What are mealtimes for? A Pacific Standard article looks at the American family’s return to dinner as an essential meal of the day—but the modern dinner is a much more stressful and anxious affair, according to reporter Britt Peterson:
Over the 30 years since [Elinor] Ochs’ first round of studies, Americans have become, if anything, even more fixated on dinner. In part, that is salutary: Recent research suggests that eating dinner as a family reduces our children’s propensity for obesity, depression, and eating disorders. Celebrities from Jamie Oliver to Laurie David have tried to convince us to eat together; Harvard has a Family Dinner Project dedicated to promoting the meal.
But some of the tensions between ideal and reality—the moral angst of dinner—might be hurting us, Ochs said, when it comes to mealtime: “In the United States we so ‘Norman Rockwell’ that moment, but it actually can be pretty tense to bring family members together.” Modern dinner is stressful by design. Once a midday meal of convenience, it took on a much more heightened cultural role during the Industrial Revolution, when the family began to splinter during the day and dinner became the reunion, Abigail Carroll, a food historian and author of Three Squares: The Invention of the American Meal, told me. And with that new elevation came new pressures.
So many of my childhood memories surround mealtimes: My father standing over the stovetop on a weekday morning, flipping eggs, or my mother sprinkling brown sugar and craisins on top of my oatmeal; my grandmother’s Sunday dinners, replete with butter-tinged goodness, warming our souls and stomachs; my grandfather’s homemade biscotti sitting on the kitchen counter, waiting for us after a long road trip.
Food was a joy: something shared, something to create and savor together. Never did I (or my siblings) think that we were being forced into some outdated or health-minded ritual. Neither breakfast, lunch, nor dinner were utilitarian schemes by our parents to force us into conversation, or to force salads down our throats. Meals weren’t always complicated affairs: eggs and toast in the morning, peanut butter sandwiches for lunch, chicken with rice and salad for dinner. When it came to “health,” my mother had a simple philosophy (one I try to follow to this day): the more (natural) color, the better. This meant fruits and vegetables were integral to the dinner hour—and this meant that our food was beautiful, too.
I remember TV commercials urging families to eat dinner together while I was in high school. The ads urged families to turn off the television (ironically enough), to set aside phones, and to gather around the table. But there always was a stereotype portrayed: the children would roll their eyes, groan, and complain. Sometimes the father would, as well. The mother seemed pesky and pushy. There was a sense in which the ads seemed to say, “We know you all are going to hate this, but just do it so that you don’t become obese or isolated.” I remember hearing all the stats that Peterson mentions, research that suggests “eating dinner as a family reduces our children’s propensity for obesity, depression, and eating disorders.”
But that’s not why our family gathered around oatmeal in the morning, or enchiladas in the evening. That’s not why my grandmother opened her house to over 20 loud, happy, boisterous, shy, snarky, laughing, moody relatives for Sunday dinner. We gathered out of love: even when love was tired, bruised, apprehensive, or pensive—true love returns to the table. Because when we break bread together, we grow to know each other, and to love each other, more deeply.
Many people have grown up without regular family meals, without that cadenced time of gathering to punctuate the day. At least in the early 2000s, according to Och’s research, “Dinner was conflict-ridden and poorly attended, with only 17 percent of the families eating together on all the nights recorded.”
But this absence makes the tradition of mealtime even more important, not less. It is true that this sort of gathering cultivates human flourishing—it lessens our depression, it nourishes our bodies in a healthful way—but there are spiritual and relational components to this gathering that cannot be expounded in a statistical fashion. The spiritual nourishment of meals is something that transcends, and even creates, family. It reaches out the the isolated individual, and offers them a home. As Meredith Schultz wrote in her excellent Patheos essay on hospitality, opening our homes and proffering our food is a ministry in this age of uprooted families and placeless sojourners:
Hospitality is a gesture of peace. It says to the stranger, “I trust you to come into my home, to eat my food, to take up my time.” In an age of privacy and autonomy, this invitation is astonishing. It bears a stronger resemblance to the Good Samaritan’s care for the abused Israelite than the dinner scenes in Norman Rockwell’s Americana. Earthly hospitality reflects the transformative power of God’s atoning, adopting hospitality, which turns strangers and aliens into sons and daughters. It is a dim foreshadowing of the final welcome the children of God will experience in eternity.
There is an art to mealtimes that can minister to the soul. New York Times writer Sarah Douglas just wrote a piece called “The Art of Eating,” profiling a handful of people who, rather than eating lunch in front of a computer or on-the-go, actually prepare meals and bring people to their table. “What makes me sad,” one interviewee told her, “is when people have these lunches where they all go out individually, and then have plastic containers of salads, and sit in front of computers.” These cooks speak of their mealtimes as refreshing, resting, soothing to the mind. It brings a note of rest to their busy lives.
These stories show that it doesn’t really matter which meal you gather around—just make sure there’s a meal. Breakfast was always my favorite (probably in part because I love breakfast food). For the workers in Douglas’s story, it’s lunch. For Och, it’s dinner. The important thing is that we gather: to rest, commune, and eat.
We should encourage gathering for meals as a part of fostering healthy relationships. But we should also acknowledge the stress and busyness of modern schedules, and encourage people to find a time and meal that works best for them—not necessarily dinner, though dinner is an important meal. We should encourage people to view mealtimes as a way to encourage healthy souls, not just healthy bodies. And as Schultz writes, we should not narrow our gaze to just the family: we should view meal-gathering as a way to usher people throughout our communities into “place and relationship.”