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Cathy Robbins Thinking Aloud

San Francisco Chronicle

Family dinner hour 'sacrosanct' in White House, our house


A New Yorker story recently described the first family's dinner hour as "sacrosanct." As I have learned, our own family's dinner hour has resonated across time, space and generations. The conversation began innocuously enough on my daughter Carla's Facebook page.

"I have always felt it was important to get a nice dinner on the table for my family, but recently I am wondering if the effort is worth it," she posted. Then Carla sparked an ember that within hours spread across cyberspace: "My high school friends will recall the sacred 'dinner hour' at 224-12th St." (This was our home in Albuquerque, where Carla and her brother, Nick, grew up a couple of blocks from what have become memorable "Breaking Bad" locales - like the Pinkmans' house.)

Comments from friends around the country came quickly.

One classmate, Jenna, wrote: "I modeled our dinner hour after your family! Even as a kid I was impressed with your family's commitment, especially as my family rarely ate together. That said I cannot pull it off every night. I shoot for four nights/week where we sit, talk and have no other distractions (no reading, etc). Thanks for reminding me that it was the Robbins family that planted this seed!!"

Our dinner hour continued my Italian family's practice of eating together every night - plus big gatherings on Sunday afternoons. For our own dinner hour, the time between 6 and 7 p.m. was inviolable - as in "sacrosanct" - and all my kids' friends knew about it. No phone calls, but the friends had a standing invitation to join us. Besides the meal, the table was set for our humanity; we talked, laughed, fought, yelled and even cried. So indelible was the dinner hour that Carla wrote about it for a college admission essay.

Leah, a close childhood friend, chimed in: "My mom was super militant about the family dinner and she was an amazing cook who had the time to plan lovely dinners so it always worked out. I loved it and remembered it fondly with the goal in mind to replicate. However my babysitter leaves at 5 p.m., and I am a decent cook who basically has an hour and change to whip something together for the family. I am with Jenna, in that my goal is try to do proper family dinner three to four times a week, and the rest of the time we wing it. If Mike is on the road like this week, I cook for the kids but eat my dinner standing at the kitchen counter."

LeeAnn not only seconded the family dinner but also included a link to "The Family Dinner Box of Questions," available on Amazon. We had nothing quite so organized, although we regularly turned on the news, which, in our flyover time zone and before CNN, came on at 6 p.m. Once my husband idly asked our then-first-grade daughter who was the father of our country, and she answered, "Walter Cronkite."
Andrew wrote of painful moments: "We try every night, but someone always sits with kids and eats something - maybe cheese and crackers - even if we are going out. Although it can be upward of a long hour and sometimes ends with my face in my hands saying 'Please, for the love of God, finish your milk.' No one leaves the table until the last person is done."

Karen offered an idea: "Get the older kids to plan and cook dinner one night/week. You get a break and they learn how to cook! My daughters are great chefs now because I started them early." (I did this; now grown, both my kids are terrific cooks.)
Patrick, who lived around the corner, admitted imperfection: "I remember your family's dinner hour. I always thought it was great. We have the same thing now in my house, only it is more like 15-20 minutes." (Not to worry, Patrick. If we finished dinner before 7, the sacred hour could end early. As Carla and Nick grew up, they often had after-school activities, but I tried to get us down for dinner before or after those.)

Meredith, also from around the corner, different house, is having doubts: "I recently started working full time and still manage to cook dinner for everyone most nights. I have wondered, though, about how to get out of it!! What does everyone do if you don't do a family meal? I also love the idea of having your kiddos plan and cook. I have great memories of all our cooking adventures together!"

In a later post, she reported on a family dinner game. "We did a little vocab quizzing at our dinner last night. Word: prodigious. Ethan 'Big, like your butt.' "

Jocelyn reported on new findings that she had read about: "Big ongoing study written up recently on kids' emotional resilience, security, etc. Turns out that sit-down dinner, and any number of structures we feel pressure to execute in our lives, not so important. What mattered exceedingly was a having a shared family narrative, an understanding of family stories and identity, and that kids were brought into the narrative actively. Kids who have this, do much better in all kinds of scenarios. Yay! Dinner could definitely be a great vehicle for that, but there are many ways to create. " (For those who were guilting on this.)

Carla asked, "Is the dinner hour a thing of the past?"

Juliette answered, "I say keep it alive!"
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