Developing good taste begins at dinnertime

I’d say that on average, my family ate dinner together five nights per week when I was growing up. My mother, a cook, made everything from scratch; our plates were always colorful. I realize now that these meals were the Petri dish where our personal and shared tastes and identities were cultivated together. I can’t overstate what a positive influence this had on my childhood. The significance of that foundation has inspired my eating habits as an adult.

Family commensality is an elixir for personal, societal, and health ills, as well as kindling children’s school success. It saddens me to hear that communal dinnertime is turning into a thing of the past. Parents often regret that for pragmatic reasons – workplace obligations, children’s extracurricular and school activities and scheduling conflicts. They cannot routinely prepare and enjoy a meal together as a family. Another study reveals that our reliability on convenience foods might be a bigger culprit.

Between 2001 and 2004, a team of UCLA researchers tracked the lives of 32 dual-earning middle-class families living in Los Angeles. The study’s findings appear in the book “Fast-Forward Family: Home, Work, and Relationships in Middle-Class America.”

The LA families in the study showed specific food shopping habits, which, I think, many Americans can relate to: they went to omnipresent hypermarkets to purchase food in large quantities and packed inside large refrigerators.

An impressive 73 percent of the weeknight dinners were “home-cooked.” But most of these meals contained pre-prepared convenience food items. Only 22 percent of the so-called home-cooked dinners were prepared with little or no convenience foods. That is, only a fraction was made primarily from fresh or raw ingredients.

On the communal side, 77 percent of the families ate dinner together on at least one evening per week. Alternatively, only 17 percent of the families ate dinner all together across three days, and 23 percent of the families never ate all together. In 63 percent of the households, family members ate at different times, or apart from one another in different rooms.

The expectation that individual-sized convenience foods can be heated up and eaten whenever or wherever may encourage those members to eat at different times and places, even when the whole family is at home.

In comparison, Italians another food-loving culture; a society with high statistics in communal dinnertime tend to have smaller refrigerators and freezers than U.S. kitchens. They characteristically purchase food more frequently and in smaller quantities. It’s not uncommon for them to purchase everyday items at bakeries, fruit and vegetable vendors, butcher shops, fish markets and open markets.

Quality, rather than quantity, is their motto. This is very different from the predominant American mind frame. For example, parents tend to concentrate their attention on the nutritional properties of a food item; their vocal preoccupation with foods are what children must eat for health reasons, instead of talking about these foods as delicious and what children want to eat for pleasure.

Italians frequently direct children’s attention to the pleasurable qualities of food, rather than the quantity of the calories they’re eating. Instead of talking about a piece of meat with the plain word pezzo (piece), they tend toward the word pezzettino (an appealing morsel). This language is infused in cheeses, pasta sauces, and vegetables as well.

Taste is a sensual, private experience, one that will be influenced by advertisements and a child’s desire for freedom to make their own choices away from their parents. But the value and appreciation of healthy food can be molded at a young age, at dinnertime.

Sarah T. Schwab is a Sunday OBSERVER contributor and Fredonia State graduate. Send comments to

or view her Web site at