As the winter break approaches and the holiday season is in full swing, we’re also in the early stages of the Dinner Party Project: an eight-week culinary and food literacy program for fifth-graders, culminating in a huge celebratory dinner that the kids cook for their families. As we prepare for the party, I’ve been talking a lot with my students about the central role food plays in so many of our holidays and landmark events. We’ve shared stories of gathering in the kitchen to make traditional holiday recipes with family. We talk about the festive lights, music, and aromas that signify a special occasion. We talk about how it feels to sit down with friends and family members at a communal table, the rituals that bring us back year after year to the same feeling of shared celebration.
Our holiday traditions vary, but at their best, they all evoke that sense of community – gathering to break bread with the ones you love. There is an element of the sacred in sharing a meal that can highlight both joy and loss. For many of my first-generation American students
, holiday meals are marked by the empty seats of faraway family members; and for anyone who has lost a loved one, their absence is felt most sharply at an incomplete table.
Holiday meals are incredibly meaningful when it comes to performing cultural and family traditions, celebrating important days, and if we’re lucky, seeing friends and family members we don’t always get to spend time with. But just as meaningful, and not as celebrated, are simple family dinners: the ones parents throw together in the middle of a busy week, without time off or fanfare – which often feels more miraculous than preparing a three-course holiday dinner. When we talk with our students about the nourishing power of food
, we’re talking about much more than nutrition. Taking time for family dinners is associated with all sorts of benefits to kids: lower rates of both obesity and eating disorders, better academic performance, lower risk of depression and substance abuse. But as I’ve learned from speaking with my students, family dinner time also has less measurable effects, like a sense of stability, a feeling of closeness with their families, and a healthier attitude about food.
Last week, as we were discussing the details of the Dinner Party Project in class, I asked my students to close their eyes and imagine themselves and their families having the perfect dinner. Smiles broke out. When they shared what they had imagined, there was a lot of listing favorite foods. More than anything, though, they described an atmosphere: the table was set carefully, there was no noise or distraction, their families were chatting calmly, on their best behavior, and the dinner felt “special.” This elusive feeling is what we aim to create during our Dinner Party in a couple of months, and we talked about how to make that possible (How should we behave? How should we decorate? What music can we play? What can we do to foster that combination of celebration and calm?) But beyond our elaborate dinner party plans, we talked about how to make that “special” dinner possible at home.
When we teach kids to prepare fresh ingredients, when we practice kitchen skills with them and learn how to read labels and recipes, when we demystify cooking and eating and put the tools for nourishing themselves into their hands, it’s about more than encouraging proper nutrition. It’s about a deeper understanding of what food means and why sharing meals matters. If a child can go home and help with simple preparations in the kitchen, or encourage their family to turn off TV and phones and chat during dinner, they are well on their way to a happier and healthier relationship with their food.
This month’s activity is a simple exercise in togetherness to remind families that, as we tell our fifth graders, “any dinner can be a dinner party.” It may be a weeknight, the food may not be fancy, the “decorations” could be as simple as folded napkins or a candle, but when we carve out time to sit together, eat with pleasure, and pay attention to the details, a shared meal can feel like a special occasion.