The Mac-and-Cheese Effect

Why family dinner makes working parents (especially moms) feel better.

The family dinner is ambrosia and nectar and manna, too, researchers have long told us. It helps prevent teenagers from abusing drugs and alcohol or smoking, and it protects them from stress, asthma, and eating disorders. It boosts kids’ reading scores and grades. By the time all the virtues of dinner togetherness have been extolled, you can only feel that if you love your kids, you have to get home in time to sauté the stir fry. You might even cut back to working part time to force-feed them falafel, as law professor Cameron Stracher relates in a book he published last year. Or you can resolve to spend Sundays shopping and serving as your own sous-chef, as the New York Times’ Leslie Kaufman outlines here.

Actually, the link between family dinner and idyllic child-rearing is a little more complicated than our collective bending of the knee might suggest. It may be that family dinner appears to shine because parents who eat with their kids also stuff them with other forms of enrichment. Or that the benefits come not from dinner per se but from the quality of the conversation that takes place at the table (and, in theory, could happen at any time of day). Are you talking as well as listening, answering queries (“What a good question!”), and telling stories that naturally lead to useful lessons and bits of information? For more on just how the benefits of the family dinner unfold, listen to this NPR piece.

Good, you’re back, and now that the kids are out of the way, let’s think about some other members of the family: ourselves. What do parents get out of family dinner? Is it all intellectual and emotional milk and honey for them, too? Or is having dinner with your kids a chore, one more sacrifice of peace, quiet, and cabernet for their sake?

Happily, according to a new study, family dinner appears to be good for parents, too. The research by lead author Jenet Jacob of Brigham Young University found that among 1,580 parents who worked at IBM, those who said their jobs interfered less with being home for dinner tended to feel greater personal success, and success in relationships with their spouses and their children. The working parents—both mothers and fathers—had all of these buoyant feelings if they made it home for dinner more regularly, even if they still worked long hours. They also felt more kindly toward their workplace. Parents who missed dinner at home because of work, on the other hand, felt gloomy about their professional futures. “It is noteworthy that although longer work hours predicted significantly greater perception of success in work life, work interference with dinnertime predicted lower perception of success in work life,” Jacob and her co-author write.

I revel in this kind of study because it confirms my pet biases. I hate never-ending workdays. Kids or no kids, they are grueling, and I don’t really believe that most people get much more work accomplished in 10 or 12 hours than they do in eight. (Or six? Oof, I feel a coffee-break urge coming on.)

Also (warning: smugness alert), I think my family runs smoothly, to the extent that it does, in large part because we share the middle-evening hours. I’m not sure we hit the teachable-moment jackpot a lot. We’re more likely to remind our kids endlessly about why they can’t put their feet on the table and wipe their mouths on their shirts. But the other night I did notice that a story I told about the Polish foreign minister led Eli and Simon to ask what a foreign minister does, who the secretary of state is, how that job is different from being an ambassador, and, finally, who ambassadors work for—the State Department or the White House. At which point I learned something, too—or, at least, I did five minutes ago when I looked up the answer (the State Department).

To make up for straying so far into smug territory, I’ll note that we were eating at a pizza place when this conversation took place. Another new study by Tammy Allen, a psychology professor at the University of Florida, finds that telecommuting is associated with fewer family dinners that consist of fast food. If you can work at home, you can cook. This isn’t my excuse, I confess. I just run out of energy at some point in the week. I took heart that even Kaufman, who seems uber-organized and dedicated to a point beyond reach, admits that after making it to Tuesday with her weekend prep cooking, she comes up with a quickie meal on Wednesday and then calls timeout on Thursday for take-out night. Phew.

In my less-impressive homemaking, every week includes a meal of basic bean burritos and even more basic pasta. And maybe that’s a good thing, because my family fits the familiar time-use pattern: My husband pulls his weight in many ways, but he doesn’t take primary responsibility for shopping and making dinner. He assists. And so I understand the wary skepticism of Wall Street Journal blogger Sue Shellenbarger, who writes in response to Jacob’s findings, “As someone who’s been in charge of family dinners for many years, I’d argue that dinners hold no magical power to vaccinate mothers against stress. In fact, the opposite may seem true to many women who still shoulder nearly all the work required to get dinner on the table.” Excellent reason to keep it simple.

And then, it seems, we should hang in there, not only for our kids but because a hassled family dinner is apparently better for mothers than no family dinner at all. The women Jacob studied reported that family dinner helped them feel less work-family conflict, even if they still worked long hours. Men didn’t share in this reaction, on average. It would surely be a good thing if more fathers got a similar lift from walling off the dinner hour from the office. But for now, I’m glad that at least we mothers do.

Periodically my husband and I talk about instituting a weeknight off from family dinner—one in which we put the kids to bed and then cook ourselves something fancier. But we rarely manage it. I’m too addicted to cleaning up the kitchen and moving on with my evening. That may be just as well. Jacob points out that research about other habit-forming behavior shows a noticeable jump in the effect of doing something fewer than three times a week and doing it three or more times. Regularity matters. Maybe the family dinner is all about getting into a rhythm: a steady drumbeat of mess, munching, and musing. Tonight, Simon said, “I don’t hate tomatoes. I just don’t like them.” Then he ate a slice of one. And a piece of cucumber with sea salt. It made my end of day.