When I was a kid, 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?
*this is a repost from 2011