French anthropologist and sociologist Claude Lévi-Strauss wrote about the importance of cooking for being human. And this is not just a figure of speech. From times immemorial shared meals were a special ritual which provided a platform for communication and relationship building, while giving rhythm to our daily routines. Eating alone was typically met with the disapproval of others and was even considered bad manners.
A dining table continues to play a huge role in our lives. Think of your childhood and you will likely recall at least a few heart-warming memories of your family, involving this piece of furniture. A dining table is the centrepiece of all significant gatherings, be it celebrations, long anticipated get togethers or just a catch-up over the latest news.
Despite our tendency to drop this beautiful tradition for a whatever reason as we grow up, shared mealtimes retain their vital functions. So, what is behind this ritual and why do family meals continue to matter in the age of fast-food culture?
A family table has always been a forum for children to become socialised. This is where they learn the basic rules of social conduct and manners. It is where they pick up their food habits and soak up the wisdom and guidance of their parents. What inevitably springs to mind is Downtown Abbey’s dining table scenes, where all members of the family gather around a table to share the latest news and acknowledge each other.
According to the latest research, we know that the tradition of family meals is passed down through generations: the children who were brought up this way then reinstate it in their own families. They are also more likely to follow a healthy diet, giving preference to quality natural foods and home cooking instead of processed meals and takeaways.
A meal in the company of those we hold dear promotes the production of oxytocin. This hormone develops attachment and emotional bonding. Thanks to oxytocin we not only feel happy and content with life but also full! By suppressing a hunger hormone ghrelin, it reduces the amount of food we eat and speeds up the feeling of satiety.
It is for this reason that having a meal alone can result in overeating, especially when a tasty dish becomes a substitute for social interaction and is used to relieve stress. Next time you reach out for that yummy snack, ask yourself this: do I genuinely feel hungry or am I trying to bury some kind of drama in my head?
Regular family lunches have a positive impact on our mental health. Children brought up this way are more stress resilient and likely to have a good self-esteem. They are less prone to depression, anxiety, substance abuse and digestive issues. They generally feel happier and more satisfied with life, are more social and open to human interaction.
It warms the heart
According to a survey conducted by Columbia University National Centre for Addiction Studies, teenagers that spend more time with their family over a meal are twice less likely to use drugs, alcohol and tobacco. Psychologists explain this through the likelihood of a closer bond between these young people and their families, as they develop warm and trusting relationships with their parents. It is equally important that teenagers see these shared meals as a good opportunity to communicate with their family members. Needless to say, the nature of these get togethers plays a key role in all of this.
A dining table is a place for healing, support and unity. Family members share their heartfelt concerns and open up to each other. To come together in this way means putting aside any differences and grudges. There is a reason why different cultures and etiquettes ban any discussions of controversial topics, which can create disagreements and tensions between those involved.
Any conflicts and arguments are perceived by our body as stress, activating the sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for our fight-or-flight mode. It is only logical to assume that for optimal processing of nutrients we need to instead switch on the parasympathetic nervous system otherwise known as rest-and-digest. In other words, it is best to leave all difficult conversations and complaints about your kid’s messy bedroom for another time.
Creating a tradition of family meals
The good news is that every family can create its own food culture. How often you gather around a table, what food you choose to serve and what you talk about has no universal formula. Shape your own tradition by trial-and-error and, crucially, communicate with each other. Therapist and family meals specialist Anne Fishel has a few tricks up her sleeve:
1/ Start small
Find a time that works for everyone. It can be over dinner or breakfast on Friday nights or Sunday mornings. The main thing is finding common ground. If this is a new tradition for you, start with just once a week. Do not raise the bar too high and plan daily meals together in a family with two working adults and children of different ages.
2/ Simplicity is key
Mealtimes are for savouring your food and communicating with one another. Do not wait for that perfect moment or try to replicate your ideal meal. It does not have to be a big feast with a complicated menu, a fancy dessert and high society serving etiquette. A simple pasta will do or a table spread consisting of vegetable dishes, cheese and bread. Simple dishes are as popular with adults as they are with children. Be realistic about what you can achieve and use what you already have.
3/ Be flexible
If everyone is unable to get together on time, postpone the meeting by a couple of hours and have pre-bed teatime together instead. There is also no reason why you should miss out on this ritual if you are not a keen cook. You can always have a family meal in a restaurant or get it delivered to your house. The main thing that matters is having some quality time together.
Pick a cuisine you would like to try, get a recipe for your grandmother’s famous apple pie or get your children involved. Make family meals fun rather than a chore. The same goes for meals with friends. You can organise a themed party or invite everyone to make some dumplings and gather over some board games. Do not underestimate your imagination and go wild!
Last but not least, remember that it is all about quality over quantity when it comes to family traditions. It is not just about sharing a meal but about the atmosphere you create with your loved ones gathered around the table.