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The 20-minute mealtime:
Brief encounters that promote resiliency

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[JUNE 5, 2004]  URBANA -- The average family spends 20 minutes at a typical evening meal, said Barbara H. Fiese, chair of the Department of Psychology at Syracuse University and speaker at this spring's Pampered Chef Family Resiliency Program lecture at the University of Illinois.

But those 20 minutes provide an important time for family members to reconnect, communicate and participate in a ritual that, to the participants, symbolizes commitment and continuity, she said. In this setting, families experience a sense of belonging. Family members think, "This feels right. This is who we are and who we will continue to be across generations."

"Often, when families are in trouble, we see it first in the disruption of their rituals," she said. "You'll note that, after a traumatic event, families are advised to get back to a normal routine as soon as possible. Continuing to participate in family rituals, such as shared mealtimes, can help families cope and perhaps make meaning out of tragic events."

To show that rituals give order to our days and help children make sense of their lives, Fiese shared some results from her research. She asked children to tell a story about two pictures -- one featured a pizza on a table with chairs around it in a spotless kitchen; in the other picture, the kitchen was messy and dirty.

When the kitchen in the pictures was clean and organized, the children told stories about a meal that progressed in an orderly, happy way. When the kitchen was cluttered and disorganized, the children told stories in which everyone was talking at once, nobody cared if they washed their hands, and "nothing that was going on made sense."

Fiese, who videotapes family meals as part of her research, said you can learn a lot about families from watching them eat together. A trained observer can detect how organized the family is, who plays dominant roles in the family and if parents are "clued in" to what issues various family members are facing at school or at work.

Family meals are also valuable teaching times. On average, parents of young children seamlessly work instruction about manners into conversation about 14 times each mealtime. Fiese also said dinnertime conversation can give parents an opportunity to build children's vocabulary -- for example, by bringing out a container of "confetti" ice cream for dessert and explaining what confetti is.


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Healthy families also engage in family storytelling during mealtimes -- from stories about what each child did in school that day to stories about extended family members: "This is the way Grandma used to fix apple cobbler. It was Grandpa's favorite, but he always had to coax Aunt Jane to eat it by teasing her like this."

Fiese quoted Gregory Curtis, who said that daily routines are the string that ties a family together -- that rituals are often preserved across generations and adapted to meet the needs of the current family, which may contain toddlers, peer-oriented adolescents and, in some cases, grandparents.

The demise of the American mealtime has been exaggerated, she said. "We have this misconception of family life that's rooted in a nostalgic view of what life was like in the 1950s. Ozzie and Harriet was not reality TV," she said.

The researcher was encouraged by statistics that showed that 63 percent of families eat dinner together frequently or always and that 86 percent agreed that dinnertime was the best time for family members to get together and talk.

"Family resilience doesn't just happen," said Fiese. "It's a process that involves both flexibility and planning. But it's important because it gives predictability and meaning to our lives, and it gives children emotional connections and a feeling that they belong.

"Research shows that rituals are associated with more satisfaction in marriage, a stronger sense of self and ease in making transitions from one life stage to another," the psychologist added. For all these reasons, Fiese believes that family mealtimes are a ritual well worth preserving.

[University of Illinois news release]

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