We all know what food is for. Biologically, food is fuel, the stuff that provides us with the energy to do all the things we do. Like every other animal on the planet-from protozoa to panda bears-we eat in order to live.
For us alone, however, out of all the animal kingdom, food plays a far greater role. Shared food promotes friendship, fellowship, and communication, and functions as social glue. Food is an integral part of life’s transitions: we have wedding and birthday cakes, funeral casseroles, celebratory champagne, and that rite-of-passage first legal beer. Food is symbolic: on New Year’s Day, for example, depending where and who we are, we eat grapes, lentils, black-eyed peas, or soba noodles for luck. Christians celebrate Shrove Tuesday with pancakes and Good Friday with hot cross buns; Jews commemorate Passover with bitter herbs and unleavened bread; and Muslims, after Ramadan, traditionally break their long fast with dates. Food forges our national and cultural identities. Almost every family has its special dishes that—collectively partaken of—solidify the sense of belonging to a tribe.
There’s a good argument that many of the characteristics that define us as human evolved from our peculiar custom of sitting down together for dinner. Among these are kinship systems, spoken language, technology, and a sense of right and wrong—all of which may have their roots in food, brought home and divvied up among people gathered together around a primitive communal hearth. Researchers guess that we (and our distant ancestors) have been sharing meals in this way for nearly two million years.
Watch as citizens in Milpa Alta, Mexico, cook sixty thousand tamales and 5,000 gallons of hot chocolate for their annual pre-Christmas fiesta.
A meal, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is an “occasion of taking food” that occurs “by custom or habit at more or less fixed times of day.” Such established meals are a universal practice, found in all countries, cultures, and social classes. In fact, the familiar American three-meal-a-day pattern—breakfast, lunch, and dinner—is common worldwide, though historically there have been many exceptions. Medieval monks, for example, were served two (sometimes one) meals a day. The Vikings customarily ate two meals a day (a “day meal” and a “night meal”); and the Victorians, to their standard three, added a fourth meal in the mid- to late afternoon, known as tea. One story holds that tea was the invention of Anna Maria Stanhope, the Duchess of Bedford, one of Queen Victoria’s ladies-in-waiting. The Duchess, on days of skimpy lunch, was afflicted by a “sinking feeling” at four in the afternoon.
Much-publicized results of recent studies show that there are real benefits to shared meals. Family dinners make for stronger family bonds, provide opportunities for communication, and are a venue for transmitting values, traditions, healthy eating habits, and table manners. People who share meals generally eat better than loners. Kids who share family dinners eat more vegetables, fruits, and calcium-rich foods and consume fewer soft drinks and junk-food-type snacks.
Younger children who participate in regular family meals learn social skills and build bigger vocabularies; teenagers who eat with their families do better in school, get along better with their parents, and have lower incidences of depression, obesity, drug and alcohol abuse, and delinquency. Scientists caution that there are other factors in play here—not all behaviors are solely attributable to joint dinners-but the consensus is that shared meals, socially and psychologically, are a plus. And most people—regardless of the good-for-us benefits—simply find shared meals fun. The solitary food pills gulped down by Buck, Wilma, and the other denizens of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century will never compete with chat and camaraderie around the kitchen table.
Related: “Why We Avoid Cooking”
That said, polls indicate that Americans are sharing fewer meals than they did back in the days of Father Knows Best and Leave It to Beaver. Nowadays the average American eats one in every five meals in the car; and one in every four of us eats a fast-food meal every day. While the bulk of American families agree that family meals are something to look forward to, many struggle to get food and family members all in the same place at the same time. According to a 2013 Harris poll, about 30 percent of American families share dinner every night, about 50 percent manage shared meals four nights a week, 20 percent squeak in 2-3 nights a week; and 6 percent never eat dinner together at all.
Feasts, banquets, and dinner parties—unlike everyday meals—are not only opportunities for food sharing, but occasions for showing off. Food can promote warm and fuzzy connections among eaters; it can also serve as a status symbol or power play. What you serve your guests—caviar or corn chips, Beaujolais or Budweiser—can be a signal of wealth, importance, and social standing. Rich Romans wowed their compatriots with night-long banquets that began with jellyfish and stuffed sow’s udders, continued through roasted deer, boiled ostrich, dormice stuffed with pine nuts, and flamingo with dates, and ended with sweet-wine cakes and fricassee of roses. Some went even further: the extravagant teenaged emperor Elagabalus, whose brief reign ended in an assassination arranged by his grandmother, served his guests peas with gold pieces, beans with amber, and rice with pearls. Victorian hostesses impressed their company with twelve or more courses of several dishes each.
Seating arrangements at dinners often indicate who is and who isn’t a V.I.P. The head of the household traditionally gets the chair at the head of the table. In the Middle Ages, the distinguished sat at the head of the table, above the centrally placed salt cellar; servants and nobodies sat at the foot, “below the salt,” a phrase still used today to indicate the less-favored and lower-class. Table etiquette similarly can draw a line between who’s in and who’s out: generations of social climbers have been daunted by the behavioral intricacies of eating. Emily Post’s famous Etiquette in Society, in Business, in Politics, and at Home—originally published in 1922—was a Bible for the aspiring socialite struggling to master oyster forks, fish knives, finger bowls, and asparagus tongs. (See a quick guide of different types of forks.)
Ideally, however, shared food is more about community and togetherness than classism and one-upmanship. The first Thanksgiving in the November of 1621 was an egalitarian potluck at which some 50 Pilgrims and 90 Wampanoags shared a three-day feast of roast venison, goose, duck, clams, mussels, lobster, cornmeal mush, and—just possibly—turkey.
No one really knows all that the celebrants did during this prolonged party. Pilgrim Edward Winslow, who kept an extensive diary, writes that they “entertained,” as well as feasted; most likely they played games, danced, and competed at target-shooting and tug-of-war. It would be nice to think, however, that during this brief blink of history, they used their epic meal to sit around the table doing what humans have done since time immemorial: talk, laugh, share stories, trade jokes, catch up on the news, and get to know each other better.
- Julier, Alice P. Eating Together: Food, Friendship, and Inequality. University of Illinois Press, 2013.
- Musick, Kelly, and Ann Meier. “Assessing Causality and Persistence in Associations Between Family Dinners and Adolescent Well-Being.” Journal of Marriage and Family 74, May 2012, pp. 476-493.
- Weinstein, Miriam. The Surprising Power of Family Meals: How Eating Together Makes Us Smarter, Stronger, Healthier, and Happier. Steerforth, 2006.