Tuesday, February 26

Posted by Laurel Garver on Tuesday, February 26, 2013 8 comments
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


  1. Great things to think about in creating your protagonist and the secondary characters in relation to food or other family traditions that tell us who they are. Thanks for sharing this. And yes, we had way different rituals when I was a kid than we do now that I'm a parent.

    1. When one is in the position to make decisions, it's interesting what is kept from the past and what is discarded. Those kinds of contrasts can be cool to explore in fiction.

  2. When I first met my in-laws I was awed by the way they ate dinner. They dressed as if going out and always lit candles on the table. I felt like I'd entered another era. It was an established way of life for them, which they followed even when it was only the two of them at table.
    My mother-in-law was an impressive hostess, as well. Her parties were elegant,gracious and abundant. She considered the preparation and offering of food to be an art. I don't hold many dinner parties but when I do I try to remember all she taught me.

    1. That is cool--reminiscent of another era, especially among the elite (Downton Abbey comes to mind, naturally). Making meals into an artful event does tell you so much about her values--beauty, community, generosity. What a lovely legacy to experience.

  3. I loved reading this and some of the comments. I hadn't thought of eating rituals when I wrote Champion in the Darkness, but it came up because I included a breakfast scene in the first chapter, trying to show the closeness of Clara's family. I didn't even think about why I chose that type of scene, I just did.

    My family tried to have dinner together as a family, but my dad's work as an airline mechanic had him working odd shifts. However, we tried to at least eat one meal together a day.

    These days, as a homeschool mom - I eat all three meals with my kids, and include prayer and conversation. My husband has the kind of job where he can always be home for dinner, and with the exception of busy days, we try to eat at home and together for dinner in an informal dining room. Eating with hands is ok when it's our immediate family, but as soon as a guest comes, it's all forks and knives - even if that guest is one of our daughters' friends. The same applies to burping - we might have a burping contest as an immediate family, but we never do that with anyone else . . . well, except for a few of the cousins. I know it's probably terribly rude, but we laugh about it, and then talk about behavior rules for when guests are present, or when we are visiting someone else's house.

    I do most of the cooking, but my kids are expected to cook a meal every week . . .sometimes we miss that, but then make up for it with two meals the next week.
    We always pray, and no one is allowed to read at the table, or text, or play handheld games.

    Thanks for the invitation to think this through - hopefully I haven't offended anyone with our table manners in our house.

    1. Mealtime rituals, as you've probably now concluded, have been a way of building family bonds, so naturally a shared meal is one way you'd represent that in fiction.

      It's funny that you also recognized the difference between company manners and close family manners. Those kinds of distinctions are always fun in stories--a way of showing when some one is truly on the inside.

  4. My growing up meals were much like yours, which I guess is why most of the meals in my books are like that as well. I've tended towards more traditional families, though, so it's worked so far, but I love the idea of really considering how a family would eat and tailoring characters to their situations rather than my own.

    Great "food" for though!

    1. My experiences eating at friends' houses got me rethinking what I took for granted as normal. There are infinite variations on the simple act of eating dinner. Have fun creating some new ways of doing meals, and I bet you'll have an intriguing set of characters that result.