In the old days, my life looked like something this: Rush from work to pick up my son from his after-school program, rush home to make him dinner, coordinate with my husband, coordinate with the sitter, rush back out to work, and then — on the rare days of the week when our staggered schedules fell into place — sit down at the table for family dinner. In other words, my life resembled many American lives, a game of logistical whack-a-mole punctuated by stolen moments of joy and togetherness. Who was I stealing them from? I don't know: The Man? The system? The great eyeball tracking my productivity from the sky? Anyway, they were mine, bright and dear.
Now I don’t rush anywhere, and our work schedules are coordinated between the couch and the dining room table, enjoying a second career as the dining room desk. I don’t think we’ll be having guests over any time soon. I’m supposed to be teaching my son math using Kafkaesque apps with instructions written by people who need to download the literacy apps I’m also supposed to be using. But external expectations have otherwise been curtailed, and here we are every night, together.
It’s a bright spot. Dinner itself isn’t anything special. Having it is special enough. Sometimes we eat at the table. Sometimes we eat on the couch in front of the TV. Sometimes we play Uno. We eat simple things: pasta, chicken, a different assemblage of leftovers for each person, adjusted for likes and dislikes. One person hates shrimp, one person hates greens, one person hates waste and eats the unwanted remains. Simple things are all we can stomach for this big reveal of the American illusion: inequality for all, with the price tags switched out on the labor and services we should value the most. If it comes as a surprise, we’ve ignored two centuries of unsubtle foreshadowing.
When I try to pinpoint what this moment feels like, I keep returning to that epic battle scene at the end of the movie, when we watch our friends fall all around us in slow motion. What does eating dinner together have to do with anything?
It is what we have. At funerals, we eat.
Decades of scientific research have shown the benefits of having family dinner. This isn’t any secret. It just took a pandemic and the near-shutdown of society to actually make it happen.
Before quarantine, more than 90 percent of parents believed eating together was a good idea, but 40 to 50 percent of families managed to do so, says Anne Fishel, associate professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School and director of the Family and Couples Therapy Program at Massachusetts General Hospital. Fishel cofounded the Family Dinner Project, a nonprofit based at MGH’s Psychiatry Academy, 10 years ago as a way to help make those dinners more accessible and doable for everyone.
In more normal times, the benefits of family dinner fall into three buckets, she says: body, mind, and emotions. Home-cooked meals tend to be healthier, which leads to lower rates of obesity throughout childhood, better cardiovascular health in young teenagers, and better control of asthma symptoms. Kids take those healthy eating habits with them into adulthood. Children who have regular family dinners do better in school; mealtime conversation is a bigger boost for vocabulary than reading aloud. And they are more resilient, with lower rates of substance abuse, eating disorders, depression, and anxiety.
Are we getting all that when we eat together now? It is hard to know. “I think that family dinners must be protective right now,” Fishel says. (The Family Dinner Project has a “Stuck at Home Guide to Food, Fun and Conversation” and other useful resources on its website.)
It’s something. “It’s a big something,” she says. “If families are pulling off one shared meal together, and during that meal everybody has a chance to talk and feel listened to, and it’s a time of day everybody looks forward to and maybe has a few laughs, that will be an enormous help during this pandemic.”
For me, this feels deeply true. That’s not the case for everyone. I think of a dear friend, a wonderful cook who is avoiding the kitchen as much as possible, because he lives alone right now and wishes it were otherwise. And I think of those who bring to the table fraught, painful, or threatening relationships. Those who don’t have enough to eat. Those who face a newly empty seat. The idea of “family dinner” can remind us of what we have, and also what we don’t.
My bright side may be your dark side. Because that’s the thing about this pandemic: It’s not the great equalizer, as some have said. It’s the great illuminator. It shows where we are the same, and where we are different. How much of it is luck.
On days when bad news reaches inside our doors and touches us, I try to soften it by cooking something everyone will enjoy. We sit at the kitchen table, set with napkins and everything, as if we were civilized people rather than animals huddling together for warmth. We pour the wine, we have a salad, we plan the “coronavirus is over” party my son is looking forward to, where he can see his older sisters once again in real life.
I wish my stepdaughters were at the table with us. I wish I knew when I’d see my parents again. I wish my nephew hadn’t celebrated his 11th birthday in quarantine. I wish a whole lot of things. But I am grateful for the time together.