Tuesday, May 3

Posted by Laurel Garver on Tuesday, May 03, 2011 24 comments
One of the most interesting things about staying at friends' houses was discovering just how differently their families approached the evening meal.

My family always ate around 6 p.m. It was a sit-down affair that began with my dad's meandering grace, and usually included two or even three vegetable sides with a casserole or meat and a starch. Hot tea was served nine months of the year. One was expected to have a "no-thank-you-helping" of any newly introduced food that looked unappetizing (a ritual that got easier once I learned to swallow things whole, like you would an aspirin).

We were expected to eat with a napkin in our laps, pass food in a clockwise direction and ask to be excused from the table after eating a portion of everything served, especially the prescribed number of vegetables. Conversation around the table was usually stories about our day, something strange we witnessed, or something interesting read about or heard. Sometimes my parents would share funny stories about family misadventures or their own childhoods. If my parents needed to make a major decision, the dinner table was not the place they'd discuss it.

At my friends' homes, however, dinner was sometimes a quite different affair. Some families ate catch-as-catch-can. Got takeout. Ate on tray tables in front of the TV. Some moms served as short-order cook for all three of the kids. Some families served buffet style. Some plated up portions like at a restaurant. Some sang a grace before meals. Some had silent head-bowed personal prayer. Some dove for the food with no thanks given at all.

Those rituals shape every person and family in deep ways. Here are some details to ask about your character's family dinner rituals:

Who prepares the food?
A parent? The family as a group? An extended family member? A live-in staff person? Faceless people from room service or Burger King's drive through? A handful of restaurants the character frequently patronizes?

Where is the food consumed?

In an eat-in kitchen? A formal dining room? An informal dining room? Kneeling around a low table in a common room? On a breezy porch? On tables in front of the TV? In whatever room the person carries his plate to?

What food items are considered appropriate?
Is there ethnic sameness or diversity in the types of cuisine? Is a special, restrictive diet followed? Is the food ultra-healthy, middling or complete junk food? Are portions large or small?

Who partakes of the meal?

Is everyone in the household seated together? Are certain household members excluded, such as staff or children or all females? Are pets allowed near or even seated at the table?

What behavior is considered appropriate?

Must you wait for everyone to be seated? May you leave as soon as you're finished? How is food served to each person? Is there a pre- or post-meal ritual such as prayer or candle-lighting? Is eating with hands expected or forbidden? How are spills and slurps and burps handled?

How do those around the table interact?
Must silence be maintained? Do only the elders initiate conversation? Do multiple conversations go on at once? Are all persons seated expected to take a turn talking while everyone else listens? Does everyone self-entertain with books or gadgets or the TV?

Thinking about dinnertime rituals can help you better understand--and better illustrate--the values of your characters and their families.

Is your protagonist's family dinner ritual the same as your own or different? Why?


  1. I always think about food when I write manuscripts. I agree, it tells so much about the characters.

    As for me, when I was young, it was all about repetition. Take out pizza or Chinese on Friday, spaghetti on one day, frozen lasagna or eggplant on another, and so on. Ugh.

  2. Such a small detail. Except in YA the parents are usually not around! ;)

  3. Great post! My post today is similar, although not as "deep" as this one! These are great things to think about and can really help us explore our chracters and shape them. It stuff like this that adds layers to them, even though the reader might not ever know who is making the meals.

    As for me, my childhood was very much like yours. 2-3 veggies, starch, and a meat. We all sat down together, blessed the food and ate. Conversations were about our day, the following day. At the end of the meal, my dad would give us each a "quiz question" on various topics that we had to answer before leaving the table. Even as a teen, if I didn't like what my mom made and refused to eat, I still had to sit at the table with everyone else. I'm trying to have family meals as well, but it is harder with my hubands work schedule since he doesn't get home until 7ish. So, for little kids it's hard to wait that long. And, since I have picky eaters, I don't cook as much as my mom (or the type of meals).

  4. It's funny you should mention food in books. In my historicals, everything revolves around breakfast and tea-time. In my contemporary, it revolves around dinner time. Which is a big splashy affair. As a matter of fact, one of my favorite lines in the book is when the antogonist says to the MC "I thought you ate at the diner." And she retorts, "I eat at home like everyone else."

  5. Wow, I just included this in my WIP last night! My protagonist is the daughter of a very busy and rushed woman, so they are usually eating frozen dinners at the counter. But her family drinks chai twice a day, which is when they spread out on the couch. Love your post!

