For our parents' and grandparents' generations, the daily dilemma for any household cook was the question: "What's for dinner?"
These days, as calendars grow dense with activities and obligations, the question in many households is not so much what to have for dinner but whether there's time for dinner at all.
If you can't seem to get your family together for meals, take heart. You've got good allies, both in terms of practical advice and in research that backs up the common-sense hunch that there is something inherently healthy about a family chattering around a dinner table -- something healthy enough to prompt a reassessment of the frantic schedules that rule many American households.
For the past eight years, the Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University has surveyed American teen-agers. Early on, says communications director Richard Mulieri, researchers picked up a correlation between the risk of substance abuse and the number of times teen-agers ate a meal with their families.
The more often families ate dinner together, the less likely teens were to engage in risky behaviors, whether drinking, drugs, smoking or sex.
CASA's 1998 Teen Survey found that teens who eat dinner with their parents twice a week or less were four times more likely to smoke cigarettes, three times more likely to smoke marijuana and nearly twice as likely to drink as those who ate dinner with their parents six or seven times a week.
In 1999, the survey found that teens from families that almost never eat dinner together were 72 percent more likely than the average teen to use illegal drugs, cigarettes and alcohol, while those from families that almost always eat dinner together were 31 percent less likely than the average teen to engage in these activities.
The secret isn't in the menu or the food preparation, says Mulieri. Rather, it's what CASA calls "parent power," the connections that enable parents and kids to touch base with each other, to find out how their day has gone.
"Parental engagement is simple, and it's one of the most effective tools in helping children grow up healthier," Mulieri says, noting that government programs spend millions of dollars to try to get the positive outcomes that CASA's survey finds in a simple habit like regular family dinners.
Yet if family dinners are a simple habit, ensuring that they happen is far from easy. Parental job pressures, together with children's schoolwork and extracurricular activities, leave little room for a ritual that has held families together for centuries.
Melinda Cianos, a nursing student and Rodgers Forge mother of three, is a firm believer in family dinners. "It's what I had growing up ... and I wanted that for my kids," she says. But in the Cianos household, as for many families, there are compromises.
As a regional sales representative, Cianos' husband Michael spends many days on the road, so more evenings than not, family dinner is Melinda and the kids -- Claire, 15, Michael, 12, and Andrew, 7. But Dad is home on weekends and Sunday evenings are reserved for the whole family.
Whether weekday or weekend, dinner doesn't have to be a special menu, says Cianos. And it doesn't have to last forever -- even 15 or 20 minutes is worthwhile. "We have a lot of fun conversations during that time," she says.
"When we're riding in the car, I do a lot of listening, but I'm busy driving and I don't get to respond with a well-thought-out answer. Dinnertime is when I get to do that."
Preserving a family dinnertime is "a struggle every day," Cianos says, especially as her ninth-grade daughter gets interested in more extracurricular activities.
Finding the right balance between schoolwork, wholesome activities and down time is "constant. I'm constantly writing schedules, constantly checking schedules and constantly changing schedules," she says.
Dinner doesn't happen at the same time every day, and it's sometimes a little more rushed than at other times. But more often than not, the Cianos kids know that they will be gathering around the dinner table with at least one parent.
Meanwhile, many families rely on grab-and-run food, whether from fast-food restaurants or prepared meals warmed in the microwave as various family members stop to refuel.
As a result, says food columnist Leanne Ely, dinnertime conversation for too many families consists of the quintessential fast-food question: "Do you want fries with that?"
Ely first began writing about food in the traditional way -- focusing on good recipes. But as responses poured in from readers, particularly from the 225,000-plus members of www.flylady.net, where she posts a weekly Food for Thought column, Ely has taken on "a more pointed mission" -- bringing back family dinners.
Her book -- Saving Dinner: The Menus, Recipes, and Shopping Lists to Bring Your Family Back to the Table (Ballantine Books, 2003, $14.95) -- is a tool to help families do just that.
With weekly menus and shopping lists for each season of the year, the book "is not about Gourmet magazine," Ely says. "It's about being able to provide good family meals that are healthy, that are good and that are easy to pull off."
