Her biggest challenge, she said, is kids' activities — dance classes, soccer games, play rehearsals or chess club meetings — that extend into or beyond the dinner hour. Those nights, she says, she tries to make slow-cooker dinners. Family members who are home sit down together for dinner, and latecomers help themselves when they get home.

"The Crock-Pot really saves us," Weir said. "We use it so much, we have two."

According to the poll, women still do most of the cooking for families. Just 51 percent of men said they make a home-cooked meal at least sometimes, compared with 71 percent of women.

Twenty percent of those polled said they had dinner at a sit-down restaurant at least once in the past week, and 27 percent ate dinner from a fast-food place.

Major reasons for eating prepared instead of home-cooked food were that people were too busy to cook or "too tired at the end of the day."

Smith, the K-State professor, noted studies showing that eating together can have a beneficial impact on families and kids. According to "How to Raise a Drug-Free Kid," by Joseph Califano Jr., eating meals as a family five to seven times a week is associated with lower rates of teen smoking, drinking and illegal drug use.

Sitting down together at mealtime is a good way to teach young children skills such as patience, taking turns and the art of conversation. With older kids, Smith said, "their days are filled with things they can share, and dinner is the perfect time to come together and talk."

Studies also have shown that people tend to eat better when they eat at home. Meals made at home are more likely to be lower in fat and higher in nutrition than ones grabbed on the go.

Smith added, though, that sharing any meal together — not just dinner — as a family is beneficial. Families whose schedules don't allow for dinner together regularly can opt for breakfasts or lunches.

"There's nothing sacred about 5 o'clock or 6 o'clock. It's the family togetherness," he said. "Being together and sharing and talking and enjoying food together. That's part of the importance of dinnertime."