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Are family sit-down dinners obsolete?

Published October 19. 2013 09:00AM

When I watch "House Hunters" on HGTV, I listen as buyers list what they want in a home. A big dining room is usually high on the list.

Often, a couple will say the dining room isn't big enough to seat all their friends or family members. They always make it sound as if they frequently will be feeding crowds.

It sounds romantic to say you're going to entertain a lot with dinners in your lovely dining room. But life gets in the way with all of its demands and time constraints.

What I often hear from women is that the formal dining room doesn't get used much. Many say they only use the dining room when family arrives for the holidays.

Others admit their dining room table is a gathering place for mail and papers. They claim their dining room table is used for everything except food.

Are dining rooms becoming obsolete?

Here's a related question: Are family sit-down dinners obsolete?

"Anyone with several kids who play sports can't get the family to sit down and eat at the same time. We mostly eat on the run," said one busy mother of three.

While "eating on the run" might be fairly typical, it's not the case in every home. Many parents make family meals a priority, relishing the time to sit together for a meal while they share their day.

I grew up in a home like that. When I married and had a family of my own, family dinners with everyone chatting around the table was a treasured tradition. Despite their hectic schedules, it's still a family tradition for my adult children.

Growing up in my Italian family, we understood family dinners involved more than eating food. It meant lively conversation and sharing stories. No one rushed away from the table when we were finishing eating.

When anyone came to visit, they were brought to the table, plied with food and made part of the family.

I never thought of us as being "noisy" until I brought my friend Jackie to dinner. She lived only with her aunt and said dinner was always a quiet affair.

"I thought every home was like that until I came here," she said.

Some do, indeed, think dinnertime should be quiet, with only an occasion clink of a fork. I once had a male visitor who left the table because he wasn't used to hearing people talk during dinner. No one could talk at his family's dinner table, he said. But they could read a book.

We all have different ideas about what a family dinner should be. To a great extent, my gregarious Italian family shaped my idea of dinnertime.

In our family, we love to cook and we love to eat. Even more, we love being at the table with friends and loved ones. The more the merrier. There is no great formality. Just good food and good times.

Here's a story about my grandmother's idea of entertaining. She never thought she "entertained." She just cooked the best Italian food ever and loved feeding others. To her, that wasn't "entertaining."

One day when I visited her she told me my grandfather was bringing the county judge, district attorney and several others to dinner.

I looked at the table she had set and was horrified. "None of your plates match and no two glasses are alike," I commented as I looked in her china cabinet trying to find matching dishes.

She gave me some choice words in Italian then said: "No one is coming to eat my plates. They are coming to eat the food." With that, she went back to stirring her homemade sauce.

I think she must have invented the "don't stand on ceremony" philosophy.

When the entire extended family gathered at her house for a family dinner, there were so many of us we needed the "table" stretched into three rooms. My grandmother simply set up folding chairs and put white tablecloths over wooden planks.

Yet, those family dinners are some of my most cherished moments.

There are plenty of studies that show the hidden benefits of families eating together. Along with the health benefits, there is the benefit of closeness and connecting with each other. In this age of computers, video games and busy schedules, that's more important than ever.

One mother got agitated when a few of us were talking about the importance of family dinners. "Are you kidding? I'm lucky I get food on the table," she said. "Some nights it's just cereal."

Like many other mothers, she is always starved for time. Maybe having a Sunday dinner together would work.

In the past, Sunday dinner was a revered time for many families. Not just the immediate family was involved. Family members "went home" to Mom's house for family dinner.

A mom is often the glue that holds a family together. And some sibling togetherness for adult children is strengthened over festive family dinners.

They say nothing tastes as good as a memory.

And perhaps memories of past family dinners are better than the actual dinners were. But that's the point.

Building good memories is part of family life.

A lot of things may change as we age but those fond memories never lose their sweet taste.

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