C.E.O.s Rediscover the Family Dinner Table
Before the coronavirus pandemic, John Foley, the chief executive and founder of Peloton, and his wife, Jill, a vice president at Peloton, would leave the house each morning by 7:45 a.m. and not come home until 7:30 p.m. By then, their nanny had already fed and gotten their two children ready for bed.
“That wasn’t awesome,” Mr. Foley said. “We didn’t share any meals.”
Then, in March, everything changed. Not only was the Foley family having dinner together every night, they were together all of the time.
“You wake up together, you all have breakfast together, you work together, have lunch together, you have dinner together, you wake up the next morning and you do it again,” said Mr. Foley, who has an 8-year-old daughter and a 12-year-old son.
Without in-person company meetings, chief executives have instead become regulars at a new type of meeting: the family dinner. For some of the busiest people in the world, the new normal has reshaped life at home.
Already, in the past seven months, Mr. Foley, who runs a $35.5 billion business that sells stationary bicycles and treadmills with live-streamed classes, said he credited family dinners with helping his daughter become more mature. “Her personality has blossomed,” he said, “and that’s partly because we’re together as a family, learning from each other.”
Decades of research have shown the benefits of regular family meals for children across the socioeconomic spectrum. Children who eat with their parents have bigger vocabularies, receive higher grades and have lower rates of obesity.
They are also more resilient and confident, manage stress better and have lower rates of anxiety and behavioral problems.
The benefits extend to parents too, Anne Fishel, director of the Massachusetts General Hospital family therapy program and the Family Dinner Project at Harvard University, said, citing a 2018 study published in Preventive Medicine.
Of course, executives with the means to afford extra help around the house have had a different pandemic experience than most Americans. Many frontline workers have lost their jobs. Others are struggling to juggle parenting with the new demands of remote work.
Dr. Fishel said that some affluent families had, over the course of the pandemic, realized the benefits of doing chores as a family.
“What they’re finding is these are the activities that provide ritual routines and the glue of family life,” she said.
Homayoun Hatami, a managing partner at McKinsey & Company in Paris, surveyed chief executives for a report on leadership during the pandemic and found that many had begun to set aside time for family dinners.
“Cooking with kids and the family — that’s the new downtime,” Mr. Hatami said. “That replaces the airplane nap at takeoff.”
Sara Blakely, the chief executive officer and founder of Spanx, which sells sculpting bodysuits and pants, said that two weeks into the pandemic, she realized that she, like many other women, had taken on more of the child care and household responsibilities than her husband had. To remedy that, she and her husband, who have four children under the age of 12, created a list of chores and divided up the tasks. “It made a lot of difference,” she said.
She said her family now eats dinner together every night, up from three to four nights a week before the pandemic. Spending more time at home has given her children new insights into who she is not only as their mother, but also as a creator of a business empire, she said.
She realized recently that her children had not known she was an inventor, with several patents in her name.
“They were like, ‘Well, what do you mean you’re an inventor?’ They think of an inventor as only a man — as being Einstein or Edison,” she said.
Over recent months, Ms. Blakely has made it a point to share more of her work with her children. When she noticed that one of her children was feeling worried about being judged by others, for example, she shared stories of the risks she took when she started Spanx, and how she defied the naysayers around her.
“Before the pandemic, it was kind of like, ‘I’m at the office, and here’s my work life,’ and when I come home I kind of want to shut that off,” she said. “But it’s nice to have them be more exposed to what Mommy does.”
Ethan Brown, chief executive and founder of Beyond Meat, which makes plant-based burgers, said that before the pandemic it was hard to find time for family dinners, between his long hours and his teenagers’ sports and social schedules.
“We were terrible about that,” he said. “It was always catching stuff as we were going.”
At the start of the pandemic, his family’s nightly dinners reminded him of being on a family vacation. By virtue of the family spending more time together, his 15- and 16-year-olds have learned more about what it takes to run a $12.2 billion business. “They’ll walk by, and they’ll hear me on Zoom and ask me what it’s about,” he said.
For empty-nester C.E.O.s, long visits home and nightly family dinners from their grown-up children have been an unexpected gift. (Especially when the children cook.)
Sallie Krawcheck, a former Wall Street executive and co-founder and chief executive of Ellevest, an investment platform for women, said she was in the middle of negotiating a once-a-week family dinner commitment with her 24-year-old daughter when the pandemic started.
The daughter, her boyfriend and his dog, Ace, ended up moving in with Ms. Krawcheck for three months. Over nightly dinners, they shared family stories, watched old home videos and discussed work concerns.
“Which you just sort of miss in the one dinner a week or quick FaceTime calls in the middle of the day,” Ms. Krawcheck said. “It went about three levels deeper.”
While a study showed that more people were having dinner more often with their families in April and May, it also showed one cost to the retreat into home life: screen time was up for everyone, both parents and children.
Dr. Fishel warns against giving in to that temptation at the dinner table: When parents reply to emails at the table, children can get the impression that what they are saying is not valued, she said.
To keep her children engaged at dinner, Ms. Blakely said her family had started playing games — in one, they all strike a pose during dinner when her husband yells “Freeze!” Sometimes, they play old records and the meal turns into a spontaneous dance party around the table.
“It feels like we’ve gone back in time,” she said. “Family dinners are a priority again.”