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.