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Family dinner: Can you teach a tradition?

The family dinner may be associated with lower rates of underage substance abuse, teen pregnancy, depression, and problems in school. The Family Dinner Project aims to promote and teach the tradition – from setting the table to having a family conversation – at schools and among families that may have difficulty starting a dinner tradition of their own.

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Family dinner tradition: That's what The Family Dinner Project aims to promote here at a Lynn, Mass. community dinner where Jack Damas, 10, helped prepare a dessert April 24, 2012. This is part of the cover project on family dinner in the June 25 issue of The Christian Science MonitorWeekly magazine.

Ann Hermes / The Christian Science Monitor

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The iconic American family dinner may look very right and natural as portrayed on TV (think Mrs. Cleaver's casserole) and in art (think Norman Rockwell's "Freedom from Want").

But for some households, a family dinner is an improbable and unrealistic occurrence.

In the Boston area, one organization is trying to change that by modeling the tradition. The Family Dinner Project – a grass-roots organization that bills itself as a "movement of food, fun and conversation about things that matter" – aims to promote the benefits of the family dinner and connect families with the resources they need to start a family dinner tradition of their own.

PHOTO GALLERY: The great American family dinner

"We're trying to orient kids to a meal, to interest them in conversation," says executive director John Sarrouf. "We want everyone to come to the table to be together, to communicate, to ask questions of each other, to have fun, and to make memories."

Many researchers say that families who break bread together regularly may have lower rates of underage substance abuse, teen pregnancy, depression, and problems in school. So the project holds outreach programs promoting the dinner concept at local schools.

At one such event – held recently at the Robert L. Ford School in an impoverished area of Lynn, Mass. – volunteers set up a half-dozen cafeteria tables, each set with real flatware and plates, and candles. As families trickled in, the kids were invited to make centerpieces using flowers and rocks.

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