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When my husband and I married, after a two-month courtship, I didn’t know how to cook. Some experience with baking constituted my home-ec resumé, but man does not live on cookies alone (as much as my man would have liked to). As we were both enrolled in college, he insisted I sign up for a noncredit cooking class, an idea that would never have occurred to me. His instinct for self-preservation might have prompted the suggestion, but in practical terms, that was the best class I ever took—much preferable to food poisoning.
My first kitchen was smaller than the average walk-in closet, with an 18-inch-square gas oven and a homemade countertop. Starting with that, I produced at least one meal per day, seven days a week. My prowess expanded to two meals per day once we had kids, and three meals after we started homeschooling them.
Three meals at home every day might have been a rarity then, but even more so now. The decline in families eating dinner together—less than 50 percent on a regular basis—naturally corresponds with the decline in families. But even happily married couples with well-adjusted children sit down to a meal much less often than they did 50 years ago. An Atlantic article titled “How Americans Lost Dinner” blames fractured schedules and less time at home for much of the loss. Less time; more takeout. Millennials who eagerly signed up for meal-kit services like Blue Apron found that it took too much time to unpack the box, cook, and clean up. Or even to remember to collect the box. “Right now,” the article begins, “a box of food from a meal-kit company is probably moldering in my apartment building’s mail room.”
Lack of know-how has also added to dinner’s demise. I suspect young adults generally know less than I did about food prep, in spite of proliferating cooking shows and how-to videos on YouTube. In time, scratch cooking may become a niche field left largely to the “experts.”
With everything else Americans are threatened with losing, like freedom of speech and religious liberty, “losing dinner” seems the least of our worries. Still, we miss it. Spooning mac and cheese out of the saucepan directly into one’s mouth while standing by the stove may be efficient, but it strikes most of us as slightly barbaric. No other creature invests the necessity of eating with something like ceremony. Whether “dressing for dinner” Downton Abbey style, or setting the table for soup and a sandwich, humans tend to give meals an importance beyond consuming calories.
In his 1969 book, Chance or the Dance? A Critique of Modern Secularism, Thomas Howard contrasts the “old myth,” or religious worldview, with the new: The old “saw the world as image; the new sees it as a chance concatenation [linkage] of physical events.” In other words, to a believer, everything in the world speaks of something beyond it, even a practice as mundane and necessary as eating. To a secularist, “nothing means anything” unless you want it to.
The Bible cloaks mealtimes with significance, from the elaborate ritual of Passover to a picnic on the beach with the resurrected Christ. Pilgrims to Old Testament Jerusalem could look forward to the fellowship offering, when, in addition to the sacrificial animal, families were invited to bring “whatever your appetite craves. And you shall eat there before the Lord your God and rejoice, you and your household” (Deuteronomy 14:26). Passing around the goat kebabs reminded the Lord’s people of His blessings. Passing around bread and wine during communion service not only commemorates the Lamb of God but also anticipates His wedding feast (Revelation 19:7-9).
Websites like TheFamilyDinnerProject.org list the scientifically proven benefits of families eating together, from higher self-esteem to lower obesity. Those benefits are embedded not in the meal itself but in the importance the family gives to the meal—the ceremony of preparation and table setting and sitting down together and giving thanks. Ritual connects us to the image of the forever, not just on special days like Thanksgiving, but every ordinary day of our extraordinary lives.