Food & Drink #10: The Family Dinner Table: R.I.P.

10-8-2010 1-03-07 PM

The dinner table has been a shared experience among all humankind since the dawn of time.  It plays a huge part in many religions (i.e. the Seder Meal, The Last Supper, etc.) and has served as integral part of human life in cultures as diverse as the Vikings and The Chinese*..... that is, until the 1970's.

Sure, the cracks were showing as early as the sixties when the TV dinner became semi-popular; but, if you wanted to put a finger on it, you'd have to say it all unraveled in the late seventies.

So, what happened? Why did such an integral part of life go bye-bye? Well, there were a number of reasons, which I will list below.  But let me make it clear that I'm not saying NO ONE eats as a family anymore.  I'm simply saying the undeniable fact that the family at the dinnertable is a rare sight these days.  Here's why.

1.  Women at Work

The number one reason has to be that women entered the workforce.  Now, the women (historically, the ones who prepared the meal) get home at the same time as dad.  There's not much time available to plan, cook and serve a meal at the table.

2.  Fast Food

It's important to note that all the factors listed are not independent.  In other words, the popularity of fast food  came about as a direct result of women entering the workforce (i.e. no available time).  I can remember when an average size city had only one maybe two fast food joint.  Maybe a Burger Chef and a Jack in the Box in a  town of 350,000.  Now, there's one on every corner.  Sonic, McDonald's, Burger King, Taco Bell, Wendy's, Arby's, Hardee's, Long John Silver's, KFC, Crystals, White Castle, Chick-fil-A, Carl's Jr., Subway,.... THEY'RE EVERYWHERE!

3. The Vanishing Nuclear Family

Back in the day, parents stayed together even if they hated each other's guts.  By the 1970's, single parent homes became more and more prevalent. A missing parent often means less time to prepare meals for the family to converge at the dinner table.

4. Television

Okay, if people aren't eating together at the dinner table, where are they eating? Answer: In front of the television.  Without the TV, there's almost no reason NOT to eat at the dinner table, if you get my drift.

Sphere Magazine  July 1973

5. Kids with Schedules

Back in the day, kids played outside and that was it...  maybe an organized sport here and there.  Nowadays, there's this insatiable need to have your kid in every fucking activity known to man.  Baseball practice every other day, soccer practice, Girl Scouts, etc., etc, plus tons of homework.  Quite frankly, it's hard to fit a family meal into these kids' busy schedule!

the dinner party

6. Separate Diets

Dad's on the Atkin's Diet, the kids are picky as hell, and mom is a vegetarian.  It's awfully hard to serve a meal when food isn't just food anymore.

I'm sure there's a host of other reasons.  If you think of one, please throw it in a comment.  I'd be interested to hear your take.

* Yes, I know the ancient Chinese separated the genders at the dinner table. 


  1. I think Dad's Dish recently had this same topic. You are correct in all of these.

    We eat as a family every night, but my wife stays home and homeschools the kids, so that takes care of about 4 items on your list. (1. Women at work, 2. with only one person earning an income we can't afford fast food, 3. we are a nuclear family, and, 5. somewhat, the kids' schedules)

    This doesn't always work, there are times when we have to run a kid off to some practice or something, but in general, we eat together every meal. (I work 10 blocks from the house so I make it home for lunch most days too.) And we don't turn the TV on every day, certainly not before dinner.

  2. I notice that you have misused the term "nuclear family". The expression is used to distinguish a family unit that consists of an adult couple and children, as opposed to an extended family that includes grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, etc. The term was invented to describe the change in lifestyle that occurred as people became more mobile, with extended families no longer living in the same town or general area, and the grandparents of the clan more likely to be found living in a retirement village in Arizona or Florida than with one of their children.

    Over time the term has been misinterpreted by many to mean an inseparable or indivisible family unit, but its meaning is just the opposite--families being reduced to just a core element as opposed to a larger, extended social unit.

    It's like the word nonplussed, which is defined as a state of surprise or perplexity, but today is often misused by people to mean unimpressed.

  3. I'd also put a little of the blame on changing attitudes and the inability of many parents to act like a parent and make their kids come home, sit at the table, put down their goddamn DS or cell phone, and exchange in pleasant conversation.

    I also blame Twitter because it's stupid and should go away. But that's just me.

  4. Thanks for the correction oxbargle. Point noted.

    And, yes armpit, twitter is to blame for this and all the world's ills. Twitter sucks balls.

    Robert, you realize you are the exception not the rule, right?

  5. Yes, I am aware of that. Every time we go visit anyone.

  6. Great insights. I agree that all those reasons contribute to the problem, but I think the TV and computers are one of the biggest culprits. I have to pry kids off their computers to come to dinner, and my wife has to do the same thing to me since I'm always reading Retrospace instead of sitting up to the table.

  7. I would agree with almost everything here, although in this day and age a kid with a schedule of actual "activities" is almost a novelty, considering the pointless digital gadgets discussed above. Great images as always, too, especially the preppy teenager in the polo shirt who has her collar up. I miss those days!

  8. Gilligan! This is one of the most important pieces of sociology I've seen in the blogoshpere. I especially loved how you mentioned that "back in the day" we kids just played outside. That was about it and we sure were happier, I know for a fact. Now if only I can get away from Retrospace to go to the dining room table.....

  9. Also, IMO, during the late 70s on, apartment living became more of a function of a place to sleep, a place to clean up before work, and a place to watch TV. Precious little else. Case in point, my apartment. It's a 2 bedroom unit constructed in the late 70s, with the living room being approximately 15'x20', with a "dining" area about 5'x8'.

    Very little space for a table, let alone seating a family of 3-4 around said table, especially when you consider the kitchen is only slightly larger at 5'x15'. Not enough storage for all your dishes and proper cooking utensils, food and all that.

    So the next thing that comes to mind is that the kitchen was not in any way intended to be a place to make large meals, each counter about 4 square feet, which if you cook from scratch means you're SOL for prep space. And you'd have to be a Felix Unger grade neat freak to keep the place clean and clutter free to utilize that space.

    This means they likely didn't actually intend anyone to use it for other than making hamburger helper (and the later tuna helper and chicken helper), and expected most to just throw up their hands, nuke a TV dinner and sit in front of the TV without talking to each other.

    Of course I could just be jaded because I'm used to eating alone, for the last 18 years of Thanksgiving alone, I'd roast the turkey and stuffing, cut it up and put it on a plate, then retreat to my room to browse the internet or watch TV while eating.

  10. Working hours ! http://www.statcan.gc.ca/daily-quotidien/030911/c030911b.gif