Around the dinner table

Family that eats together, stays together

 Family mealtime, was considered a tradition in the past. This was the only time where family members had the opportunity to be as a unit. Do you think that majority of American families eat together, still?  Are families eating more take-out food and eating away from home more often than they did in the past? Do you think this practice is fading due to a hectic lifestyle and technology?  
A proper family meal is one consumed in the home by the family members. It is expected to be a daily routine, dinner served at a regular time, and  family members sat in their assigned seating; according to an accepted set of rules and behaviors. A proper family meal is homemade; unlike snacks or fast food, food is transformed in the domestic kitchen through a cultural operation (cooking), which requires time and effort (Cinotto, S., 2006).
History of the American Family Mealtime

Farmers family around dinner table

In the early eighteenth century, the father was the patriarch of the family. He had the power to pass on land, property and craft skill. The mother was submissive according to the Divine and she loved her spouse. The mother had the sole responsibility of caring for the home, upbringing of the children, tending to the animals on the farm, working the fields, and performing any other task, just as her husband. Agrarian families interacted with one another throughout the day, that they did eat their meals together but only the men were allowed to be seated. Women and children ate standing, hastily so they could resume their task at hand(Gillis,J., 1996).
A family eating dinner in the 19th century

"The Midday Meal" by Jakob Eammanuel Gaissler"

In the late eighteenth century, industrialization changed the scheme of  working at home. More productive jobs became available. By this change, the middle-class men became the sole provider of the family’s wealth and the women were concealed to the home. Middle-class women were bestowed the burden of safeguarding a notion of domesticity that regarded the home as the realm of family privacy and intimacy.  As the functions of the family became mostly psychological and ideological, family rituals became more important, dotting the yearly calendar and regulating the daily routine of family life. It was exactly then that the “traditional family meal” was created. In the Victorian middle-class, family meals became special occasions that occurred everyday (Cinotto, S., 2006). This became the opportunity to mold and teach the children good manners, responsibilty, order, and self-discipline which would assit and prepare them to compete and succeed in the larger society, became one of the primary purposes of middle-class family life (Mintz & Kellogg. 1988). 


Slave family around table 
 Slavery and migration greatly affected the development of African American family life and dining habits. Genders changed drastically in the south with the woman working inside and outside the home. She would prepare breakfast and eat in the fields with her family, work and repeat the same routine for lunch and then for dinner prepare a similar meal. Formal eating was praticed during holidays and celebration. African Americans in the north had an easier time comparing their meals but most families ate together later in the evening for dinner, when most of the members were home. Dinner incorporated the southern breakfast and lunch pattern which consisted of a meat and vegetable served in one single serving.


Immigrants Eating

Most of the immigrant came from rural settings and they had to adjust their eating patterns, change their diet, and meal schedule to favor the urban lifestyle. This was extremely hard because their meal preparations were traditional. It was much harder on the children because they wanted to become more “Americanized”, so mealtime for these families became more confrontational. So parents compromised with their children and followed family traditions and customs on weekends and holidays when they had more time.

During the wars, family mealtime was used as war time propaganda, images of families eating was a sign of social stability and strength. Norman Rockwell’s Freedom from Want depictated this image and was shown in the Saturday Evening Post in 1943.

Norman Rockwell

Freedom from Want

Family mealtime was shown on TV shows such as Father Knows Best, Leave It to Beaver and Happy Days. There weren’t many TV shows showing family mealtime with African Americans or minorities; except for Good Times which represented African American family but you rarely saw the whole family sit at the table while eating.

Family mealtime is still relevant in our culture; many children eat at least 4 to 6 meals with their family. Research shows that family meals facilitate children’s social, cognitive, emotional, and nutritional development. The model has changed a little because they might be eating food from a fast-food restaurant in front of the TV, or some other kind of distraction, due to the use of technology.

Work cited:

Cinotto, S. (2006), “Everyone would be around the table”: American family mealtimes in historical perspective, 1850–1960. New Directions for Child and Adolescent Development, 2006: 17–33. doi: 10.1002/cd.153

Gills, J.R. (1996). A world of their own making: Myth, rituals, and the quest for family values. New York: Basic Books.

Larson, R. W., Branscomb, K. R. and Wiley, A. R. (2006). Forms and functions of family mealtimes: Multidisciplinary perspectives. New Directions for Child and Adolescent Development, 2006: 1–15. doi: 10.1002/cd.152

Mintz, S., & Kellogg, S. (1998). Domestic revolutions: A social history of American family life. New York: Free Press.


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