For Cathy and Bill Powell, finding a time when all three of their children are home for dinner can be like working a Rubik’s Cube. A recent Monday was typical: Valerie, 9, got home from dance class at 6:35. Brian, 10, had to leave for Boy Scouts at 6:50. That left 15 minutes to sit down for tacos.
“I actually have to take all their schedules and make calendars and put things in different colors,” said Mrs. Powell, of Wantagh, N.Y.
Still, she said, the effort is worth it. “It’s crazy, but having dinner together reinforces the family unit,” she said. “That’s when we get to hear about their day. We ask them questions, and the other two can’t butt in.”
After decades of decline in the simple ritual of family dinners, there is evidence that many families are making the effort to gather at the dinner table. A random nationwide survey by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University found a recent rise in the number of children ages 12 to 17 who said they ate dinner with their families at least five times a week, to 58 percent last year from 47 percent in 1998.
Getting everyone around the table can be a huge juggling exercise for overworked parents and overscheduled children. But many parents are marshaling their best organizational skills to arrange dinners at least once a week.
“There’s definitely an awareness that was not there a few years ago,” said Miriam Weinstein, author of “The Surprising Power of Family Meals: How Eating Together Makes Us Smarter, Stronger, Healthier and Happier” (Steer Forth Press, 2005). “All the factors that have been working against family dinners are still in full force, but it’s very much a subject on people’s minds.”
Richard D. Mulieri, a spokesman for the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, agreed.
“People are really starting to understand that this is an important thing,” he said. “Families that do have dinner together often are families whose parents are fully engaged with their kids. We’re certainly not back to ‘Leave It to Beaver’ and ‘Father Knows Best,’ but it’s heading in that direction.”
The benefits of family dinners have been heralded for years by social scientists. A number of studies show that children who eat dinner with their families regularly are less likely to get involved with drugs and alcohol than those who do not. They also tend to get better grades, exhibit less stress and eat better.
The study by the Columbia center showed that compared with teenagers who have five or more family dinners a week, those who have two or less are three times as likely to try marijuana, two and half times as likely to smoke cigarettes and one and half times as likely to try alcohol.
Virtually every state in the nation has endorsed the center’s initiative to encourage families to eat dinner together on the fourth Monday of September. Grass-roots efforts by individual communities to do the same — selecting a night months in advance that is free of homework, school meetings and sports practices — have also gained momentum, with Ridgewood, N.J., holding its fifth annual family night last month.
In perhaps the surest sign of a gathering movement, corporations are jumping on the family-dinner bandwagon. The maker of Crisco, J. M. Smucker Company, recently sponsored a “Family Dinner Challenge,” with a $10,000 prize for the best home video showing parents and children assembled at the dinner table. The cable networks Nick at Nite and TV Land have run public service announcements urging families to break bread together.
Some parents say that for everyone to eat together, something else has to give.
Jean Tatge, vice president for development at the Municipal Art Society, a planning and preservation group in Manhattan, said she never got home before 7 p.m. Add to that her family’s divergent tastes in food. Her husband, Phil Collis, senior art director at Harper Collins Publishers, is a vegetarian. She and her sons, Aidan, 12, and Jack, 13, are not.
“We try to have dinner together every night, and sometimes that means not eating until 9 o’clock,” said Ms. Tatge, who lives on the Upper East Side. “But I think it’s really important. We always have candlelight. It sets the mood and calms everyone down.”
Like other parents, Ms. Tatge said she had fond childhood memories of family dinners. “I came from a family of seven, and we had dinner together every night on the dot of 7:30,” she said. “This is really the only time that I can catch up with my kids on what happened at school that day.”
Other parents say that depending on the season, nightly dinners can be almost impossible to pull off. Fall is the worst time for Gary and Pam Garstkiewicz of Haddonfield, N.J., who have two boys, 4 and 7. That is when the older boy, Jason, plays football, with practices three evenings a week, from 6 to 7:30. Mr. Garstkiewicz coaches. “Pam and I aren’t always ready to eat dinner at 5,” he explained.
Still, the family manages to eat together at least five nights a week most of the year.
But it may be the last time that the Garstkiewiczes can manage to dine together as often as they do. As children grow older, after-school activities not only proliferate but may also run later.
When planning dinner, Dana Levenberg, a Westchester County homemaker active in her community, notably as president of the Ossining Council of P.T.A.’s, has long had to grapple with her schedule of night meetings. (Her husband, Stephen Hersh, has a more predictable routine for work, so his schedule is less of an issue.)
But now her sons’ evenings are starting to fill up. On Monday and Wednesday, the boys, Eli, 8, and Caleb, 10, have classes in tae kwon do from 5:45 to 7:30. On Thursday, Caleb has a piano lesson from 6 to 6:45. She, too, has pushed the dinner hour back. “We’ve ended up eating later and later,” she said. “Sometimes my kids eat dinner and then go to bed.”
For a long time, fewer families shared meals. Thomas H. Sander, executive director of the Saguaro Seminar: Civic Engagement in America, a research project of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, has tracked an internal marketing study conducted by DDB Worldwide, an advertising agency. He found that the number of married respondents who “definitely” agreed that “our whole family usually eats dinner together” has fallen markedly in the past 30 years.
But the decline may have bottomed out or even begun to turn around, as suggested by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse survey. The low point for family dinners in the DDB study occurred in 2003, and the percentage of respondents who said they “definitely” agreed has since risen slightly.
Marcia Marra, a parent in Ridgewood, N.J., has tried to do her part to promote the trend, helping to start the annual family night there in 2002. She worked with school officials and community leaders to suspend baseball practices, book clubs and Girl Scout meetings to allow a night of downtime and dinner together. The effort has since spread to a half-dozen other communities in Bergen County.
After the first night in 2002, and a deluge of news media attention, Ms. Marra received inquiries from towns across the country. She created a Web site, readysetrelax.org, and, with a grant from Hasbro, put together free information kits. She has sent out 350 kits to communities from Kentucky to Oregon.
Many families, of course, have scheduling conflicts that are insurmountable. But some have learned to adapt. In Maplewood, N.J., Marianne Pappalardo’s two sons, Christopher, 14, and Nicholas, 16, are ravenous by 6 p.m. But her husband, Salvatore, with whom she also has two grown children who live on their own, gets home from work between 8 and 9.
So Mrs. Pappalardo, a substitute teacher whose great passion is cooking, prepares an elaborate dinner for herself and her sons. (Veal Bolognese and mustard-and-herb chicken were recent offerings.) When Mr. Pappalardo sits down to dinner — around 8:45 — their sons interrupt their homework and visit with him while he eats.
“The boys are usually looking for a break anyway,” Mrs. Pappalardo said. “They adore their father and it’s the only time during the week that they get to talk to him. The meal is such an important part of our lives.”