The traditional “family dinner” evokes images of 1950s decorum, of picture-perfect dining room tables, neatly set, around which white, nuclear parents and children sit and smile at one another. The dining table is where manners are cultivated, days are recounted, and a sense of family is formed.
While most American families eat together at least a few times a week, the nuclear family image is (unsurprisingly) far from accurate. Between demanding schedules and a perpetual dearth of time, it’s impossible to achieve this ideal. My own family’s dinner table was often scattered with homework and detritus, my parents frazzled from work.
How do other American families really go about dinner? My coworker Steven and I visited three New York City families to watch them eat.
Bianca and Ed Rivera eat together with their kids, Edgardo and Javier, at least 2 or 3 times a week. “Our karate schedule interferes with doing it all the time,” Bianca explains from her kitchen in Bushwick, Brooklyn.
The entire family practices martial arts, and between taking classes and assisting with them, they have commitments at their local dojo at least three nights a week. On those nights, dinner is a rushed affair, squeezed in between homework and karate.
The Riveras favor home-cooking for economical and health benefits. Bianca usually takes the reigns on dinner prep, with go-to dishes like rice, beans, pastas, and frozen veggies. “We always try to have some fruit during dinner,” she says, gesturing to the fruit smoothies she’d made that day.
Citing her career as a registered dietician, Bianca notes that she strongly opposes the use of electronics at the table. An exception is sometimes made for Ed, whose teaching and volunteer efforts require staying plugged into e-mail. Ed is on the board at a community farm located in the neighborhood, currently under threat of closure.
“We’re trying to save it,” Javier chimes in, when the conversation turns to the farm. “We’ve had the eggs from the ducks there … They taste really fatty!”
Living in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, Jenna and Kyle Barron-Ewerts juggle parenting (to baby Scout and dog Artie) and jobs that interfere with eating together most days of the week.
“Our schedules are completely different, so we don’t have a weekend per se. I work retail, so my weekend is two random days a week,” Kyle says. “If we happen to have a shared day off together, we’ll try to do something with it.”
Today happens to be a shared day off, and the two have gone grocery shopping to make pulled pork and roasted vegetables. “Usually I’ll make the food, and then Kyle will eat while I entertain Scout. Then I’ll eat after,” Jenna says.
Grocery shopping is a burden with a baby in tow, so the two often opt for delivery. “If it’s only one of us here at a time, it’s hard to watch baby and prepare a meal simultaneously,” Kyle explains. “On days off I’ll usually do something simple like a meal kit,” Jenna adds.
The family eats dinner on their couch, or at a table in the backyard. Regardless of the location, both Scout and Artie love to beg for food. “It’s constantly trying to fight everyone off both of us,” Jenna says. She’s not wrong.
Dinner begins with a prayer for Ashley and Jonathan Bostick, who live in Elmhurst, Queens with their daughter Riley.
On the evening of our visit, they’ve ordered pizza and wings. Captain Underpants is playing on the TV. “Friday is a TV day, pizza day, or day when we go to a restaurant,” Ashley explains. On most school nights, the TV is turned off in favor of music.
The family tends to eat together three nights a week, with work interfering with the other nights. Cooking duties are split evenly between the parents.
Ashley’s go-to meal is tacos for their versatility and universal appeal: She loves them, Riley loves them, and the ingredients can be repurposed into salads or other meals. “I don’t think he has a go-to,” she says, nodding towards Jonathan. “He’s fancy.”
Jonathan’s experience working in restaurants and bars has lent itself well to whipping up a wide variety of meals. “I make whatever I feel like making that day,” he says. That week, he’s made tofu, stir-fried vegetables, and rice noodles.
“Sometimes I’m off on Friday, so I’ll just make a lot of food — but I didn’t feel like doing that today,” Jonathan shrugs. “Fridays are a free-for-all.”
In spite of managing busy lives and tricky scheduling, each family made efforts to dine together as a unit — an activity with copious health benefits. Dining together, too, can be made easier with quick-prep meals, like On-Cor frozen entrées. However you choose to approach dinner, save time without sacrificing quality with On-Cor.
Angela Wang is a Senior Writer for Studio@Gizmodo.