We celebrate most milestones in our days—and our lives—by eating.
We must eat, but we also love to eat, and perhaps the single greatest virtue of our nature is the one which wants to share our abundance with others, so that they may have something which is essential for their own survival.
The rituals of eating can be a beautiful, healthful extension of this generosity; they can also be sporadic, non-existent, or emotionally draining. This is because something mysterious happens to us when we feed together: so much so that the foods themselves gain comforting or repulsive connotations based upon how (and with whom) we gather to eat.
With these implications in mind, the findings of Harvard’s Family Dinner Project gain new significance and offer nutritionists and parents with a double serving of food for thought.
The project found that approximately half of the American families rarely share dinner as a group, and in the United States about 70% of all individual meals are consumed outside the home (with about 20% being eaten in the car!)
Other research has shown that when children regularly eat dinner at home with their families, they consume more fruits and vegetables, and drink less soda—supporting the theory that family meals have an important cultural role in lowering obesity rates in both children and adults. Adults who eat regularly with their family or friends test higher for self-esteem and lower for rates of substance abuse, unplanned pregnancy, and depression; children who regularly eat with at least one parent suffer from fewer eating disorders, while receiving higher reading and vocabulary scores.
At Thira, we can relate to the difficulty of organizing and preparing food for a household of hungry people while working full-time. For our own inspiration, we’ve looked to communities around the world, to learn how they make time to eat as a family.
Spain—In Spain, it seems to be all about La siesta. A true siesta includes taking an hour or two to eat a meal, take a nap, and escape the heat. According to F. Xavier Medina, Academic Director of Food Systems, Culture, and Society at the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya, the siesta originated because lunchtime coincides with the hottest hours of the day. By treating meals as periods of rest and bonding away from the busy world outside, parents in Spain are able to be present with their children and family, and cultivate rituals around relaxation and food. When our defenses and anxiety are lowered, we tend to communicate more openly about what’s happening elsewhere in our lives, and connect more deeply with the people we already trust.
Israel—In the Jewish Tradition, people are called to rest from their work on the seventh day, which lasts from just before sundown on Friday to just after sundown on Saturday. Jewish families host dinner each Friday where cell phones and electronics are powered down, prayers are said, and a meal is shared. It’s a scheduled time where families can connect and reflect on the previous week.
Japan—The bento box is a Japanese custom that encourages creativity and simplicity. It’s a meal in a box which can be quickly prepared and eaten at home or on the go. Parents who make bento for their children can turn the food into fun shapes like pandas, cats, or comic book characters. Due to the many commitments parents have each week, it’s not possible to sit down to every meal with one’s family, but the bento is a perfect medium for preparing healthy, consistent portions that remind your loved ones that their health is a family priority.
Remember: family meals don’t need to be perfectly timed or immaculately prepared.
The Family Dinner project makes sure to underscore that “dinner” is less important than “mealtime” and that families have at least 16 opportunities per week to connect over a pre-planned meal. This can include gathering for a snack or dessert, too; what matters is that an intention is set to share time, food, and communication as a group.
The manners, rituals, and generosity we learn at the table are baked into the other, more elaborate themes of our cultural belonging—and frequent practice helps us connect more easily with our loved ones and ourselves.