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With everyone staying at home, work, school, and other activities are off the table for many. What might be back on the table for millions of people? The family dinner.
The tradition of family meals at home has been declining over the years. According to The New York Times, research shows that Americans spend 41% of their food budget on eating out, as opposed to spending it on groceries. A separate poll conducted by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the Harvard School of Public Health found that 46% of families said eating together was difficult to do regularly because of their busy schedules.
This isn’t just parents with small children sitting down for a meal, either. Even before COVID-19, data from Pew Research Center showed that adult children moving back in with their parents made up the largest share (47%) of adults living in shared living spaces. This percentage of adult children living with their families has likely significantly increased in recent weeks due to the closing of universities and nonessential businesses during this pandemic.
My friend Logan Abel, a 24-year-old resident of Denver, is one of these people who is unexpectedly reconnecting with his family during this time. He told me that this is the first time he has lived with his parents and brother in seven years. Logan told me how sitting down to eat together was an integral part of bonding with his family while he was growing up. And now, quarantining is allowing them to cook homemade meals and reconnect again.
The Benefits of Family Meals Growing Up
“Since I was young, special weekend breakfasts were a nearly weekly family habit. We would all cook pancakes or waffles together and have a big-old breakfast,” Logan wrote in an email to me. “This was a family activity where we would do the cooking and preparing together, and then follow the breakfast with perhaps a walk or a board game. We would also make a conscious effort to pray together every day, and it became a part of the rhythm of our life and something that we could all turn to together. This commitment to praying together meant that some mornings we were praying in the car on the way to school — if we hadn’t said prayers earlier — and regardless of the situation it would happen.”
“These meals were one of the two times — the other being for prayers — that we really conscientiously came together as a family, and I think [this] gave a certain foundation to our family, which allowed us to be more unified in the other aspects of life,” he wrote. As Baha’is, Logan and his family believe that building and upholding family unity is essential. As the Universal House of Justice, the global governing body of the Baha’i Faith, wrote in a December 1980 letter:
Baha’u’llah came to bring unity to the world, and a fundamental unity is that of the family. Therefore, one must believe that the Faith is intended to strengthen the family, not weaken it, and one of the keys to the strengthening of unity is loving consultation. The atmosphere within a Baha’i family as within the community as a whole should express ‘the keynote of the Cause of God’ which, the beloved Guardian has stated, ‘is not dictatorial authority, but humble fellowship, not arbitrary power, but the spirit of frank and loving consultation.’
Logan wrote that there was never a question of eating separately. Eating together was something that they always did, and they used that time to consult and focus on each other. “Every once and a while, we’d watch a movie during dinner, but most often we’d just sit around the table talking about how our days went, or talk about the workings of the universe and questions that were on our minds,” he wrote.
In addition to building family unity and intimacy, regular family dinners are also associated with children having higher academic performance, higher self-esteem, increased resilience, lower rates of obesity, and a lower risk of substance abuse, depression, and teen pregnancy.
“We have far too many examples of the culture around us eroding away at the foundations of family life, and having a regular space to get together, without the other distractions of life, seems to be one of these structural pillars for a sound and flourishing family life,” Logan explained.
How Family Relationships Are Helping Them Cope
Research published in the Journal of Adolescent Health indicates that family meals are related to “greater emotional well-being” and “higher life satisfaction.” So I asked Logan how this increased time with family is helping him cope with this pandemic.
“Our family dynamic has allowed each of us to not get so caught up in the irrational stress that can come with a situation like this, as we have each other to face the difficulties with, discuss the happenings in the world around us in a rational way, and laugh about the small things along the way,” Logan shared.
Inspired by the Baha’i teachings to remain joyful in the face of adversity, Logan and his family strive to maintain a home filled with laughter and love. Indeed, Abdu’l-Baha, the son of Baha’u’llah, the Prophet-Founder of the Baha’i Faith wrote:
If the candle of happiness is ignited in the chamber of our heart, all the foreboding gloom of evil suggestions will be dispelled. My home is the home of peace. My home is the home of joy and delight. My home is the home of laughter and exultation. Whosoever enters through the portals of this home, must go out with gladsome heart – Abdu’l-Baha, Star of the West
Lessons Learned From Quarantining With Family
Living with his parents and brother again after seven years requires some getting used to. I asked Logan if there are any lessons that he’s learned from this increased time with his family.
“Quarantining has, of course, forced us all to spend more time together, which has definitely brought us closer and has also led us to work on talking more openly and honestly together.” Logan wrote, “The space we are in isn’t a huge space, and many challenges we are all facing come to light while we are together. Ultimately, this is a growing process and is bringing us closer.”
Logan explained that a big lesson they’re learning is the importance of really trying to understand each other’s realities. He wrote that they’re “listening to each other as best as we can, especially now when tensions in the world around us are running higher.”
Family unity not only helps the family, but it also has a ripple effect on the outside world. The Baha’i Writings say:
Note ye how easily, where unity existeth in a given family, the affairs of that family are conducted; what progress the members of that family make, how they prosper in the world. Their concerns are in order, they enjoy comfort and tranquillity, they are secure, their position is assured, they come to be envied by all. Such a family but addeth to its stature and its lasting honour, as day succeedeth day. And if we widen out the sphere of unity a little to include the inhabitants of a village who seek to be loving and united, who associate with and are kind to one another, what great advances they will be seen to make, how secure and protected they will be. Then let us widen out the sphere a little more, let us take the inhabitants of a city, all of them together: if they establish the strongest bonds of unity among themselves, how far they will progress, even in a brief period and what power they will exert. And if the sphere of unity be still further widened out, that is, if the inhabitants of a whole country develop peaceable hearts, and if with all their hearts and souls they yearn to cooperate with one another and to live in unity, and if they become kind and loving to one another, that country will achieve undying joy and lasting glory. –Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha
These writings continue to shape the principles Logan and his family uphold and their interactions with each other.
“The Faith has allowed us to be more unified, loving, and caring towards one another, has helped us to turn towards prayer, and has given us a framework to strive to contribute to the betterment of the world together,” Logan concluded.