In 2019, a disheartening survey was released on the eating habits of Americans. It found that only 48% of respondents eat at the dining room table, with 47% saying they eat on the couch or in their bedrooms instead. Tellingly, 72% of respondents also said that they grew up eating in the dining room. This is the latest illustration of a trend that has been happening for quite some time in America. Families and households are putting less of an emphasis on one of the most fundamental pillars of family and communal life — a shared meal.
Social science bears out the central importance that family dinner has on positive outcomes for children, including lower rates of drug abuse, teen pregnancy, depression, obesity, and eating disorders as well as higher grade-point average, self-esteem, and vocabulary. But the benefits of family meals — or any shared meal — go much deeper than what social science can prove. Dining together fills an innate need that all human beings crave: the desire for true communion and fellowship with our Creator and with one another.
The centrality of the meal in Scripture
Scripture tells us a great deal about just how fundamental meals are to human flourishing. Moreover, the Bible contains many examples of how the provision of food often served as a means for teaching important spiritual truths. For example, in the Old Testament, God fed the Israelites manna in the desert. Despite their disobedience (which resulted in the people having to wander in the desert for 40 years), He fed them, teaching them to depend and rely on Him for their daily sustenance (Exodus 16). Similarly, throughout the gospels, Jesus chooses a shared meal as the context not only for building relationships but for enacting His salvific plan.
His desire for forming intimate bonds over a shared meal is shown through His dinner with tax collectors and sinners at the home of Levi (Luke 5:29-32), eating at the house of Simon the Pharisee (Luke 7:36-50), dining at the home of Mary and Martha (Luke 10:25-42), and staying at the home of Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10). Strikingly, Jesus also emphasizes communal dining with His disciples in His resurrected body. He sups with two disciples that He meets on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35), with His disciples in Jerusalem (Luke 14:35-48), and again with His disciples on the shores of the Sea of Tiberius, sharing a miraculous catch of fish and bread over a charcoal fire (John 21:1-14).
Indeed, Christ’s plan of salvation is miraculously revealed multiple times in the context of a shared meal. It is at a wedding feast at Cana that Jesus performs His first miracle of turning water into wine, ushering in His public ministry (John 2:1-11). After feeding the souls of 5,000 men (besides women and children, which means the total number may have been as much as 15,000) by teaching them about the kingdom of God, He orchestrates a miraculous, spontaneous dinner for everybody when He multiplies a few loaves and fish to feed the entire throng, so much so that there are 12 wicker baskets left over after everyone has eaten their fill (Matthew 14:13-21, Luke 9:10-36). At the Last Supper, Christ reveals a fundamental aspect of His sacrificial mission through sharing bread and wine with His disciples (Luke 22:14-23).
It’s clear that Christ placed great emphasis on the importance of the meal as a conduit for revealing the depth of His love for His flock. But a natural question arises here — why did Christ do this? What is the true nature and potential of a shared meal?
“From eating to dining”
Judging by the survey referenced earlier, for the most part, eating has become a pretty mundane and isolated exercise for many Americans. At the same time, the popularity of cooking shows and eating out prove that even the fragmented nature of everyday life in our culture has not fully tamped down the pleasures of a good meal. Even so, what our culture seems to lack is a true understanding of just how meaningful meals can and should be.
As Leon Kass has reflected upon at length in his profound book The Hungry Soul, the ordinary nature of eating takes on a whole new meaning when we intentionally make an effort to move “from eating to dining” — from eating for the primary purpose of satisfying a grumbling stomach to instead dining with others through a shared experience of food and conversation.
Human instinct tells us that there is something unparalleled and intangibly communal about a dinner table filled with delicious food to share and enjoy together. This is illustrated by the fact that a shared meal is the only human activity that engages all five of our senses at once. We see the food spread out before us and the people we are sharing it with, we smell the aromas which heighten and anticipate our appetites and enhance our eating experience, we touch our forks and knives to eat and pass around the dinner rolls, we taste, relish, and consume our meal, and we listen to the merriment and clinking dinnerware and partake in conversation.
