The American “family dinner” tradition, as we know it, is only 150 years old, according to a new book called Three Squares: The Invention of the American Meal by cultural historian Abigail Carroll. This is interesting because family dinner is often viewed as a sacred custom with near-magical powers attributed to it, yet it’s really not as deeply embedded in history as one might suppose. Many societal changes have led to the creation of family dinner -- and to the subsequent drift away from it in recent years.
Carroll writes about the pre-Victorian approach to food, which was casual and chaotic. While the early settlers saw a defined, three-meal-a-day schedule as a way to differentiate themselves from the “savagery” of Native feasts, meals were “generally informal, variable, and socially unimportant affairs.” Since fewer than one in four Virginia households owned a table, it was hard to put on a formal meal. As population increased, table etiquette became a way to distinguish between social classes. With the Industrial Revolution, workers packed lunches, which meant “coming together around a table in the evening took on heightened significance.” This was the final push toward adopting the sacred status that family dinner now holds.
One reviewer of Three Squares seems to view the relatively recent evolution of family dinner as justification for its erosion:
“The three-meal structure is only a cultural heirloom, not an ordinance of nature – and thus open to intention reinvention, as well as reactive evolution… If, as we’re endlessly told, the family dinner is in crisis, then, rather than simply wringing our hands and bemoaning the decline of table manners, we should instead see this as an opportunity for a much more thoughtful reinvention of the way we eat.”
I disagree because 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.
Even more importantly, family dinner is crucial for teaching kids how to cook. America has a health crisis on its hands, raising a generation of overweight children who don’t know how to transform basic whole foods into meals. Upholding the tradition of family dinner is a relatively simple solution to this problem. What better way for a child to learn how to cook and feed themselves properly than by seeing it done regularly at home? Of course this requires a small time commitment from parents, and perhaps a steep learning curve on their part if that knowledge hasn’t been passed down from grandparents, but it’s a worthwhile investment that could reverse America’s dismal tide of poor health.