  6. You know, I think questions surrounding the meal should always be considered in characterization, even if those scenes never make the book. There's just so much to be learned about a character by the way they eat and interact with others during a meal. Meals in my house were always a noisy affair. Lots of food and action, talking all at once, laughter and things spilling. My mom said when we were little it just wasn't a meal until someone spilled their milk. To an outsider this might seem hectic, but to us it was normal and reassuring. It was love, I guess. On the flip side, eating at my grandparent's house was always more like it was for you growing up, but there was something very comforting about that, too. Served at the same time, always with the same elements and a dessert that was usually something new Grandma was trying out. The looks she would exchange with Grandpa, the quite brush of a hand over hand as food was passed around the table. There was love there, too. Just different.

  7. Fun post, Laurel!
    My protagonist lives with only her father in the beginning and she's the one who cooks all the food. Which is very different from my mom doing most of the cooking, and us kids would have one day a week that we would cook. And everyone ate at the same time in the dining room.
    It is interesting all the different directions a simple meal can take.

  8. Theresa: Food is a large piece of culture and world-building. One of my friends had a similar theme-night ritual at her house--Casserole mondays, chicken tuesdays and the like. That communicates order and steadiness are valued.

    Laura: Not in my reading experience--mealtimes are one of the times you will typically see teens interacting with family in YA, even in single-parent homes like My Life as a Rhombus, The Secret Life of Prince Charming and many others.

    Kelly: Sometimes it's tough to carry what we loved from our childhoods into our adult homes--an interesting topic to explore in fiction someday! I wonder if serving your boys an early "teatime" snack around four would tide them over till "real supper" with dad after 7.

  9. Anne: That's one aspect of historicals that's so fascinating--when food was scarce and more labor-intensive to prepare, meals were a very big deal. How interesting about the time-shift. I guess it reflects how differently we organize our days now.

    Saumya: That tells us so much about your character! Meals are purely for a quick energy boost, while family connection happens over a beverage rather than food.

  10. Carol: Our food rituals are very powerful in creating a family culture. I agree it's worth exploring even if it doesn't make it into our manuscripts. My family got noisy when the table was cleared and a deck of cards or board came came out after a meal. Take away the silverware and it was suddenly a whole new ballgame. :-)

    Kristen: A child taking on what's considered a "mom" role says so much about how she's approaching her growing-up experience. Great example!

  11. Really great post - food and the rituals around it are so interesting!!! My characters definitely don't follow a pattern anything like the one we have in our home. It was fun to set up a system of shopping, cooking and cleaning that was so different to ours. :)

  12. this is a fun exercise! And food is a favorite part of reading. I even included a dining scene in my last MS... it's interesting for whatever reason. The method I use depends on the characters. If they're conservative, conventional, they're like my family. If not, like in my current MS, it's catch as catch can! :D <3

  13. Jemi: I'd once read an article about world-building that included a huge section just about food and food rituals. I bet it is fun to invent some of your own!

    Leigh: How people approach food and mealtimes can be very revealing, can't it?

  14. I love that you push me to think of things I hadn't thought of otherwise.

    And I happen to know you follow your own advice. Definitely adds to the depth of your characters!

  15. Oh, I love this. I'm going to think about that dinner ritual in my characters' homes. Also, I wonder how different dinner rituals shape people throughout their lives (real people and characters in books)

  16. I'm in the process of outlining and will now be adding information on my MC's family dinner. I met a man whose family has farting contest at their dinner table! Now that is too much for me but may be great in a story!

  17. Food speaks so much to senses and culture, I agree! What a mouth-watering post! :D

  18. I think my MC's family has a much better ritual than my own, lol! We tend to eat on the go now and again.

  19. Pets seated at the table! Thanks! that gave me an idea! You know, it occurred to me while reading this, that I LOVE to read dinner scenes in books. They are so atmospheric as you pointed out you can cram all sorts of fascinating character details into them. And yet I have none in my own writing. Hmmmmm....

  20. I love food in books. They are the most memorable parts for me, and the rituals surrounding them are equally as fascinating.

  21. This is great food for thought (had to do it) as I'm writing my next play, "Kitchen Table Confessions."

  22. Janet: Glad to have stimulated your thinking! And thanks for you kind words.

    Melissa: In married life, I've joined the plated-up, restaurant-presented crowd. It makes my hubby happy to do put out meals like this. I think it is shaping my daughter to be something of a foodie like her dad!

    Lynn: Sounds like your friend's family had a frat-house style approach to meals. LOL.

  23. Nisa: It's a piece of "world-building" that's applicable to every genre, from contemporary to historical to SciFi. Gotta eat somehow to live!

    Tana: Entering our character's worlds can be just like visiting our favorite childhood friends' homes, can't it?

    Margo: I got the pets idea from a TV show, but I'll bet the writers saw it in real life somewhere! And yes, so much can be communicated in the around-the-table rituals. Hope you try a meal scene sometime in your writing.

  24. Lydia: I especially enjoy learning about how other cultures do mealtime--whether across the world, across time or across the universe.

    Mary: *snarf* I can't ever resist punning either. Your new play sounds, um, delicious!