Saturday, November 14, 2009

AP poll: Family dinner survives, with distractions

WASHINGTON DC - Pass the gravy -- plus the phone and the remote control. It's dinnertime in America.

Between the blare of the TV, the ring of the phone and Junior texting his buddies under the table or from the couch, the modern dinner comes with a heaping helping of distracting bells and whistles, an Associated Press-iVillage Food poll found. Yet the sit-down, home-cooked family meal is an enduring tradition. And not just on Thanksgiving or other special occasions. Most nights, most families manage to eat together, the survey found.

Democrats and Republicans do. Devout churchgoers and never-goers do. Childless families and those with kids are about equally apt to have a regular family meal. So are families from the suburbs and the country.

Altogether, more than 60 percent of those who live with families said they sat down with family for dinner at least five nights in the past week. Home-cooked meals were the norm, not just takeout and the like.

Hand-me-down recipes determine the menu more than any other source. Although more than half in the poll have cooked something from an online recipe and TV shows, such digital delights lag recipes clipped from newspapers and magazines, and none of that holds a candle to recipes passed on from family elders.

So far so good, painter Norman Rockwell, that celebrant of the idealized old-fashioned life, surely would think. But family bonding has some competition when people are chowing down.

Television is a constant dinner companion for a quarter of families, the poll suggests. More than half have it turned on more often than rarely.

Half are pestered by phone calls -- including, it must be said, from the occasional pollster like the ones who did this survey.

Texting or e-mailing on a cell phone is always going on over dinner for five percent of families. It's more than a rare intrusion for 15 percent. Nearly 40 percent have the radio or stereo going, at least occasionally.

Surveys over recent decades have generally found the American dinnertime to be hanging in as family time despite the growth of households with both parents working. It might be harder to pull off these days but, in the view of Don Wells, 59, of Phenix City, Alabama, it's not that hard.

"Cooking is not rocket science," said Wells, a government contractor who is retired from the armed forces. He and his wife, Mary, have dinner together every night, along with kids, grandkids or "anyone else who happens to be in the house at meal time."

Cell phones don't interrupt. "Not in this house," he said. But the TV is sometimes on.

In West Chicago, Illinois, Judit Mohai, 34, is a musician who usually cooks for her husband and kids, ages 2 and 5, four days a week. She's working the remaining three nights. The family eats in the kitchen, where there is no TV, and no one has a cell phone.

"It's very important because we're sitting together," she said. "I did it with my family. My husband did it with his family. It's just kind of normal."

"It just comes naturally and it works," she went on. "It's not like we have teenagers in the house, so as long as we can do it, we do it."

For those who can't pull a family dinner together regularly, it's most often because someone is working too late. Almost one in 10 family members surveyed had no dinners with family in the past week.

Major reasons for offering prepared food instead of a meal from scratch were that the cook was too busy or too beat.

Shelly Fry, 35, a computer programer in Truro, Iowa, says she sometimes wonders how others with full-time jobs manage to cook so much. Her husband, T.J., has an electrical contracting business; their kids are 13 and 14. They cook about half their dinners.

The deli counter, a precooked chicken at the grocery store and takeout are frequent saviors. Dinner is often at 6:30 p.m., with the TV usually on in the background. The kids share one cell phone, are not allowed to text at all and can't take calls at dinner. "My kids are deprived," she said wryly.

Among the poll's findings:

- Once in the past week, 20 percent of those polled had dinner at a sit-down restaurant and 27 percent ate dinner at a fast-food place.

- Women are still doing more of the cooking. Just 51 percent of men said they make a home-cooked meal at least sometimes, compared with 71 percent of women.

- 60 percent of independents, 61 percent of Democrats and 65 percent of Republicans said their families had dinner together five times or more during the week.

- 86 percent had cooked a meal using a recipe passed along from parents, 68 percent had done so from newspapers or magazines, 54 percent from the Internet and 51 percent from TV.

- 64 percent of people in rural areas and 63 percent in the suburbs said they ate with their families at least five nights in the week, compared with 56 percent in cities.

The poll was conducted November 5-9 by GfK Roper Public Affairs and Media. It involved landline and cell phone interviews with 1,006 adults nationwide and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.

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