Growing up, my family was never one to eat together. We would all grab our meal and eat separately in front of the TV. Once we were done, we would all go our separate ways–me to do my homework, my mom to finish the dishes, my dad to his book, my sister to her computer. As I’m writing this, a sense of shame almost comes over me because I know that our method of eating meals was quick and efficient, but incredibly individualistic. If we all knew that eating together was better for our family, then why did we keep eating separately?
Eating as Relationship
It was not until I lived in Bangkok, Thailand that I experienced the power of eating meals with others. Every meal would be prepared together, carefully slicing all of the vegetables, pounding spices together, frying meat to a crispy texture. In preparation, we would lay out two huge bamboo mats on the porch, setting bowls, spoons, and forks out for everyone to use. All the aunties and uncles of the church would come to share a meal with us. Eating together was relationship, not merely a tool for nutrition. Eventually the cooks would bring out the platters of food, all heads turning as if Cinderella had just entered the ball. A prayer would be said over the food and then the meal would start. Not just food was shared on those mats, but laughter and tears were also common. For the first time, I was experiencing how eating together built relationship and broke down barriers of prejudice and inequality.
A Psychological Perspective
Many people see eating better as a matter of nutritional improvement, but what if eating better was also a matter psychological improvement? A study by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia shows that children who eat dinner with their parents five or more times a week are more likely to have stronger and more trusting relationships with their parents in addition to being less likely to use drugs, alcohol, and tobacco. And it can be assumed that the parents’ relationships with their children also improved.
Eating together fights alienation. In a culture that highly values individualism and hard work, we are slowly, but surely breaking ourselves away. What if eating a meal with others is the necessary break we need in American society? What if the table can be the place of destressing with those closest to you?
Eating as Unity
As defined by Gordon W. Allport, Contact Theory states that interpersonal contact between majority and minority group members is the best way to reduce prejudice. What if eating with others different than you could be one of the most intimate forms of contact theory? In her book Eating Together , Alice Julier argues exactly this point–that sharing a table “can radically shift people’s perspectives: It reduces people’s perceptions of inequality, and diners tend to view those of different races, genders, and socioeconomic backgrounds as more equal than they would in other social scenarios” (Delistraty). As the dinner table serves as one of the most intimate places of social interaction, this form of contact theory can be one of the most powerful.
Perhaps Jesus was on to something when he would eat with the tax collectors and the sinners. He was making a statement that even those these people were rejected by society, they were worth dignifying by sharing a table together. He chose to honor those who were ignored by eating together. Similarly, by eating together with people different than us, we are choosing to break societal norms and honor unity rather than prejudice. How will you choose to honor those different than you?
Happily Ever After?
I wish that I had an amazing story to tell about how my three months in Thailand changed the way that my family ate meals together, but I simply don’t have one. This post is not just a challenge to those reading it, but also an important challenge for myself. How will I value relationship through eating meals with others? I love to share meals with friends while away at college, or simply to catch up, but I wonder what it would look like to shift this perspective to my family. I hope that someday I will be able to say that my family has grown closer because of sharing meals around a table.