The problem with supper time

. February 28, 2013.

When I was growing up, meals made memories.

I remember my aunt’s sponge cake and my uncle’s homemade salami. My mother, a head cook in a local restaurant, rightfully gained a following for her lasagna and other Italian delicacies. She was also the woman who made tuna noodle casserole one night without the tuna or the noodles, so she had her limits. Still, some of my fondest memories — including the inedible casserole — were rooted around the kitchen table, eating meals as a family.

I recall those meals being shared at ‘normal’ dinner times. These days, however, normal is whatever works.
At my house, dinner is whenever we are all together. Often, this means that as early as 3 pm we have a meal ready to go. Very rarely does the dinner bell ring much past 4:30 pm on school days. Between ballet, karate, guitar and other activities, it’s nearly impossible to have a sit-down meal at the socially acceptable times of 5, 6 or 7 pm. Instead, dinner is sometimes eaten while doing homework and signing permission slips.

It is definitely an unconventional approach, but one that works for us. While they eat, my daughters can tell us about their day — the positive and the negative — and ask questions. I hear all about their playground posses and who made the spelling bee. By 7 p.m. my kids are hungry again, and we have what we jokingly call a second sitting, which is more like a heavy snack.

I used to feel bad about serving dinner so early, but various studies tout the importance of eating dinner together as a family. Beyond the social aspect of actually spending time together, families who eat together often eat better. There tends to be more of a focus on nutrition and mindful eating. A recent study, however, says it’s not so much eating dinner together as spending any kind of time together that bonds families.

Researchers at the University of Minnesota, in a study published last year, found that dinner served as a connection ritual. One positive link between family meals and children’s well-being that lasted into the teen years was a decrease in depression, perhaps because family mealtime helped in monitoring the adolescent minefield.

Not everyone leads a “Leave It to Beaver” lifestyle, however — I really doubt even The Beav did.

Growing up, my father worked swing shifts. He wasn’t home promptly at 5 p.m., handing his briefcase over to my mother and asking what was for supper. I’m sure there were many times he was not at our family table. I don’t remember those. I do remember when he was there, which might have only been a night or two a week during the plant’s busy time.

Now, as parents, we all do what we can. Between jobs and after school activities and homework, it is increasingly rare to sit down for dinner at the same time each night. I’ve realized that meal time, rather than the time of the meal, is what is most important. And those meals will make memories for my children no matter what time of day they are eaten.