- The Washington Times - Friday, January 27, 2006

Americans still cling to the family dinner hour, despite dire predictions in recent years that the traditional meal was outmoded or forgotten.

Three-quarters of Americans ate last night’s meal at home, according to a yearly survey of the nation’s eating habits released Thursday by the Chicago-based Institute of Food Technologists.

The analysis found that last year, Americans ate a cooked meal at home five times a week, with just 20 percent of adults categorizing the proverbial family dinner as a “rare” occurrence.

“Families eating a meal together is not in decline. These are positive, reassuring findings,” said Christine Bruhn, a food trends analyst with the University of California at Davis.

The origins of the meal itself have changed, however. These days, Mom does not necessarily slave over a hot stove to produce the meatloaf and mashed potatoes — or that savory roast chicken.

The analysis found Americans are dining upon made-from-scratch fare a third of the time, down from 39 percent two years ago. Home cooks also rely upon refrigerated, convenience, takeout or pre-made dinners found in grocery stores or franchises such as Boston Market.

Sales of chilled side dishes such as salads, cut-up fruit or entrees have shot up by 80 percent last year alone, the analysis found, with two-thirds of Americans saying “fresh” is the most important word on a food label.

“These choices are interesting — families favor comfort foods which make takeout seem more homemade,” Mrs. Bruhn said. “And no one should feel guilty about convenience. We have to balance out time and activities in our lives these days, and workable menus are part of that.”

The “demise” of the family dinner was a popular topic in recent decades among academics who framed it as a symbol of declining nuclear families and traditional values. But the demise may be a myth — in recent years, many studies revealed that families continue to dine at home.

Columbia University, in fact, found a 28 percent increase from 1998 to 2004 among teens who said they ate supper with their families at least five nights a week. Columbia also found these teens had better grades and were less likely to drink alcohol, smoke cigarettes or sample marijuana. A University of Minnesota study had similar findings.

In addition, Harvard University researchers found family dinners curbed childhood obesity, and Washington University in St. Louis determined that younger children learned considerable language skills at mealtime.

Whether they bring home pizza or cook up a five-course extravaganza, parents are still responsible for the tone and quality of the evening meal, however, and not everything passes muster.

“The family dinner is good for society and culture — but as long as it’s at home, around a table and not in front of the TV,” Mrs. Bruhn said. “And eat healthy, too. More fruits and vegetables, more calcium-rich foods.”

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