by Daniel Waldheim, Regent University Charis Institute
Why do Meals Matter?
Barry Jones (2015) opens his article, “The Dinner Table as a Place of Connection, Brokenness, and Blessing,” with N.T. Wright’s insightful observation about the Last Supper, “When Jesus himself wanted to explain to his disciples what his forthcoming death was all about, he didn’t give them a theory, he gave them a meal” (para. 4). The point here is that sharing a meal with another person is simple, yet riddled with an ineffable profundity and uniqueness because it is such a powerful experience. In the context of family life, meals that are eaten together have immense value because they can nurture sacred bonds of fellowship within the family. In fact, family meals are like a thermometer that measures the health of the family. Roberts (1988) views family meals as a microcosm of how the family organizes, communicates, and connects to one another (as cited in Fishel, 2016, p. 519). In addition to the functional benefits of mealtime, children desire shared meals. Despite the common myth that teenagers don’t want to spend time with their family, Story et al. (2002) found that for 80% of American teenagers, eating dinner at home made their list of top activities (as Cited in Fishel, 2016, p. 519). In the scope of family life, few places are more important than the table. Therefore, creating a positive mealtime experience is consequential and has monumental importance for the health of a family. This blog, the first of a four-part series about family meals, discusses the powerful metaphor of a sacred space that frames what family meals are. Understanding this metaphor is the foundational component to actualizing successful, positive mealtime experiences, as well as making sure they occur in the first place.
The Power of Shared Experiences
Before we dig in, there is one more reason you should care about how mealtime goes (assuming you have them consistently; if not, see blog two). Shared experiences are experienced more intensely. This phenomena is named the Amplification Hypothesis and was discovered when Boothby et al. (2014) conducted a fascinating study where the researchers gave participants the same chocolate in two different experimental conditions. In the first condition, participants shared the experience of eating chocolate with another person. In the second condition, participants ate the chocolate in the presence of another person who was distracted. The researchers found differing perceptual experiences between the two conditions: the group that shared the chocolate with another person rated it as tastier and more likeable than those who ate in the presence of the distracted person. The researchers also found the inverse relationship, that negative experiences, (i.e., bitter chocolate) when shared with another person, were perceived as worse. It is thus self-evident how critical it is that the shared experience at the table be positive.
Mealtime as a Sacred Space
Understanding the correct metaphor for mealtime is crucial for ensuring they occur and that they are positive experiences because metaphors “structure how we perceive, what we think, and what we do” (Lakoff and Johnson, 2003, p. 4). Mealtime should be conceptualized as a consecrated space, that is, a space and time intentionally set apart for the purposes of minimizing distractions, facilitating quality conversations, and enjoying the presence of one another. It should feature a safe, nurturing, and empathic environment that makes commonplace authentic and vulnerable conversations wherein the other members of the family actively listen to the person speaking. Mealtime is a sacred space. This metaphor, of course, represents mealtime idealistically. Although mealtime will inevitably fail to go as planned from time to time, this metaphor emphasizes its importance, helps parents frame what mealtime should be, orients them to the type of environment and specific types of behaviors that should be present, and provides an impetus for making mealtime happen while increasing the likelihood that it is a positive experience. It also provides a benchmark of evaluation for current mealtime experiences for the family. One implication that flows from the sacred space metaphor is the necessity of mitigating distractions. If experiences are to be disclosed, empathy present, another’s presence enjoyed, and the listening members attentive, distractions must be minimized.
In our current cultural moment, this admission brings the relationship between cell phones and the table into the forefront of our discussion. Cell phones are distracting at the table. To be clear, it is possible to make good use of phones at the table, but everyone must operate under the same technological etiquette. Some families completely ban phones, others only use them to share text, emails, or pictures with each other, while different families use them to settle factual disagreements (Fishel, 2016, p. 518). Nonetheless, it is impossible to replace quality interpersonal, familial interactions, and the mere presence of a cell phone decreases the quality of conversation and empathy amongst participants according to the I-Phone Effect (Mirsa et al., 2016).
Kahneman’s (1973) cognitive capacity theory elucidates this phenomena. Simply put, if we try to give our attention to too many things at once, we become overloaded. Attention is a cognitive resource, so whatever we direct our attention to becomes part of the load on our cognitive capacity, which is like a pie. When we direct our attention at something, it takes a piece of the pie, which leaves less of the attentional pie to distribute to other activities. When cell phones are present at the table, attention is directed primarily towards the phone and away from the conversation. In other words, the person is distracted and must shift the brunt of their attentional resources between phone and conversation, reducing the quality of the conversation, connection with the family, and subsequent empathy displayed towards the other member because the experience is not truly being shared. This experience is not truly shared because the phone user is not being present for the others with their mind, which makes it difficult for them to be present emotionally for the others. Similar to the chocolate study, distraction detracts from the intensity, and in this case enjoyment, of the perceived meal experience. Give your family as much of your attention as you can at the sacred space of the table! They deserve it!
Boothby, E. J., Clark, M. S., & Bargh, J. A. (2014). Shared experiences are amplified. Psychological science, 25(12), 2209-2216.
Fishel, A. K. (2016). Harnessing the power of family dinners to create change in family therapy. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Family Therapy, 37(4), 514-527.
Jones, B. (2015). The Dinner Table as a Place of Connection, Brokenness and Blessing. DTS Magazine.
Kahneman, D. (1973). Attention and effort (Vol. 1063, pp. 218-226). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
Lakoff, G., & Johnson, M. (2008). Metaphors we live by. University of Chicago press.
Misra, S., Cheng, L., Genevie, J., & Yuan, M. (2016). The iPhone effect: The quality of in-person social interactions in the presence of mobile devices. Environment and Behavior, 48(2), 275-298.