Like CASA, Ely is convinced that family dinners contribute to healthier children --especially when those dinners are prepared at home with fresh, healthful ingredients. A big part of making that happen is putting in place the routines and strategic planning -- the shopping lists and weekly menus -- that make it easy to get a meal on the table with a minimum of fuss and expense.
Moreover, preparing your own food is better for both your waistline and your wallet. "The fact of the matter is that you cannot eat out on a day-to-day basis and eat a healthy diet," Ely says.
Knowing what you'll put on the table and having the ingredients on hand won't solve the all problems of a frenzied schedule. But it offers an attractive alternative to all the rushing around and helps parents to set limits on activities.
"I get hundreds of e-mails a day, saying things like, 'We didn't realize what a problem this was' or 'You saved my marriage' or 'We have more family life and my kids are better disciplined,' " Ely says.
Frenetic lives don't have to be the norm, she says. "We [parents] built this monster. But if we want well-rounded kids, our children need to learn that the universe does not revolve around their activities."
After all, participating in every school activity will not, in the long run, make much difference in a child's life. But eating together can. Bringing the family to the table is like "throwing down an anchor of security -- for children and parents, too," Ely says.
In truth, family dinner won't happen every night; even advocates like Ely admit there are times when it's just not possible. But that doesn't mean families can't return to a routine in which dinner together is the norm, not the exception.
Whether you draw your conclusions from research, anecdotal evidence or your own childhood memories, the best kind of family dinner seems to be one that isn't "special" at all, but rather such an ordinary, predictable event that kids and adults alike can count on it to anchor the day.
In an unpredictable world, what could be more special than that?
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
one 14 1/2 -ounce can diced tomatoes with roasted garlic, onion and oregano
one 4 1/2 -ounce can sliced olives, drained
salt and pepper to taste
6 pieces of white fish (cod, halibut or whatever is available, fresh or frozen)
2 tablespoons lemon juice
Heat oil in a skillet over medium-high heat and saute onion, stirring occasionally, until crisp-tender. Add the tomatoes, olives and salt and pepper. Heat to boiling.
Arrange fish fillets in single layer in tomato mixture. Sprinkle with a little lemon juice. Reduce heat to medium-high. Cover and cook 8 minutes to 10 minutes or until fish flakes easily with fork.
Per serving: 201 calories; 8 grams fat; 22 grams protein; 11 grams carbohydrate; 2 grams fiber; 49 milligrams cholesterol; 831 milligrams sodium
Serving suggestions: Steamed broccoli, steamed baby carrots and brown rice will work well with this dinner. Salad is always a good thing.
Bring your family back to the dinner table
No one says it's easy to bring families together every night. But with planning and a desire to carve out family time, it can be done more evenings than not. Here are some suggestions:
Set aside time to plan your menus for a week, complete with grocery list. If planning meals is not your strong point, use a book or Web newsletter (see Resources).
Monitor your children's activities so that your family is not pulled apart by trying to participate in everything. Parents will need to decide where reasonable limits lie.
Be flexible. There will be times when dinnertime needs to be earlier or later or briefer.
Don't set impossible standards, such as insisting that family dinner must happen every night or trying to present your family with a perfect meal. Don't let your vision of the ideal family dinner intimidate you into not doing the best you can.
When possible, encourage all family members to join in preparing the food or in helping to clean up.
Enjoy yourself. Make dinner a time to unwind. Save the scolding for another time.
If a family dinner is simply not possible most nights of the week, look for other ways to be together on a daily basis, such as breakfast or an afternoon or evening snack time.
-- Sara Engram
The report by the Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse on the importance of family dinners is at the Web site www.casacolumbia.org.
Leanne Ely's book Saving Dinner (Ballantine Books, 2003, $14.95) is available at bookstores or online. Her Food for Thought column is posted weekly on www.flylady.net (registration is free).
Weekly menus and shopping lists are available online through www.menumailer.com.
The Web-based newsletter www.thescramble.com features easy-to-prepare menus.
If your family enjoys preparing food together - or if you want to entice them to learn - check out the Web site of chef Jacques Haeringer of the award-winning Alsatian restaurant L'Auberge Chez Francois in Great Falls, Va. Haeringer has adapted the concept of team cooking so that families can create meals together. For his tips on team cooking, visit www.love beginsinthekitchen.com/teamcookingtips.asp.