To be sure, a shared meal gives us arguably the richest opportunity to engage in meaningful conversation that has the potential to draw us closer to one another. Aristotle once wrote about how “the truest human intimacy takes place in good conversation.” And as John Cuddeback has observed, “[G]ood conversation … does more than give seasoning to life. It is the beating heart of a real communion of persons, of a happy life together with those we love.”
Of course, meaningful conversation doesn’t always happen on its own. The best way to facilitate true fellowship is to pray for those who will dine with us and for uplifting conversation that leads to greater intimacy with each other and the Lord. When we fully invest ourselves in a meal shared with others, it has the power to nourish the mind, body, and soul all at once. Because God created us as embodied beings comprised of both bodies and souls, nourishing our physical hunger through eating naturally nourishes our minds and hearts.
As we engage in rich conversation, we draw closer and grow in intimacy with each other. Our souls are in turn nourished by this communion we achieve with others during the meal. Since our minds, bodies, and souls are in union with each other, when one is nourished, they are all nourished. It is in this act of dining that we can harness the true communal potential of shared meals that our Creator intended them to be.
It is in this way that a meal shared with others can become a taste of the divine feast in heaven where we will be in total communion not only with all the redeemed but with the communion of love found in the Holy Trinity.
Practical ways to enhance a shared meal
At this point, you might be thinking, “It’s all well and good that meals have such great potential to be so meaningful, but how can we expect to have this kind of experience consistently?” It’s true that we can’t expect every meal to be a profound experience, but there are a few simple, practical ways we can be more intentional about making a shared meal a truly communal and edifying experience for all.
1. Spend a little extra love and care preparing everyday meals
Anyone who has prepared an elaborate meal for a dinner party, a family reunion, or Thanksgiving knows how much work it can be but also how rewarding it is to experience the appreciation guests express over a well-received meal. This experience can not only be immensely rewarding for the host, but also for the guests: who can’t help but feel well cared for after being served a delicious meal?
In the same way, parents or anyone else cooking for others can make dinnertime consistently special by preparing healthy, hearty meals that aren’t elaborate and time-consuming. The Family Dinner Project has some great tips on how to do this.
2. Start dinner earlier in the evening
When possible, try to start dinner or appetizers as early in the evening as you can. When everyone has their hunger nourished earlier in the evening, it will set the tone for a better overall mood and will allow for a more extended time of fellowship after the meal.
Social science has also found strong benefits for earlier dinners for families. A recent study found that “‘parents who eat dinner before 6:15 p.m. … spend 11% more quality time with children, and spend 14% more overall time with children’ in the evening than those who eat later.”
3. Say a prayer of thanksgiving after the meal
Most believers pray a blessing over meals before digging in, but less common is the traditional Christian practice of saying a prayer of thanksgiving afterward. Saying a post-meal blessing can help set a grateful tone before partaking in an extended time of fellowship after a meal and serves as an acknowledgment that what everyone just took part in was a sacred experience. While there is always the option of spontaneous prayer, here is a simple, common prayer of thanksgiving.
For Americans, Thanksgiving has the most potential to be the ultimate dining experience — it has remained the most popular holiday next to Christmas. This speaks to the power that is inherently present in a shared meal with loved ones — our human natures are drawn to celebratory feasts like a moth to flame.
This Thanksgiving, may we reach for ever greater heights of communion with our family and friends, and in so doing strive for greater communion with our Creator, the master of the eternal, heavenly banquet.
Originally published at the Family Research Council.
Dan Hart is the Managing Editor for Publications at Family Research Council. His writing has appeared in such outlets as National Review, The Federalist, First Things, The Stream, The Christian Post, the National Catholic Register, and others. Before joining FRC, he served with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, where he worked to promote vocations to the clergy and religious life.