Don't Dump Your Dining Room Table

A big family table is the absolute core of the home.

Dinner table
Dinner table for Erev Christmas.

Lloyd Alter

That's our dining table above, set up in our dining room for a big family dinner. Normally it isn't so pretty because we eat every meal there; it is the only table we have. The meal together with the family is as important as the venue. Years ago when I worked in development, I wasn't considered a team player because I always missed the end-of-the-day session in the boss's office because my wife insisted I be home at six for the family dinner.

Now Melinda Fakuade writes in Vox that the dining table is dying a slow death. She may be doing a bit of projection; she grew up eating in the kitchen and the dining room table was a dumping ground. "The table’s rich mahogany top is in near-perfect condition because of the protective cover it came with."

Dining Room Table
Dining Room Table.

Lloyd Alter

Our dining room table is a mess; it is an old office boardroom table from the fifties and came pre-scarred, but this is where my daughter sat; she had a propensity for throwing tantrums and banging dishes into the table. I can identify one big dent near the top from a certain episode involving macaroni and cheese. In fact, almost every dent in it is a memory.

Table set up for party

Lloyd Alter

In her history of the dining table, Fakuade quotes Alice Benjamin, who says that dining rooms were good for showing off "all your lavish things: beautiful chairs, the linens, the plates." This is still true in our house, where my wife Kelly drags out all the china for family events. Perhaps we are a bit extreme in this; Kelly is certainly extreme in her collections of china.

Fakuade writes that "dinner happens everywhere now: on the couch while streaming a television show, hunched over a kitchen countertop, on a commute home." She describes how the eat-in kitchen became the focus of family life.

"Kids could do their homework and play in view of their parents while meals were prepared. Naturally, people began to eat casual meals in the kitchen — the space was available, and allowed family members to flow between different activities."
Plan of house with dots
How one family from the study spends its afternoons.

J. Arnold, Life At Home in the 21st Century

Although not in this particular article, everyone generally points to the drawing above as proof that nobody uses a dining room and everyone wants to be in the kitchen. But it seems nobody reads the book where the illustration came from, "Life at Home in the Twenty-First Century," where the kitchen is often an ugly scene.

"Parents’ comments on these spaces reflect a tension between culturally situated notions of the tidy home and the demands of daily life. ...Empty sinks are rare, as are spotless and immaculately organized kitchens. All of this, of course, is a source of anxiety. Images of the tidy home are intricately linked to notions of middle-class success as well as family happiness, and unwashed dishes in and around the sink are not congruent with these images."

And of course, as Fakuade notes, nobody spends much time eating together. "Snacks and random meals throughout the day allow for convenience. Cooking, and sharing a meal for that matter, requires a lot more forethought and effort ... The pandemic has furthered our consumption of snacks, and our eating habits have fallen even further from what they previously were."

We have actually noted that people are taking food more seriously and cooking more because of the pandemic, and I have tried to make the case that we shouldn't be eating at kitchen islands.  I wrote: "I keep thinking that somewhere, you have to draw a line, that a prep surface is not a desk, that you don't want mom and dad and kids all zooming from the kitchen counters, that this is dangerously unsanitary and not very productive for working, either."

When it comes to family life, I defer to my colleague Katherine Martinko, who writes that the tradition of family dinner is worth preserving.

"I think we’ve got a great thing going on when it comes to family dinner. It doesn’t need to be reinvented, but rather reclaimed. The tradition grew out of families’  need to connect with each other at the end of every day, and that need is stronger than ever nowadays in our overscheduled lives."

Fakuade thinks our phones are more common for connecting now. "Family life has changed significantly, and we don’t necessarily learn about the world through dinner conversation anymore. It’s all at our fingertips."

Feeling at a loss here, I reached out to Sarah Archer, author of "The Midcentury Kitchen" (review here). In her book, she notes that technology changed the kitchen, and it is changing how we eat, telling Treehugger: "It’s kind of a desire path phenomenon. People gravitate to their comfort spot! Also complicated by the fact that flatscreens mean 'the tv room' can be anywhere, so dining table and tv aren’t mutually exclusive." Or as I see with my kids, neither is the phone.

Dining room
Dining room photographed with a very wide lens.

Craig A. Williams

I am an architect and have always pushed the idea of a big family table being the absolute core of the home. I chose my big old Edwardian home because it had a big dining room and designed my cabin up north around a giant table, Even after renovating and cutting our space in half, I kept the dining room as it was because it defines our home and our lives.

Nothing has changed my opinion about it; being perched at an island is no substitute. Whether it has its own room or not, the dining table is the focus of the family. It's not dead yet.