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From Dining Rooms to Doordash: a Brief History of Family Dinners

Written by: Bella Coyne

We’ve all seen it: the picturesque image of an American family eating supper. A mother in pearl earrings lowers a massive, golden bird before a father with a loosened necktie and carving tools. Children smile brightly from their places, holding their gleaming, silver utensils at attention as they await the feast. It is a regular Tuesday night. 

If that sounds a bit ridiculous, that’s because it is. Our contemporary family dinners don’t look like Norman Rockwell paintings – but does that mean we’ve abandoned our American values? 

Simone Cinotto, author and contemporary historian, published a paper in 2006 exploring the function of family dinners in American history. This quote elaborates on the establishment of suppertime.

 “As the functions of the family became mostly psychological and ideological, family rituals became more important…regulating the daily routine of family life. It was exactly then [in the early nineteenth century] that the ‘traditional family meal’ was created.” 

Dining as a family emerged during the Victorian Age, as the middle class carved out a daily routine centered around industrial work schedules. Women took on domestic responsibilities as both a duty and an identity. Men worked from morning to evening, in schools, offices, or factories. Suppertime, usually around seven o’clock, became the only time of day when the entire family could gather in the same place, at the same time. 

Families that could afford a formal dining room, serving utensils, and freshly cooked meals, were considered well-off. Eating nightly meals was suddenly a social statement. Place settings like soup and dessert spoons, and butter and steak knives, signified that there was a large enough variety of food to eat that they needed more than just the basics. Gathering the whole family was a prime opportunity to teach etiquette to children. Not to mention, a dining room was a perfect space to host meals for others…and show off the sterling silver forks and the brand-new curtains. 

It wasn’t until Prohibition that dining out became more than just a men’s activity. When saloons, lounges, and pubs were forced to dry out, many converted to restaurants instead. With the economy booming and nightlife soaring, eating out became a pastime that was suddenly family-friendly. Women seeking careers, independence, and modernity, were less inclined to play the role of housewife and cook a meat-and-three each night. Thus, families still dined together, but it was no longer around their own dining room table, and certainly not nightly. In 1929, a father from Indiana was quoted as saying, 

“I ate only seven meals at home all last week and three of those were on Sunday. It’s getting so a fellow has to make a date with his family to see them.”  

Suppertime wasn’t a social statement anymore – it was simply a tradition, and a dying one at that. The Great Depression further tore the suppertime tapestry woven in simpler times. It wasn't until during World War Two that the golden image of the American dinner table came to be a romantic pillar of patriotism. Cinotto writes,

 “Wartime propaganda insisted on the image of the proper family mealtime as a reassuring icon of social stability in a time of anxiety and turmoil.”

Norman Rockwell’s famous painting Freedom from Want hit the public in 1943, portraying a gorgeous American Thanksgiving dinner. It was this image of glory that Americans clung to throughout the war years and the subsequent baby boom. Remember the pearly housewife, the working man, and the poultry I talked about earlier? That homemaker-breadwinner-nuclear-family dynamic peaked in the 1950’s…nearly seventy years ago.

So why are we still clinging to it? Fast forward to today, when single-income households are rare, and food delivery services are everyone’s best friend. A 2019 article from the Eater proposes that when it comes to supper, the question is no longer “what” is for dinner, it’s “where”. Just because our meals aren’t always prepared in-house, and served nightly in the dining room, does that mean we’ve abandoned our “values”? Or is this simply progress?

A 2018 survey of around 3,000 individuals revealed that 78 percent of Americans dine together weekly, if not nightly. However, only 57 percent of the respondents indicated that they do household chores as a family. That 21 percent discrepancy indicates the ways in which our familial priorities may have changed. Keeping house and cooking fresh meals used to be the main responsibility of the woman. Now, as gender and homemaking roles have shifted, so too has our focus off of the kitchen. The rise in food delivery services has created opportunity for family and friends to dine together more frequently, without the stress of preparing, serving, and cleaning up a home-cooked meal.

Are we devoting more time to eating together, and less time to actually preparing the meal? Are we wrong to deemphasize homemade dinners? Or are our priorities shifting as the times do? Looking at the history of dinnertime, it seems we have always been evolving. Perhaps we are simply adding more ingredients into the melting pot of progress.

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