But commercially prepared foods do seem to undermine the invaluable family meal.
Between 2001 and 2004, a team of UCLA researchers tracked the lives of 32 dual-earning middle-class families living in Los Angeles. The study's findings appear in the book Fast-Forward Family, from which the following post is adapted.
Americans cling to the ideal of family commensality as an elixir for personal and societal ills (e.g., children's vulnerability to drugs, smoking, and obesity) and as de rigueur for kindling children's school success. Many parents regret that for pragmatic reasons they cannot routinely prepare and enjoy a meal together as a family. They cite busyness -- workplace obligations, children's extracurricular and school activities, and scheduling conflicts -- as occluding this opportunity. Yet the study reveals that the busy lives of family members outside the home are not the only culprit in the saga of the American family dinner. Even when all members of a family were at home, eating dinner together was a challenge in many households. Why?
Two less acknowledged reasons for why family dinners were a challenge for the families stand out: convenience foods filling refrigerators and cupboards supplied individualized snacks and meals for family members; and family dinnertime often gave way to intergenerational conflicts surrounding children's food choices. The consumption of preprepared convenience foods, many of which are packaged as individual meals, stand alongside busy schedules as a root factor in undermining dinner as a family event.
To gain some perspective on the abundance of food in the households of Los Angeles, we briefly turn to another food-loving society, namely, Italy. Italian families tend to have smaller refrigerators (with smaller freezer sections) than are found in most U.S. kitchens. Italian middle-class families typically do not have second refrigerators or freezers. It is hard to tell if refrigerator size organizes grocery shopping habits or the inverse, but Italian families characteristically purchase food more frequently (often daily) and in smaller quantities than was typical of the families we followed in Los Angeles. While neighborhood grocery stores abound and super-sized markets are becoming increasingly popular, they are usually located on the outskirts of Italian towns and are not (yet) ubiquitous. It is common for Italian families to purchase many of their everyday food items at bakeries, fruit and vegetable vendors, butcher shops, fish markets, and open markets.
We were awed by the sheer abundance of food stockpiled in homes.
In contrast, Los Angeles families manifested a different set of food shopping habits. The omnipresence of hypermarkets in Los Angeles prepared researchers to document food purchased in large quantities and packed inside large refrigerators. Despite these expectations, however, we were awed by the sheer abundance of food stockpiled in homes. Parents purchased food in massive quantities. Enormous boxes and plastic-sealed packages of items of the same kind filled kitchens and spilled over into utility rooms and garages. Enormous cases of soda, fruit drinks, and alcoholic beverages occupied floors, shelves, and the tops of refrigerators. Food items came in multiples and giant sizes -- from pancake mix and cereal to popcorn.
What was culturally striking across the households was the abundance of individual-sized packaged foods for children. For example, small packages of cookies, designed for a child's school lunch bag or afternoon snack. The individual packaging itself facilitates a child's consumption of the food item, as there is no need to take, pour, or cut a portion from a larger quantity. In addition, each package holds the child's own portion, obviating the need for napkin or plate. Some child-oriented yogurts and fruit purees, for example, can be squeezed directly into the child's mouth.
Snacks were part and parcel of refueling children after a long, hard day at school and beyond. Everyone knows, however, that eating snacks has consequences later on in the evening when dinner is ready. Consider, for example, what transpired between Susan Marsden and her eight-year- old daughter, Courtney, at dinnertime. Susan had brought home take-out food from a local restaurant for the whole family to eat, but Courtney, watching television and eating a snack, was not interested in joining them:
Susan: Hey lounge lizard.
Susan: You want, um,--want something to eat?
Courtney: No. I don't like [name of restaurant].
Susan: I didn't get [name of restaurant], and what are you eating now? Goldfish again?
Susan: So what do you want? Salad and a quesadilla?
Courtney: (Shakes her head) ...
Susan: Come on. (pause) What do you want to eat, I'll make you something to eat and then we're turning off the TV, Courtney.
Susan: What do you want to eat?
Courtney: I don't want anything.
Susan: You don't want, um (pause) a salad or an apple or (pause) what.
Courtney: (Shakes her head)
In this exchange, Susan started out in a lighthearted manner but soon became alarmed that her daughter was eating "Goldfish again," suggesting this snack was habitual. After volunteering to prepare for Courtney what she would like as an alternative to take-out, Courtney responded categorically, "I don't want anything," affirming this once again when her mother proposed some food options. This exchange is emblematic of the state of dinnertime for many families in the United States: children prefer to munch on a snack of their own choosing while engaged in a separate activity of their own choosing, such as watching a television program, rather than join the family around the dinner table.
Margaret Beck documented exactly what families ate for dinner. At first she was surprised that an impressive 73 percent of the weeknight dinners were "home-cooked"! That is, they were prepared by a family member at home. These home-cooked dinners did not include take-out or delivered restaurant food. Mothers (sometimes with assistance of other family members) prepared over 90 percent of the home-cooked meals.