Studying the Family Meal

Although they’ve been ignored in the past, family meals have become a focal point of academic studies across disciplines like psychology, sociology, economics, and anthropology.  Much of this has to do with a prevailing moral panic that family meals have become less and less frequent.  That family meals are less common in the United States now than in past years is indisputable: a DDB Needham survey revealed that about 84% of families “usually” ate together in 1977 compared to about 68% in 2003 (Fischer 2011: 28).  This number has consistently declined each year.  

The decline of the family meal is metonymically understood to be a sign of the disintegration of the American family.  Families in crisis are taught to reconsider the way that they eat together as a means of re-establishing meaningful family connections:  Margaret Renkl praised family meals as a way to “bring you closer, make you healthier and more” in a 2000 journal called Parenting (Renkl 2000: 156); in a book on “how to build family ties in the modern world,” William J. Doherty suggests that families put more emphasis on the value of eating together (Doherty 1997: 33).  However, writers also agree that if done incorrectly, family meals can themselves be a source of tension between family members (Wilk 2010; Ray 2004; Doherty 1997).  

The source of much dinner-time conflict is the unequal distribution of work and responsibility: women (especially mothers) are expected to perform most of the tasks like meal planning, shopping, cooking, setting the table, corralling the family members, and cleaning up afterwards.  Alice P. Julier argues that the moral panic that we have about the slow decline of family meals fails to recognize the enormous burden that mothers carry for providing the meal (Julier 2013: 19-21).  Claude S. Fischer sees a direct inverse relationship between women increasingly entering the workforce and the declining American family meal (Fischer 2011: 40-41).  Such a correlation suggests that the survival of family meals in modern society relies on a more equal distribution of responsibility for family meals, where men and children begin to contribute to the planning, cooking, and cleaning required for this family ritual.  

Other academics understand the gendered work distribution as equally empowering for women as much as it is a burden.  While acknowledging the extensive amount of work that women do to prepare family meals everyday, Krishnendu Ray equates women who cook for their families with powerful priests.  Ray claims that because the family meal is a ritual, the work that Bengali-American do to provide for their families can be understood as ritual sacrifice that expresses their devotion to their families (Ray 2004: 122-129).  Such ritualistic expression of familial love enters them into a reciprocal relationship with the rest of their family: the nourishment that women give their families is reciprocated with continued love and respect.  

The family meal is a nexus of cultural exchange and reproduction: “a family is a cultural institution, embedded in a larger cultural framework with the function of showing and teaching to the new members the principles of a culture (Pontecorvo & Fasulo 1999: 315).  We learn our family roles, oral histories, etiquette, and traditions (recipes, dress, toasts, etc.) at the dinner table.  Josephine Beoku-Betts sees US-American Gullah women as central to this system of knowledge: “Cultural preservation through food preparation and feeding is a highly conscious act on the part of these women; it is tied closely to their judgements about when to accept, and when to resist, change” (Beoku-Betts 2002: 293).  In this way, women are empowered as cultural gatekeepers, intentionally reworking family and social traditions for future generations as they see fit.  David Sutton’s study of home cooking in Kalymnos came to a similar conclusion: that although women have little choice in whether or not to participate, they have the responsibility (and the power that comes with it) of passing on food traditions and cooking techniques from older to younger generations (Sutton 2014).  

Eating together is essential to building community.  The concept is so cliche that it is embedded in our language: the word “company” is literally derived from the Latin cum panis or “together with bread” (Jones 2007: 263).  Sharing food feels so natural precisely because it is the fundamental basis of our cultural indoctrination.  Mary Douglas’ early anthropological studies on food deconstructed mundane shared meals to reveal the intentional, political, ritualized reproduction of local and national values (Douglas 1972).  Even if family meals are less frequent than they were forty years ago, these dinners still serve examples of appropriate behavior at the table, in the kitchen, in the family, amongst friends, and in larger society.