The Digest: The truth about the table

Where food and fellowship are shared

by Andrew Cullen art & culture editor


  Everyone has to eat to live. Along with clothing, shelter and water, food is one of the four necessities of life. Eating can be enjoyable, but it can also be exhausting. We can spend hours each day preparing food, eating, and cleaning up after a meal. Eating leaves us unsure of whether or not to applaud its hour-long performance on the stage of our schedule. Is there something more behind eating? Is it a burden or a blessing?

The meal table has been at the heart of the community for centuries. From the Passover to Thanksgiving to birthday celebrations to an hour break during a long day of work, eating meals together creates space for families and friends to share life.

The Dutch Catholic priest, theologian, professor and writer Henri Nouwen remarked,

“We all need to eat and drink to stay alive. But having a meal is more than eating and drinking. It is celebrating the gifts of life we share. A meal together is one of the most intimate and sacred human events. Around the table we become vulnerable, filling one another’s plates and cups and encouraging one another to eat and drink. Much more happens at a meal than satisfying hunger and quenching thirst. Around the table we become family, friends, community, yes, a body.”

However, the “busy” lives we claim to have may interfere with this important part of the day. We have many excuses to justify foregoing a meal with our families, friends, roommates, mentors and mentees. We want to watch the latest episode of our favorite TV show; we have a big project due the next day; we need some time alone; we need to eat quickly; we aren’t hungry. We are all guilty of rushing through or completely neglecting mealtime.

Many families do not eat meals together very often. Time magazine reported that research by Rutgers University reveals that “40 percent of the average family’s budget is spent eating out, typically not together.” Sixty years ago dinner lasted an hour and a half, but today we are able to rush through dinner in twelve minutes or less.

It is clear that as our schedules become busier and food becomes more accessible the value of sharing a meal with those we love has become superfluous.

Sharing a meal together is a blessing. The busier our schedules become the more important it is to sit down and share life around the table.

Leonard Sweet writes in his book on the importance of eating together,  “The table is the place where identity is born. It is the place where the story of our lives is retold, re-minded and relived.”

Research points to the practical, physical, psychological and relational benefits of eating together. According to a 2011 study conducted by Amber Hammons, PhD, and Barbara Fiese, PhD, children who shared at least five meals with their families a week were 35 percent less likely to engage in disordered eating, 24 percent more likely to eat healthier foods and 12 percent less likely to be overweight. Other studies have concluded that children who share family meals also have less delinquency, greater academic achievement, improved psychological well being and positive family interactions.

Regardless of the household we grew up in, it is not too late to begin appreciating the blessing of gathering around a table and sharing food as we share life with one another. Perhaps this is why there are seventy-six references about eating together at a table in Scripture.

We do not have to eat every meal with other people. Eating alone can be very valuable time as well. But we should plan to eat a couple meals each week when we can have intentional conversations, offer encouragement and pray with our brothers and sisters in Christ.

Having intentional conversations means not just asking each other how we are doing but asking specific questions: “What was the high point of your day? What was the low point? How did you see God work today?”

Try having intentional conversations with a few friends or colleagues for just one meal a week and gauge whether or not the relationship improves.

As author Dana Cassell wrote, “Eating together, engaging in the practice communally, makes all the difference.  Whether traditional or contemporary, ancient or modern, regulated or ad hoc, the practice of eating together offers a place where we can come together, satisfy our basic needs, and begin to shape and define the communities in which we find ourselves.” 

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