Family Dinners

"Give me the ‘A,’" my husband, Larry, says.

"There’s no ‘A,’" answers Danny, 10.

"Then give me the ‘R,’" Larry responds.

"No ‘R,’" says Danny, as he gleefully draws a circle for the body.

I’m sitting at Maria’s Italian Kitchen on a Sunday evening, eating and watching my husband and my four sons, ages 10, 12, 14 and 17, play multiple games of Hangman. Or, as my husband prefers to call it, "Stump the Dad."

This is a family dinner. This is what health-care professionals swear will protect my sons from a life of drug, alcohol and tobacco addiction.

This is what I swear will have me begging for an extended stay at UCLA’s Neuropsychiatric Institute.

"So," I interrupt, looking to start a conversation, "What do you think about carbon dioxide emissions?"

"Mom…" they moan in unison, rolling their eyes.

"What about salmonella in ground beef?" I ask, vowing to bring along some reading material next time.

But it could be worse. For one thing, I didn’t have to cook this dinner. For another, they’re not calling each other names ("Dirty Diaper" is this week’s epithet of choice) or making rude bodily noises (which usually involves some kind of competition).

According to Robert Putnam, author of "Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community," family dinners occur 33 percent less frequently today than in 1970.

And for many good reasons.

First, let’s talk about the logistics. Let’s talk about the fact that my husband, who, thankfully, is not Jim Anderson or Ward Cleaver, generally returns home after 8 p.m.

Let’s talk about the fact that I generally spend my late afternoons and early evenings picking up carpool, schlepping some child to karate or piano or the orthodontist as well as watching — or feeling guilty about missing — a soccer or baseball game. And that’s before someone invariably pipes up with "Oh, I forgot to tell you that I need 24 kosher cupcakes (or car repair mesh wire and five 3-foot strips of balsa wood or one dozen large, live crickets) for school tomorrow."

Plus, let’s talk about the fact that, for me, cooking — from the preliminary trip to Ralphs to the postprandial cleanup — is about as enjoyable as pulling up weeds, having my gums scraped or standing in line to ride Pirates of the Caribbean.

There’s also the fact that there is not a single dinner menu that appeals to the two vegetarians, the one pescetarian and the three omnivores (one of whom eats only "white" foods) that comprise my family.

Growing up, of course, we were forced to eat whatever was served. Occasionally — and my mother will confirm this — this meant tongue with raisin sauce or pheasant with fresh buckshot or, the worst, wax beans, which even the dog, who sat vigilantly under the table, refused to touch.

In Judaism, the family is sacrosanct; it is the primal, civilizing building block of society. And our tradition mandates that the family, this cohesive and essential unit, engage in certain culinary celebrations — from the weekly Shabbat dinner to the annual seder, from the bar mitzvah banquet to the wedding feast — with certain requisite and ritualistic foods. But nowhere is there a commandment, not in any of the 613 mitzvot, requiring us to sit down together regularly for an evening meal.

No, the concept of family dinners is a modern myth, a psychological and sentimental hoax perpetrated on us already overextended and overburdened mothers by people who have forgotten the taste of tongue with raisin sauce. By people who don’t watch Woody Allen movies. And by people who also think that quality time and home schooling are viable — and valuable — ideas.

So just say no to family dinners that require more than 10 minutes to prepare or pick up and that require the skills of air traffic controllers to coordinate.

And forget that National Merit Scholars, those academically talented high-schoolers who excel on the PSAT test, share the one characteristic of eating dinner with their families at least three times a week.

Instead, remember that what’s truly important is to give our kids a sense of stability and solidarity. To make them feel loved and protected. To nourish them emotionally and physically.

This doesn’t happen at prescribed times with preplanned, multidish meals featuring the four food groups.

No, this happens serendipitously and unexpectedly.

It can happen over a dinner of Team Cheerios, at a table with mismatched bowls and disposal-chewed spoons. It can happen during a spur-of-the-moment midnight run to Krispy Kreme. It can even happen on a Sunday evening at Maria’s Italian Kitchen over pizza, chopped salad and uninterrupted games of Hangman.