Probably the most iconic image of Thanksgiving is the big family dinner: That family meal that brings everyone together.
There is something very special about family meals.
And I was thinking about that yesterday as I was going through some old posts, and I ran across some thoughts I wrote a few years ago on family meals that I’d like to share again today.
A few years ago I was doing some research for an article on the importance of family dinners, and I really wanted to include some of the amazing observations of Theodore Dalrymple (real name Anthony Daniels) who has worked as a psychiatrist in the British penal system. He wrote an essay on family meals, “The Starving Criminal“.
Here’s part of his take on the link between criminality and family meals:
In fact, he told me that he had never once eaten at a table with others in the last 15 years. Eating was for him a solitary vice, something done almost furtively, with no pleasure attached to it and certainly not as a social event. The street was his principal dining room, as well as his trash can: and as far as food was concerned, he was more a hunter-gatherer than a man living in a highly evolved society.
Far from being unique, his story was typical of those that I have heard hundreds—no, thousands—of times. Another young man, also expelled from home at an early age because his new stepfather, only a few years older than he, found him surplus to requirements, had been obliged to drift from friend’s house to friend’s house for six years. Unfitted by training or education for any particular job, he had worked only casually, for a few weeks at a time, and so never had the financial stability to pay rent on a place of his own (in conditions of shortage, public housing goes preferentially to young single women with children, and he had made the situation worse by having two children of his own by two young women). Needless to say, he had no domestic skills either, never having been taught any; and his friends, coming from the same social milieu, were just as undomesticated. They too ate in an unsocial fashion and expected him to fend nutritionally for himself, which he did by eating chocolate, the only food he could remember having eaten with any consistency over the last few years. Apart from his time in prison (for stealing from cars), he hadn’t eaten a meal in a decade. It can’t be long before someone suggests that the solution to a problem like this is to fortify chocolate with minerals and vitamins.
There is a cultural phenomenon where food as a socially positive ritual is abandoned.
I’m going to go out on a limb and say something for which I have very little socially scientific research (if there is such a thing), but I feel it in my gut.
Food (or family meals) is what often separates functional families from dysfunctional families.
Think about it this way: in order to cook a decent meal, you have to know how to read a recipe. You have to be motivated enough to go to a grocery store. You have to actually cook the meal and serve it. Then, you all have to sit at a table together (Dalrymple claims that 34% of British families do not own a dining table) and eat it. It provides time for you to connect, to talk, to learn that others care about you, and to learn important manners.
Also, if you cook home-cooked meals, you’re more likely to be healthy and less likely to be overweight. In other words, it means that parents who cook care about the children’s health; are organized enough to give the children a schedule; are careful with their budget; and want to connect as a family. In fact, at one point in time nearly all families had family meals; today it seems to be a sign of privilege, which is sad.
Too many families don’t cook anymore. They reheat frozen food and that’s not the same thing. It means that the families aren’t giving priority to something that is so conducive to family togetherness.Do we realize all the benefits that flow from having family meal times? Click To Tweet
Interestingly, I think one of the reasons many people are poor and stay poor is that they lack basic food skills, like cooking and scheduling. But they also don’t understand the importance of acquiring those skills, and so they have little motivation to do so.
I have a friend who is a dietician, and when she worked for the Public Health Unit she often put on information nights called “2 can dine for $1.99”, and stuff like that, where they taught basic recipes and cooking for inexpensive but healthy meals. They advertised in the welfare office, in the unemployment office, and with Children’s Aid. And you know who came? Homeschoolers with their parents. Their parents thought: hey, great way to teach my kids some extra life skills! So they missed their target audience entirely because their target audience wasn’t interested, or, more likely, lived such chaotic lives that they couldn’t get organized enough to attend.
I wonder sometimes how much of poverty and crime are really cultural issues, not economic ones.
Yes, there are tons of factors contributing to keeping people in poverty. It’s hard to go grocery shopping when you don’t have a car and you have two babies in tow. It’s hard to find good housing with a working kitchen on a minimum wage job. It’s hard to cook in general if you have never seen anyone else do it (and many who grew up in these dysfunctional families did not).
And I start to wonder…how can we teach basic life skills to people that honestly could help them get out of poverty? I wish they would bring home economics back to schools, because that seems so very, very useful. I truly think that for many people, cooking a roast seems like a magical thing that is beyond comprehension (though it’s actually far easier than making pasta). And if families could come back to the dinner table, would that not produce some discipline and organization that is so desperately needed?
I don’t know how to fix it on a society-wide scale, though it does make me sad. But on an individual scale, what I want to say today is: let’s not give up eating together. We need each other. Kids need to see a meal being prepared from scratch, and they need to sit down, at a table, and talk to their parents.
We don’t realize how important that one ritual is until, as a society, we lose it.We don't realize how important the ritual of family meals are until we as a society lose it.Click To Tweet
Do we truly understand how much money we can save when we cook handmade meals?
When I see families eating fast food so much, I get sad. Yes, it’s bad for you. But it also costs so much! I know life is chaotic, and sometimes that’s all families know how to do. But for most of us, some discipline around grocery shopping and meal prep has HUGE dividends! We feel closer as a family, and our bank account stays way higher!
But how do you keep grocery shopping from breaking the bank?
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I’ve gone through the system, and she teaches things beyond the basics that most of us already know. She teaches you how to analyze your spending and zero in on the areas where you can save the most. She teaches you to do reverse meal planning, since traditional meal planning actually costs you MORE money. And so much more!
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Let me know: How important do you think family meals are? How has eating as a family helped your family togetherness–or your family budget? And what’s the biggest impediment to it? Let’s talk in the comments!