Inequality in the Family Dinner

Family dinners are important for creating family unity, introducing children to news words, viewpoints, and foods, and de-stressing, among other things. But for lower income families there are often times great difficulties in executing family dinners because of a plethora of barriers. Family dinners are riddled with inequalities — from the time they take place, to what food is on the table, and even how the burden of these dinners falls unequally upon women. Individuals and families across America claim that family dinners are often timely, unappreciated, and overall difficult. Lower income Americans, especially, feel that the family dinner is an ideal they can not afford, neither with time, nor money.

However, the family dinner is achievable for all families regardless of their income or circumstance. As a child raised in a one income family, and at times having to rely on SNAP, more commonly known as food stamps, I can testify that family dinners are still possible as they were a legitimate part of my daily routine. A family dinner or shared meal is not just a luxury of upper and middle class life, family dinners are viable for every household.

Historically, family dinner was a luxury only for middle and upper class Americans. In an NPR report Mackensie Griffin explains that family dinners were even unusual in the U.S. before the late 1700s. Families generally did not have enough room in their homes to set aside a space strictly for dining. Homes were designed to use space efficiently, Griffin says that “rooms and tables had multiple uses, and families would eat in shifts, if necessary.” Since space is often limited for low-income families, considering a greater amount of people typically share a smaller living space, the adoption of family dinners by poorer americans has been slow coming.

Thomas Jefferson had a dining room built into his home in 1772. After this, wealthy families followed the trend and it has since slowly trickled down from an characteristic of the upper class to that of most Americans. But, since dining rooms were once only for the rich, the idea that the whole family should eat dinner together is embedded into our society as a middle class value. For the poor and working class this idea was elusive due to the very construction of their homes. But, according to Lisa Wade a sociology professor at Occidental College and author of The Architecture of Gentrification; Or, The Dining Rooms are Coming, dining rooms are now integrative features of an increasing number of homes. This architectural shift hopefully implies a rise in popularity and ease for family dinners. Though, the evolution of the dining room does not lessen other obstacles of inequality, which may restrict the occurrences of family dinners.

During the progressive era (1890–1920’s) poorer Americans were advised to save money on their family dinners by cooking at home, without a full appreciation of this process’s costs. Cooking a family meal becomes especially grueling for the working class who, due to long work hours, are often left with little time or energy to work the “second shift,” one’s duties at home after their job ends for the day. Working-class people are disproportionately single parents so there is even more of a burden on one person’s time and resources. Using cooking at home as a solution for implementing family dinners does not take into account the difficulties of doing so.

Family dinners and home cooking are too often romanticized. Even today images of family dinners in the media often portray women in the kitchen who’ve pulled together a quintessential home cooked meal, roast chicken potatoes and vegetables. But, as most people have experienced, whether tired, busy, or broke, cooking is work and not the effortless image of the delicious final product and happy family which circulates.

An American family, particularly cheery looking at a chicken, sitting down to eat.

Kyla Johnson, a college freshman from Greenwich, CT, reports that her family stopped having family dinners when she was in eighth grade because her parents got divorced and her mother worked late. Though, she appreciates family dinners and expressed a wish for them more frequently. Johnson says:

“I just feel like it’s a nice atmosphere, like when we do come together to eat on holidays it feels really good to have all the family at one place, sharing time and a meal.”

The good thing is that family dinners can happen daily, and not just on special occasions, even though family circumstances may make the process seem more troubling.

A staged image of the modern family dinner is not realistic.

Despite the well known image of the family dinner — a mother and father seated with kids in between and lots of food to enjoy — this is not reality, and that is okay. Families do not look like cookie cutters and family dinners or shared family meals are, realistically, casual affairs.

Since lower income families are under time and resource constraints, family dinner can seem especially burdensome to them. Also, for those living from paycheck to paycheck investing in a large grocery shop, which would aid in pre-planning meals, becomes daunting and impossible, often times this results in the consumption of what is perceived as an accessible food source, fast food.

For this reason The Family Dinner Project, a non-profit at Harvard’s Project Zero Graduate School of Education, is making strides to help all families understand that family dinners are approachable and worth it. Lynn Barendsen, TFDP’s Executive Director says that TFDP is “meeting families where they are.” She recognizes that “it can be incredibly tough to find time to have dinner together, much less find the funds to get a healthy meal on the table.”

While cooking from scratch is typically healthier, cheaper, and better for you than pre made meals not all families have the time, opportunity, or skills to cook them, even if it is just a few times a week. In my childhood, whether my family ate boxed fish fingers or roasted chicken, we were together.What mattered was that we shared a moment of the day, what we shared to eat was less important. In my life regardless of my household composition or financial situation dinner was a time where my family could sit, debrief, and reconnect. Family dinner was not just where we refueled, but where we communicated.

Yes, dinners can be tough to execute because they require effort and some planning, but if a family is invested in the process then troubles will be overshadowed by successes.

Barendsen says that the two key issues cited by families who have trouble with family dinners are that there is “not enough time to get to the table, and limited resources.” To help alleviate this, she states that a new resource by TFDP, Dinner Tonight, is currently being adapted to fit the needs of disadvantaged families, such as those receiving SNAP and WIC benefits. Dinner Tonight functions to create easy and affordable recipes, games, and conversation starters for families to use for family meals, while taking into account other challenges related to those on SNAP and WIC such as inconvenient working hours.

Ajna Kertész an only child who was raised by her single mother and had family meals daily reports:

“My Mom has devoted a lot of time, and it might have resulted in the fact that she had less time to apply for jobs, or to look for more opportunities and make more money, but I don’t think that time is lost that she invested in me, and spending time with me and, I feel like really making me a strong, well rounded, person. Because we talked about various different issues and things, I really, really, appreciate it. And it’s just — I think it’s incredible — that she did that.”

The perception that the family dinner is a five course meal seven days a week must be de-mythed. With this image in mind it is not feasible for any family, no matter their means. Barendsen, says that “families must remain flexible.” If family dinners are not possible she recommends another meal or even a late night snack. “What’s important is finding the time to pause, eat together, talk and enjoy each other’s company. All of the benefits of family dinner — academic, social, emotional, nutritional — can still be reaped.”

The reasons for not having family dinners fail in legitimacy. But, the reasons to have family dinners are clear. While there are inequalities in family dinners it is only because the perception of them is idealized.

The family meal does not have to be grand, it does not even have to occur at dinner time, not everyone will be happy 100 percent of the time, and women should be apart of a collaborative family effort not one which leaves them planning, cooking, and cleaning alone.

Family dinners are not about mimicking an ideal. Family dinners are about nurturing the family through a shared meal. They are a moment where families can come together, an especially important practice in today’s busy society.