LIZ WILLIAMS (This article was published in October 2012)
I seem to be stuck on the need to return to the table. When creating our cultural and policy future, we should not try to solve the ills of today by merely proffering new solutions. Sometimes our previous practices gave us the solutions. I feel that way about our take-out world.
As we search for solutions to a fat society, a society that has a school dropout rate that is too high, and one that has a drug problem, having a family meal by sitting at the table together may offer a simple and inexpensive solution. Studies have shown that eating meals together as a family increases grades in children, reduces drug use, and helps hedge against obesity. Yet we try to solve these problems without looking at the table. We seem to have merely accepted that people no longer eat together at home either because we are too busy with our individual lives, we have no time to cook, or we are eating out separately. Our failure to eat together lies at the root of the aforementioned societal ills. This move away from the table is a huge cultural shift that has changed our society.
This is not a revolutionary idea. Studies for at least 20 years, and some even earlier, have been sounding the alarm, warning us to return to the table and eat family meals. Yet our lives have continued to become less connected to the family meal and our meals have been transformed from the center of our lives – nurturing more than our bodies – to something incidental. There are a number of organizations that have been established to encourage people to eat together. But they have not rattled the cage loudly enough. We need to shout this from the rooftops. EAT TOGETHER. SAVE THE FAMILY MEAL.
Prehistoric people spent most of their lives finding food and eating it. This was often a communal activity, involving many people in a tribe or group. Working and living together was a key to survival.
As we moved into an agricultural society, eating together continued to be something that allowed people to stop of activities and share time together. Even as we move forward through history, we see that eating and eating together has meaning. In many societies, sharing a meal represents more than just hospitality; it means that those who share your food are now friends and people to whom you owe certain duties. Whether in lands of sparse food supplies where a shared meal honors guests, or in places of plenty where a shared meal denotes status, sharing a meal is a central cultural element.
With the growth of a highway system and the television in every house, Americans were on the move and watching the world. The idea of travel became much more accessible with those highways and with a car. Mobility meant that meals were eaten on the road. Getting there meant eating in the car. Drive-ins allowed the car to become your personal restaurant. Eating in your car could happen while the car was stationary or in motion.
A television was a fixed piece of equipment that people watched in the room where the television sat. To eat those new Birds-eye TV dinners in front of the TV on your own personal table not only took us away from the common table, but also took the focus away from each other. The focus was on the television. Coupled with these new technologies were the civil rights movements – which included women’s rights – and women began entered the workforce. Women had been the primary keepers of the home, which included cooking and organizing meals. If women were at jobs outside their homes, meals were less organized and were often catch as catch can.
- World War II-era kitchen display at the Childrens Museum of Oak Ridge in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, USA. Blue Ridge china, which was manufactured in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s at a plant in nearby Erwin, Tennessee, is on display on the shelves above the table. Photo by Brian Stansberry, via Wikimedia Commons.
And with prosperity came families who have so many planned activities that each member’s lives were increasingly separated from the others. Distractions caused by increased technology – personal computers, personal telephones, personal everything – increased this separation. This means that while we may connect to someone across the world, we are not connecting to those who live in the same house. And for a variety of reasons our schedules are separate, making a family meal something that must be planned and valued.
Our national ethic’s Puritan streak has meant that enjoying eating and each other has not been something that we could openly relish. Eating was something that fueled the body, not a pleasure. Work and other activities were less important than having a meal together. There was nothing making us want to continue to eat together.
Our policies have inadvertently offered us more freedom, but the family meal has been sacrificed. And that sacrifice has caused us great negative consequences. We can reverse some of those consequences by remembering the cultural importance of the table. I hope that we can begin to restore the family meal, through a number of policy steps, and return to the common family table.