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The Family That Dines Together Shines Together

Preserving national and religious identity and practices can begin with the promotion of family dinner.

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A secret to the popular CBS police procedural “Blue Bloods,” which is now in its 13th season, lies not in the precinct but in the dining room.

The show’s family meal scenes, which take six to eight hours to film, usually portray the Reagan clan locked in argument as they break bread together, a feature that audiences find especially appealing.

Apparently, the meals mean as much to the cast, for it is the only time they are all on set together. Some of them even start to misbehave like real members of a family: Actress Vanessa Ray has confessed she gets the church giggles after the second hour of filming.

Why would the dinner scene, of all things, be the most beloved part of a crime drama? Perhaps both cast and audience unconsciously recognize the importance of a shared meal — and the increasing dangers it faces. The American College of Pediatricians reports, “Over the past three decades, family time at the dinner table and family conversation, in general, has declined by more than 30%.”

Another study suggests that family time has not fallen so drastically overall but that low-income families (who have less control over their work schedules) have suffered disproportionately from this trend. The disappearing family meal concerns parents because children and teens who lack this time of conversation and affection suffer from more substance abuse, unwanted pregnancies, depression, obesity, lower academic performance, smaller vocabularies, and reduced literary skills.

Among adults, fewer family meals correlate to poorer mental and physical health and higher divorce rates. Even dining among unrelated adults brings blessings to the group: Firefighters who have meals together, for instance, have enhanced team performance.

One study, conducted in 2015, failed to explore the reasons that eating together improves people’s attitudes and intellect and protects them from despair and vices. But if the causes behind this mysterious magic are murky, the results are clear: The study concluded there is a “significant positive association between commensality [the fancy term for eating together] and work-group performance.”

The researchers conducted the study with an eye to helping corporations and firms leverage “the mundane and powerful activity of eating,” but their discovery no doubt applies to other areas of society. Breaking bread with one another creates stronger families, friendships, churches, and businesses and thus builds safer communities.

I suspect, first, that the decline in commensality will also undermine national and religious identity. If our nation loses the family dinner, its people could slowly forget greater festivities. Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners take the relaxed and routine daily supper and raise it into something solemn and communal across an entire culture. What will these holiday celebrations look like, or will they even continue, when the humdrum model on which they are based disappears? What will happen to civic occasions like the Fourth of July picnic?

I think, second, that losing family meals will hurt religion, albeit in different ways. For the past several decades in the Roman Catholic Church, theologians have debated whether the Mass has the nature of a sacrifice or a meal.

The debate itself is based on an impoverished understanding of the biblical concept of sacrifice (which already includes a meal), but now the debate will become less intelligible to young believers who do not have intimate experiences with shares meals. No wonder that at some Masses the Holy Communion lines feel more like ordering a Quarter Pounder at McDonald’s than participating in a heavenly banquet.

Preserving national and religious identity and practices must begin with the promotion of family dinner. To this end, families should be willing to rearrange their schedules and make sacrifices elsewhere to ensure they eat together.

Venerable Fr. Patrick Peyton, who launched a worldwide rosary crusade in the 1940s, was famous for saying: “The family that prays together stays together.” Amen. But it is also true that the family that dines together shines together — even if the family that dines together often whines together (to quote my teenage son) and even if, in order to get through dinner, the elders at the table may need to wine together.

I am sure that, for once, all the characters on “Blue Bloods” as well as the actors who play them would agree.

Find the author’s book, “Dining with the Saints,” here.


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