Some believe that the recession years' data may also boost the numbers of families eating together because unemployment leaves more time for cooking, and hard times spawn more appreciation for end-of-the-day togetherness.
Census data suggest that family meals are most frequent in Hispanic households and in two-parent homes, and least frequent when a parent is divorced. The higher the parents' educational level, the less frequent the practice: Those who have not completed high school are the most likely to eat together, and those with advanced degrees the least.
Experts say the benefits accrue whether the food is organically grown or taken out of a pizza box, whether the conversation follows a take-turns ritual or a more free-for-all format, whether it's actually family breakfast instead of family dinner that's being had.
And kids of all ages benefit. Even teenagers, stereotypically the most I'm-out-of-here bunch, think family dinner is important. A recent CASA poll reports that 58 percent of teens eat dinner with their families at least five times a week, and that 54 percent say they value the conversation as well as the food.
Professor Duke believes that the practice is more vital now than ever because family stories told at the table build the resilience kids need to navigate a recession-weary, post-9/11 world.