Tuesday, August 11, 2020 -
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Shabbat dinner: the real ‘Happy Meal’

They’re everywhere, like a scene out of a bad sci-fi horror flick. Under beds, behind couches, wedged between seats of SUVs. No, I’m not talking about invading aliens. I’m talking about Polly Pocket, G.I. Joe and the rest of the fast-food toy family! So rampant, in fact, are these plastic playthings that studies show one in three toys received by an American child is delivered via a drive-thru window.

Unfortunately, the preponderance of Happy Meals in modern kids’ lives represents far more than an onslaught of cheap imported action figures. It represents the demise of the old-fashioned family dinner.

Just how close to brontosaurus status is the family dinner? So close that in 2001, the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) and Coca-Cola teamed up to launch an annual “Family Day,” designed to encourage families to sit down and eat dinner together on the fourth Monday in September.

The government even provided a list of tips and suggestions for parents on facilitating this annual event: eat dinner together; during dinner, turn off the TV, and talk and listen to each other; involve the entire family in planning and cooking the meal.

“Families from any older generation would surely laugh at a government issued annual family dinner prescription,” say the researchers at Emory University’s MARIAL Center for the Study of Myth and Ritual In American Life, whose studies on the importance of family dinners and storytelling have attracted the attention of national publications, including The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, USA Today and Newsweek.

“The ‘helpful guidelines’ and ‘15 tips’ on how to enjoy family meals on a regular basis would seem as absurd to some as a manual instructing Americans on how to get dressed.”

Yet it seems that such a specific decree is exactly what modern families need. Statistics show that kids today spend double the time they did a decade ago doing schoolwork and taking part in organized activities. In other words, who’s got time to gather the gang for a hot-dog hoedown when you’re schlepping from school to tutoring to piano to soccer to kiddie stress management workshops?

Family dinners are nice, you may be thinking. But government mandates, major corporate involvement, research centers devoted almost exclusively to studying them — isn’t it all a tad extreme?

It certainly might appear that eating a plate of pasta with our kids is an insignificant event in the scheme of things, but a plethora of recent research suggests that simple family dinners may in fact be among our most powerful parenting tools toward ensuring our children’s present and future well-being.

Studies show that kids whose families have regular meals together tend to have higher self-esteem, interact better with their peers and show higher resilience in the face of adversity (according to a 2003 Emory University study by Marshall Duke and Robyn Fivush).

CASA and other researchers found family dinners to be the single most significant defense against smoking, drinking, illegal drug use, experimentation with sex, even fistfights among children.

Still other studies indicate regular family mealtimes are linked with kids who are more emotionally content, work harder and perform better in school, have better social skills and healthier eating habits.

Perhaps the most glorious rewards of the family dinner, however, are those that can’t be measured: the happy buzz of stories passing between parent and child; kids wrapped securely in the familiar comforts of home.

As family dinners progressively disappear from the modern kid’s radar screen, experts fear so too will their bountiful benefits.

One of the most marvelous aspects of Jewish tradition is its ability to guide, protect and strengthen us at times when we need it most.

As if our forefathers could see eons into the future —  knowing their ancestors would one day be faced with the invasion of the Happy Meal toy — they too gave us a prescription for a family dinner.

Only instead of designating the fourth Monday in September for this gastronomic gathering, they mandated that we share an enjoyable, resilience-building, self-esteem-fostering, social skill-enhancing, nutritionally advantageous, spiritually uplifting family dinner every single Friday night.

And we can bet it’s no coincidence that studies show one family dinner a week is just enough to put the magic into motion.

As our sages clearly knew, and researchers are only beginning to document, the weekly Shabbat dinner is far more than challah, baked chicken and matzo ball soup. It is a vehicle for releasing our kids from the dangerous clutches of Ronald McDonald. It is a means of keeping our families safe, sane and happy in a stressful, frenetically paced 21st-century world.

It is a G-d-given tool for ensuring our children’s future—our future—is as warm and bright as the glowing Sabbath candles.

(For more information on the importance of family dinners, check out the MARIAL Web site.)

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