The Psychological Significance of Cooking and the Family Table
If you've ever seen old TV shows, advertisements and artwork, it’s easy to see that the kitchen table was an important part of everyday life. Generations of family members are pictured gathering around a good, hearty meal, smiling and sharing time together, and it doesn't take a psychology degree to know that those lessons didn't die with the cold war. Busy modern lifestyles and schedules have led society away from this tradition, but there are many reasons why people should strive for a return to the kitchen table as the center of home and family.
Modern Meals vs. Kitchens of the Past
In the past, families in many cultures recognized that food is essential to life. People need to eat, and eat they did. In formal dining rooms, at homey kitchen tables, or gathered around a picnic table; when people ate, they ate together. There was even a time when people would dress specifically for dinner, or at least wash up and make themselves presentable before everyone sat down. Mealtimes were a process that everyone was involved in. Mom and daughters cooked, Dad and sons helped with the washing up, and all the family members stayed at the table until the meal was finished (even afterward for conversation).
The modern meal, however, looks much different. Today, families often find themselves juggling a variety of schedules with both parents working full-time jobs and kids involved in everything from sports to extracurricular academic activities. Add to that the everyday responsibilities of running a household, and it can seem almost impossible to find time to cook, let alone sit the family down at the table for a full meal.
Benefits of Family Mealtime
With the family meal giving way to hectic schedules, it’s important to take a step back and consider why the kitchen table was important in the past — and should still be today.
Teens seem to benefit most from having structured family mealtimes. Kids in that age range who share meals with their parents on a regular basis are less likely to abuse drugs and alcohol or enter into inappropriate sexual relationships. In fact, in all age groups, the likelihood of substance abuse may be up to 70 percent lower for kids who participate in structured family mealtimes. Younger children see a boost in language development and social skills, and all kids show a trend toward better academic performance.
How does the old ideal of a central kitchen table factor into all of this? Whether it’s a quick pizza or a five-course masterpiece, bringing the family together and getting them to focus on sharing a meal gives a sense of structure to the day. It takes everyone out of their busy schedules and puts each family member, regardless of age, in a situation where sharing food and conversation is more important than the next thing on a seemingly endless to-do list. There is a greater opportunity for real communication, which contributes not only to social and academic skills, but also to the emotional health of the family as a whole. Parents and kids alike get the opportunity to talk about what they’ve been up to and things that are on their minds. Kids are able to talk to their parents without distractions, and parents can catch up with what’s going on in their kids’ lives. These open, relaxed conversations are much healthier than trying to snag a few minutes between appointments and text messages. When everyone is paying full attention to each other, tension is lower and interactions are more positive.
Cook Together, Live Better
Without structured times to eat, people of all ages have a tendency to pick fast, convenient foods that are often high in fat, sugar, and unhealthy ingredients, or to graze on a little of “this and that” rather than having a healthy meal. But families who eat together tend to consume more fruits and vegetables, thereby establishing positive eating habits that continue throughout life.
Getting the family involved in the cooking process helps to instill these habits and creates the opportunity for everyone to learn a little bit about patience, cooperation, and compromise. Time spent in the kitchen also helps parents to impart crucial lessons to kids of all ages:
- Young children learn the importance of trying new foods and that it’s not always possible to have exactly what they want at every meal.
- Older kids and teens get a lesson in the budgeting and organization involved in planning and cooking meals for a family.
- Learning new cooking skills helps to boost confidence and instill a sense of self-sufficiency.
Cooking and eating together were once central parts of daily life for the majority of families. Making a concerted effort to move away from the constant rushing of modern schedules and towards more shared family meals helps to anchor parents and kids to the old kitchen table ideal. Whether everyone pitches in to cook or just shows up to eat and talk, spending time together and bonding over food has many positive, healthy benefits for each member of the family.
Allison Gamble has been a curious student of psychology since high school. She brings her understanding of the mind to work in the weird world of internet marketing.