Three months ago, when 35-year-old journalist Meha Mathur was part of a joint family, comprising six adults and four children, all with their varying tastes, temperaments and work schedules, sitting down together at the table for dinner was something that never happened. Hence, when she moved to a nuclear set-up in August this year, Meha hoped that finally she would discover the joys of a cosy dinner with her husband and two school-going children.
But, as luck would have it, dinner at the Mathur residence is still far from being a family affair. The children eat at around 7 pm, while Meha usually has a quick dinner at 8.30 pm. Her husband, Nitin, comes home at 10 pm and has dinner late at night. “We have our dinner according to our convenience. Whenever he or she feels hungry, food is served. We rarely eat together,” says Meha.
The traditional slow-paced family dinner has today turned into just a frantic refuelling trip for most people. Long working hours, the idiot box and the Internet, among others, have led to the disappearance of the sacrosanct dinner hour in most households. For Sourav Gupta, a Calcutta-based call centre executive, irregular work hours leave him with little time for his family, let alone dinner. “I leave home in the afternoon and come back only at around 4 am. I usually have dinner at work,” laments Gupta.
Saurabh Bhatia in Delhi has a similar tale to tell. Bhatia, a legal expert at a Gurgaon-based multinational firm, says, “Thanks to my job, home and family have become secondary to work. Whatever be the time of the day, my work has to be given the first priority. Sometimes I don’t even come back home. So family dinners are rare and cherished occasions for me.”
There was a time, not so long ago, when dinner was a ritual in the family nobody missed. Men had to be back home before the prefixed dinner time, children looked forward to sharing their thoughts and experiences with elders and the lady of the house took a break from household affairs to enjoy just being with her family for an hour or so.
Besides good food, dinner was all about bonding. It was the time to unwind, relax and talk. “As a child, I remember having dinner with the entire family. In spite of my father being the busy editor of a national daily, dinner was a family affair. We learnt about various events in the journalistic world from my father and about college life from my mother, who was a lecturer, at the table,” says Meha.
Having dinner together is one of the best ways for families to grow and stay connected. According to Delhi-based psychiatrist Samir Parikh, family dinners improve inter-personal relations and at the same time foster empathy and togetherness. Regular family meals also give growing children stability, support and security in a world that is often disturbing and frightening.
Though there are no studies in India that highlight any long-term effects of dining, or not dining, together, research in the US underscores some alarming facts. A report released in September 2005 by the National Centre on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University shows that teenagers who have frequent family dinners are likely to get good grades in school. The report by CASA showed that the more often teenagers ate dinner with their families, the less likely they were to smoke, drink or use drugs. Conversations that accompany dinner help parents learn more about their children’s lives and understand better the challenges they face.
“If parents are away during the waking hours of a child, it can lead to various problems such as depression, anxiety and isolation. One-to-one contact becomes almost impossible. Children tend to spend more time on the Internet and talking on the phone. Sitting together at the dinner table is one of the factors that binds families together,” says Asim Chatterjee, a psychiatrist associated with the Mon Foundation, a Calcutta-based organisation that deals with mental health.
That is why dancer Kaushalya Reddy makes it a point to have dinner with her family. “It is usually a long chatty affair in our bedroom, where we see our favourite TV programme and catch up with each other. We discuss what happened through the day, what the children did at school or with friends. They also feel that we listen to them and pay attention to their needs,” she adds.
In today’s fast-paced life, making family dinners a priority is not easy but the long-term benefits are well worth the effort. Family counsellors stress that however busy a schedule is, time must be spared for a family dinner. If you can’t do it daily, eat together at least twice or thrice a week, they suggest. Remember, the family that eats together, stays together.
With additional reporting by Satadru Ojha in Calcutta.