It's 1959, a mild day in California and we kids are playing outside.  There are four of us and four of our friends, we range all over the neighborhood and small community park without concern for our safety.  We laugh, we shout, we quarrel, we play.  And then it's over:  "Kids! Time to come home….dinner's ready".  Up and down the block mothers were calling their children indoors.  It was time for dinner in America and pretty much everyone stopped what they were doing and ate.  Together.

In our household it was common for there to be friends allowed over for dinner.  Our Mom did not work outside the home, our Dad took the commuter train and came home to dinner made for all of us, day in and day out.  I can recall eating out in a restaurant only a rare handful of times, perhaps a few times a year.  In my experience people simply did not spend their money that way.

We had strict dinner rules that emanated from our dad:  the television was never, ever allowed to be on during dinner, the phone went unanswered if it rang, anyone who came to the door at that time of the evening (a rarity) and had not eaten was invited in to eat; my parents had been raised without money, but not without manners. And our Dad did not allow us to come late to the table or to make negative comments about the food, no matter what. "Your mother took the time to cook all of this for you," he said, "if you can't say anything nice about it, I better not hear you say anything at all."

And what did we eat?  Oh dear, in retrospect it was pretty bad, much of it.  Most vegetables came out of a can: canned corn, canned peas, canned beans. It wasn't until I ate at the table of friends whose parents had been raised in Europe that I first learned about fresh vegetables. Sometimes we ate the newest thing: frozen peas, corn and carrots cut in to little squares and then boiled. We ate meatloaf, salmon patties, tuna casserole, lasagna, sloppy joes.  Salad was often jello with carrots shredded into it.  On those occasions where salad was lettuce, it was iceberg lettuce and dressing out of a bottle. We certainly were never served soda pop.  Our mother packed our school lunches:  bologna sandwiches with mayonnaise on Wonderbread and -- if we were very lucky that day — a Hostess twinkie.  But whatever we ate, we ate together.  Parents talked to each other over the dinner table and children talked to their parents: the good, the bad and the ugly.

In 1989 when my own children were young, life had changed.  I was a divorced mother and full time pediatrician.  I put dinner on the table every night and later, when I remarried, we put dinner on the table every night.  "Why do we have to be home to eat dinner every night?"  My daughter whined, "None of my friends do."  "Why can't we have pizza?" she would say when served the homemade food I had learned to cook while living in Europe.  "My friends have sandwiches for dinner… why can't we?"

I pulled my head up out of my own routine and looked around: it was true.  None of her friends had an actual dinner with parents at the table.  They all had sports events at dinner time, or some family member did.  The television was never off (fifteen years later this problem was to become much more acute with the distraction of cell phones and email and Facebook).  Many kids literally never walked into a home in the evening that smelled of food cooking. Food items were bought to be reheated in the microwave (by a kid) and eaten in the car.  Everyone ate their own thing; kids went to the refrigerator and ate whatever appealed to them. They drank whatever appealed to them as well, with soda pop  (often diet soda) being a prominent choice.  People shopped for things in large (very large) quantities, which often meant there were flats of things like soda pop and chips in the garage or cupboard.  Everyone—and I do mean everyone—ate out more.

Family meals teetered on the brink of extinction and suddenly… they were gone.

As an eating disorder doctor I have had the opportunity to take many hundreds of family histories.  Family dinners survive in tiny islands of families, but believe me, they are rare.  Once women gave up cooking, no one else picked up the task.  Now we actually have a generation who doesn't know how to cook, despite glamorous (and popular) cooking shows and more and more adventurous cookbooks.  Cooking is sometimes done for adult friends at "dinner parties", but rare is the person who cooks for her/his children day in and day out and then actually sits down at a table that has been set for that purpose and eats with those children.

We have one excuse after another:  we are too busy.  Yes, we are busy, but it's all about priorities.  Many people are not too busy to catch their favorite TV shows, to work out in the gym, to go to sports events.

Ah yes, sports!  The sacred cow of American life -- challenge the wisdom of replacing family time with sports events for children and you are treading on holy ground and likely to get shot.

In my next blog I will compare the health benefits of family dinners to any other activity likely to occur at dinnertime.  Including sports.  And if I get shot, you'll know why.