Supermarkets campaign to bring families back to dinner table

Monday, May 8, 2006
Dustin Trani, left, executive chef at Contessa Premium Foods, and Rudolf Blazevich prepared one of their 27 10- to 12-minute gourmet meals at the Food Marketing Institute show in Chicago on Sunday. Stores are picking up on the idea and are teaming with the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse to encourage families to share meals. (Charles Rex Arbogast)

CHICAGO -- For working parents and heavily scheduled school kids, family mealtime is as out of fashion as the scene in Norman Rockwell's iconic Thanksgiving supper painting.

Supermarkets are trying to lure families back to the dinner table.

There is a cost to spending meals apart: Research shows that teenagers who don't eat with their parents face a greater risk of drug and alcohol problems.

"The more often kids have dinner with their parents, the less likely they are to smoke, drink and use drugs," said Joseph Califano Jr., a former U.S. health secretary and current head of the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, which did the research.

Stores are picking up on the idea and will start telling shoppers about the findings and encouraging them to share meals together at home, instead of separately or at restaurants.

The Food Marketing Institute, the supermarket industry group whose annual show began Sunday in Chicago, will give $25,000 to the center and help stores promote the center's Family Day in September.

The effort is a logical step for supermarkets that already offer fully or partially prepared meals to serve with little or no effort.

Many stores have grab-and-go dinners and recipe cards. Some have kiosks where people can taste a main dish, then pick out side dishes. At Safeway stores, for example, shoppers can buy the familiar rotisserie chicken, but also have a choice of meat loaf or turkey breast.

"Our members have worked hard to try to have easily prepared food either ready to eat or ready to heat to take home," said Tim Hammonds, the institute's president and chief executive.

Los Angeles-based Contessa Premium Foods makes frozen gourmet meals, such as sesame chicken stir fry and burgundy beef stew, that a family can heat in 10 minutes to 12 minutes. That's nearly as fast as a TV dinner, said president and chief executive John Z. Blazevich, but is healthier and makes people feel like they actually cooked.

"The preparation is the hardest part, so we try to combine a variety of tastes and flavors from around the world and make it fast and easy," he said.

Drinking and drug abuse are not the only problems facing kids. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the rate of obesity and overweight in kids has climbed to 18 percent of boys and 16 percent of girls.

Eating at home helps keep meals healthy and teaches kids how to eat right, according to the Eat Smart, Grow Strong campaign formed by self-described "good guy" food companies.

So where does this leave restaurants? According to industry estimates, the average person eats in restaurants four times to five times a week.

Supermarkets want people to stay home.

"If that means they cut back on some restaurant meals to do it, I think that's great, Hammonds said. "The restaurant industry has been spending millions of dollars a year to get people to eat away from home."

A spokeswoman for the National Restaurant Association said there is plenty of room for everyone to help parents and kids connect.

"People look forward to having a night out; being able to share that with your family is a positive experience that restaurants are always looking to provide," Katharine Kim said. "I think people can do both."

In fact, restaurants have helped promote the research by Califano's group.

Califano founded the center, based at Columbia University in New York. The center does an annual survey of children ages 12 to 17. Researchers noticed the link to family meals when they tabulated the survey eight years ago.

"If we can get people back to having family dinners, parents back to being engaged with their kids, it will have a stunning impact on this problem," Califano said.

On the Net:

Food Marketing Institute:

Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse:

Eat Smart Grow Strong Campaign:

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