What’s for dinner tonight? Whatever you’re making—curry and rice, meat and three veg, spaghetti and marinara, or a simple can of soup—you’re also making history.
The family dinner is a powerful thing. Our childhood meal experiences follow us the rest of our lives, and it’s not just about the food. Studies show that the frequency of shared family meals can affect everything from grade-point average to mental health outcomes to the risk of substance abuse.
Research aside, food rituals are among the most fundamental and defining aspects of human experience. The details of what we eat, how and where we serve it, and with whom we share it are gloriously diverse the world over, but one thing is universal—the deep-rooted significance of cooking and eating customs.
In every culture, meals are about more than simply fueling the body; they are communal experiences, as much about gathering, sharing, and connecting as they are about the cuisine itself.
More Than Just a Tortilla
“I watched my mother, my grandmother, great-grandmother, and now my daughters use the same recipe to feed the hearts and bodies of those they love,” blogger Allison Kimball wrote in her "My Family Food Story" booklet. “Stories of faith, struggle, and perseverance—and memories of love, laughter, and music have happened as the smell of tortillas cooking on the stove wafts through the house and the rhythm of the rolling pin sounds in my mind and heart.”
A tortilla is more than just a tortilla for the Kimball family. It’s a ritual.
Nothing could demonstrate the intrinsic importance of food traditions more than the story of “a fragile, handwritten book of recipes, the pages sewn together by hand,” compiled by the prisoners of the Terezin concentration camp during World War II. Of all the things they could have preserved on the precious little paper they had, they chose to write down instructions for making stuffed eggs, Jewish coffee cake, chicken galantine, and plum strudel. Their recipes were an essential piece of themselves that they couldn’t bear to lose, after having lost literally everything else.
“The recipes in this book . . . recall another, better life. They evoke visions of a boisterous family gathered around a heavily carved dining room table laden with food,” wrote Lore Dickstein in a New York Times review. “This book has particular relevance and poignancy for me; when I read the recipes for asparagus salad or chocolate torte, I can see these dishes and taste them; it is the food of my childhood.”
The words both Kimball and Dickstein choose are revealing—they write of seeing and tasting, of hearing and feeling. They point to what makes the family meal so enduring. When we cook and eat together, we engage all of our senses:
- We are seeing faces we love and the rich colors of the food before us.
- We are hearing a symphony of sounds—sizzling, bubbling, clinking.
- We are feeling textures with our hands and with our tongues.
- We are smelling potent aromas and tasting layers of flavor.
- We are sharing these sensations with everyone else at the table.
Engaging the Heart
With all the distractions of modern living, mealtimes often feel more like a chore than a sacred rite, but whether we’re serving a home-cooked masterpiece or noodles out of a box, eating together will still engage all of our senses, and memories will still endure.
“I feel a special connection to my family every time I eat it,” says Edgar Gomez about his Mexican grandmother’s bread pudding.
“Grandma puts loving care into every handmade batch,” says Steve Rockwood about his American grandma’s Rocky Road fudge.
“Like the delicious aroma of Mom’s cooking, my Vietnamese heritage touches every part of my life,” says Anne Metcalf about her family’s traditional spring rolls recipe.
Are these dishes so deeply meaningful because of how they taste—because of the particular combination of ingredients that pleases the palate? No, it’s what the recipes represent: time, sacrifice, family, and love.
Any meal, eaten alone or with others, naturally touches the eyes, ears, hands, nose, and tongue. But we can also get the heart involved when we gather with loved ones or cook recipes that connect us to our heritage.
More Meaningful Family Meals
Here are a dozen simple ways to make your family dinner more memorable and meaningful for families of all shapes and sizes, no matter how busy the schedule or how tight the budget.
- Aim for 10 minutes.Bruce Feiler, author of Secrets of Happy Families, says 10 minutes of conversation is all you need to reap the benefits of a family dinner. Even on nights when there’s only enough time to prepare the simplest of meals, you can nourish hearts and minds with a little bit of your time and attention.
- Gather at the table. The kitchen table is arguably the most important furnishing in the home. Even if you grabbed takeout on the way home from work, make it a point to sit at the table and eat together. (Tired of the kids arguing and fighting? Feiler says engaging them in a cooperative task beforehand—like setting the table—has been proven to increase mealtime harmony.)
- Talk about family history. According to research conducted at Emory University, says Feiler, “Kids who knew more about their family history had a higher sense of self-esteem and a greater belief that they could control their own lives. It was the number one predictor of a child’s emotional wellbeing.” Dinner is the perfect time to create and reinforce your own family narrative and to give your children a sense of belonging and a strong “intergenerational identity.”
- Cook heritage recipes or mindfully start your own food traditions.
- Involve children in the preparation. Jonathan Wing says Wednesday night was his turn to help his mom with dinner, often making adobo. “She taught us how to make traditional dishes from her childhood [in the Philippines],” he says. “Now a part of Mom’s childhood is part of mine too.”
- Begin the meal with a moment of unity. Your family might have a tradition of saying grace or uniting in prayer. If so, pray for or offer thanks for every person present by name. Those who aren’t religious can still holds hands around the table, taking time to pause and connect before starting to eat.
- Acknowledge everyone who contributed to this meal. Talk about the farmers who grew the vegetables, the butcher who cut the meat, the provider whose paycheck bought the groceries, the ancestor who passed down the recipe, and the hands that prepared the food.
- Set aside phones and smartphones at mealtimes—especially for dad and mom. Almost 3 in 5 US workers say the constant emails and texts are ruining the family dinner.
- Listen. Research shows that parents tend to dominate two-thirds of the dinner conversation. “If that’s what’s happening, you’re not taking enough advantage of your time together,” Feiler says. Try to let the kids do at least 50% of the talking.
- Honor the recipe creator. Place a photo of the person who passed down the recipe at the center of the table, to spark conversation and connection, as Elizabeth Dillow demonstrates on the FamilySearch blog.
- Engage the five senses—and the five tastes. If there are children eating with you, ask them to identify what they are seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and feeling. Ask them if they can spot all five tastes in this particular meal: sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and umami.
- Map your meal. Name all the different locations that the food on the table came from—Peruvian grapes, local chicken, Mexican rice—and have the kids identify the countries on this downloadable placemat. Or map the home countries of the ancestors who passed down the recipes you’re enjoying.
The memories we make at the kitchen table will stay with us throughout our lives. If food traditions or dinner stories from your own childhood came to mind while you were reading this article, take a moment to write them down or share them in the comments. Maybe even upload them to your profile on FamilySearch.
Going forward, we all have a choice: we can think of meals as a chore, or we can choose to look at the family dinner as a privilege, a gift, and a powerful tool that’s capable of improving children’s lives, strengthening generational ties, and building stronger families. And we don’t have to become better cooks in order to reap these benefits; we just have to do our part to reach beyond the five senses and engage the heart.
If you'd like to learn more about how food traditions bring family together, click here.