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Families That Eat Together Get More Than a Meal : Custom: It may not be homemade, but most say they regularly have dinner together, enjoying communication as well as nutritional benefits.

THE EMBATTLED FAMILY: The Times Orange County Lifestyle Poll. Fourth of five parts.

July 07, 1993|JULIE BAWDEN DAVIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When Deborah Runner recalls meals of her youth, she remembers full-course, homemade dinners and fancy Sunday luncheons.

Today the Laguna Hills working mother of three doesn't cook a full meal from scratch every night, but she does make sure that the entire family shows up for dinner, whatever dinner may be.

"My husband, Tim, and I are firm believers in the family dinner," says Runner, who has two daughters, age 10 and 12, and an 18-year-old son.

Despite the scheduling pressures most households face, the family meal hasn't lost its appeal. It is a tradition that can anchor the day for a family and help parents feel connected to their own childhoods as well as to their children.

Two-thirds of respondents in the Times Family Poll said their families regularly eat dinner together.

"Eating together on a regular basis gives children a sense of security, which is very important in an insecure and scary world," says Donald Smith, a clinical psychologist and marriage, family, child counselor in Orange. "It also offers everyone a chance to discuss issues that might never get talked about otherwise."

Family dinners have important nutritional benefits as well.

"Eating supper together helps establish good eating habits," says Newport Beach registered dietitian Michelle Pawlak, who often works with couples and families regarding healthy eating plans.

"When parents demonstrate that eating healthy, balanced, planned meals is important, children carry those habits into adulthood."

While the benefits of the traditional family dinner are still within reach, the particulars of mealtime in the '90s have changed.

"The 'Happy Days' dinner of the 1950s is gone forever," Smith says. "Instead of trying to emulate the dinners of your youth, which will just lead to disappointment, accept today's dinner for what it is--a transient meal that embodies many different family structures. Today we have step-, adopted, foster and single-parent families, to name a few."

For the '90s, the key word is scheduling, Smith says. "If you don't make dinner a priority by putting it in your calendar, it's not likely to happen."

Each family needs to find its own workable schedule. While some manage meals together daily, others make it work just on weekdays or just weekends.

Nothing says the shared meal must be supper, either. If you can't get together for dinner, try planning breakfast or lunch, Smith suggests.

The family meal should be a calm, pleasurable experience that everyone looks forward to. If the time is spent arguing, the benefits of togetherness won't be realized, and there will be upset stomachs rather than healthy digestion.

"Families need to use this time positively," Smith says. "Let every member share what is going on in his or her life without any judgment or criticism."

Mealtime is a good time to cut off outside distractions such as television.

"Not only does TV inhibit conversation, studies have shown that eating in front of the TV can promote overeating and lead to obesity," Pawlak says.

To prevent the family dinner from becoming a stale experience, Smith suggests sometimes eating outside of the dining room.

"In many cases a non-formal setting is good because it encourages spontaneity and communication," he says. "Try eating in the back yard or even in other rooms of the house." Smith has even recommended that families having trouble with individual children eat dinner in that child's room.

"This helps with children who feel out of place in the home and are having trouble communicating with their parents," he says. "The family helps set up and clean up, but the child is the host. This tends to be a very positive experience that often gets him or her to open up and feel more a part of the family."

If your children are older, having them do some of the cooking is another way to add interest to mealtime and enhance their sense of place in the family.

"Letting older, more responsible children cook dinner is a great way to teach them good, healthy eating habits and how to cook," Pawlak says.

Even younger children can get involved with meal preparation if they are given simple tasks.

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