When gathering to share a meal with loved ones, food is rarely the most important part of the ritual.
“It can be a space or time to slow down and listen to one another, to connect, to share about your day or about what's going on in your life,” says Anne Brubaker, a senior lecturer at Wellesley College who teaches a course about food and culture. “It really is like a kind of social glue. Whether it's family, friends, or people that you know less well, having a meal together is an important way that we connect.”
Anne Fishel, a clinical psychologist and co-founder of the Family Dinner Project, says that much of the work she facilitates for families in her office could easily be replicated organically at home, if people shared more time around the dinner table. “When kids have a chance to bond with their parents, to feel close to their parents, to feel that their parents are listening to them, they have a chance to talk about their days or whatever is on their mind, it's like a seatbelt on the potholed road of childhood and adolescence,” she says. A 2012 report from the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University found that teens who have frequent family dinners are more likely to report having high-quality relationships with their parents and less likely to report high levels of stress.
According to the Pew Research Center, nearly 75% of U.S. adults rank spending time with their family as one of the most important aspects of their lives. And during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, 85% of parents said they frequently had shared family dinners. But now that families have returned to their normal, fast-paced lives, it can be a challenge to continue sharing meals together, with a small family unit, much less an extended one.
Experts spoke to TIME about how to make the family meal work. Here’s what they said.
Be realistic about your schedules
Experts say the best way to make room for family mealtime is by programming it into your weekly or monthly schedule and giving each person a role based on their skills and bandwidth. That might mean designating someone to pick up ingredients before dinner, assigning family members different items to bring, or making the meal together if time permits.
Fishel specifies that a shared meal does not have to center around dinner. It might be a family breakfast or even a snack around the same time. She says some families will do “split shift dinners.” That practice means a few relatives will initially eat together, then one may leave and another may join, or perhaps someone only has time to drop by to eat dessert. The point is for families to spend time together and learn from one another through some sort of ritual.
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For some families, food can also serve as a way to connect to your culture or identity. “From day to day, from week to week, even harkening back to previous generations, we're eating foods that our grandparents ate or our great grandparents ate,” Fishel says. “It is a kind of anchor for a family. It offers some stability, which is really important for adults as well as kids. It's something that we can count on that kind of reminds us who we are.”
Cultivating a space
While formal dining rooms were once pivotal markers of wealth and aspirational for many family homes, experts say they are not a requirement for a successful shared meal. Fishel suggests that families try to create a space where they are sitting across from each other, so they can look at one another while eating, but emphasizes that these meals can really be done from anywhere.
Each family should adapt their parameters around mealtime to their needs, says Brubaker, who notes that standing and eating in the kitchen or eating around the couch does not necessarily impact a family’s ability to connect. “There are some families who have much more formal expectations around the table like where manners and politeness are a high priority, and others who may feel like it's perfectly fine to get up from the table and walk around and come back to it,” she says. “It's really just about setting aside a shared space where you can enjoy a meal.”
In order to get the conversation going, experts suggest starting off with more structured conversation. That could look like discussing a rose and a thorn, or high and low, of the day. Fishel says that families can also integrate fun games or activities while cooking dinner or at the table that can make the meal more fun. If the meal is happening during a stressful period, she suggests starting off with breathing exercises or eating with candlelight. Playing music in the background can also help set the right tone.
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Use technology to your advantage
Experts tell TIME that families can also use technology to help them connect. That can include calling in a family member who is away during mealtime through FaceTime or Zoom, similar to how many families used video calls during the beginning of the pandemic.
But if you’re allowing technology at the table, make sure you’re being consistent with your rules across ages. That means that a no cell-phone policy should apply to both parents and their children.
And while sitting together and talking about each other’s days is important, experts say it’s also OK to watch television or a movie during dinnertime. “We focus less on the food itself when we're doing more than one thing,” says Brubaker. “[But] I could imagine a family sitting around watching TV or connecting while watching the show, and having the pleasure of eating at the same time and together. That could be a way to connect later by talking about both the show and the meal.”
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Keep an eye on budget
Although inflation is cooling, experts recognize that cooking your own family meal can prove costly for many. They encourage parents to draft meal plans to help keep things within budget and ensure that you are only purchasing what you need to limit food waste.
Fishel suggests families look for budget-friendly meal recommendations online. She also recommends families consider opting for alternatives to ingredients. That could look like buying frozen vegetables and fruits, or opting for beans and grains instead of meat as a quick way to save.
And it's OK to take shortcuts. “Leftovers work, takeout works,” Fishel says. “The secret sauce of a family meal is really what happens when they come together. The enjoyment of each other's company, it's relaxing, it's having a laugh, it's telling a story. So letting go of having to make food from scratch or having it be organic, that's really the least important part of a family meal.”
Food may serve as the initial point of connection, but the stories shared over the table—and the time spent in each other’s company—are what make a meal memorable.
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