Directions: The Importance of Food in Families

Dawn Cassidy, M.Ed., CFLE, Director of Family Life Education
/ CFLE Network, Spring 2018

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This issue of the CFLE Network was especially fun to put together because of the personal nature of the theme: Families and Food. The multidisciplinary nature of family life education (FLE) means that not all CFLEs can relate directly to every topic addressed in each issue of our newsletter, but no matter what, everyone can relate to food in one way or another.

I asked CFLEs to share their personal reflections regarding food by asking the question: What food or food ritual has significance in your family, and why?

There are several recurring themes among the thoughtful responses: celebration, tradition/routine, faith, culture, and connection. Additionally, food provides opportunities for learning within our families. Through food, we learn about cooking and nutrition, meal planning, money management, and smart shopping. Food provides opportunities for families to learn about responsibility and chores and about working and sharing time together. Clearly food plays a greater role than simply nourishing our bodies.

Following are some wonderful examples of the meaning of food in the lives of your fellow CFLEs. (I’m off to go make some chocolate pudding.)


For Christmas Eve, we always celebrate with my mom’s side of the family. We always have oyster stew, chili, and chicken noodle soup. My grandmother always made the chicken noodle soup with homemade noodles. When she became too sick and frail to make them, she taught others to do it. She has been gone for a few years, but the making and eating of that soup is our way of honoring and remembering her.

—Jennifer Best, Extension Educator, Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, Scott County


Angel food cake for birthday cakes. The cake must have some of the batter colored, typically pink, and swirled in with the rest of the batter in the pan before baking. We sing a special birthday song, and the cake is served to the birthday person on a red plate that says, “You are special today.” The birthday person signs and dates the plate afterward. It is always fun to see who has signed in the past and if they added some additional note.

—Deborah Gentry, APR Liaison, NCFR


Praying before meals, alone or together, is a ritual in my family. When we eat together, we hold hands and pray. When we come together for the holidays (35–50 people), we form a large circle, hold hands, and pray before a meal. Praying together is significant in my family because it allows us individually and collectively to pause, reflect, and express gratitude for the food, people, and faith in our lives.

—Kimberly Greder, Associate Professor and Human Sciences Extension Specialist, Iowa State University


I work as a behavioral specialist at a treatment center for teenage girls struggling with anxiety, depression, or other psychiatric or behavioral troubles. Our program is family style (certified by the Teaching Family Association), and I live with my husband and two children in the home with our 10 girls. Together we are Family Teachers. We have dinner together every evening, and it is amazing how the time together at dinner can build trusting relationships. Talking and eating together helps our girls to trust my husband and I enough to make changes in their lives that will help them be successful.

Another benefit I’ve observed is the power of routine and ritual to stabilize emotions and behavior. A struggling youth can count on the consistency of a family meal and take that safe space as an opportunity to reboot and begin again. 

—Karyann Parkinson, Family Teacher, Alpine Academy, Utah Youth Village


My mother often made Jell-O chocolate pudding (“cook and serve,” never instant, and always from the box—no homemade recipe for us). It was, and probably still is, my favorite food. I would covet the little glass dish by my dinner plate. It was torture to have to share with my brother and parents. My love for pudding was so great that I took to cooking a box, eating the entire thing, and hiding the evidence before my parents got home from work. Pudding was one of the first things I learned to cook. It helped me realize that I didn’t have to always be dependent on others for food preparation. My brother loves chocolate pudding as well and has been known to give me a batch as a Christmas gift on more than one occasion.

—Dawn Cassidy, Director of Family Life Education, NCFR


In our family, we celebrate the “birthday breakfast” food ritual with an elaborately set table featuring the birthday celebrant’s favorite breakfast items. The rest of the family gets up very early to prepare this special meal. We always dine in our sleepwear, no makeup—just as we are. We share what we appreciate about the celebrant, and he or she shares hopes and dreams. We pray together, take pictures, and enjoy the sumptuous meal!

—Cecile Mohammed, Leadership Development and Human Resources Area Team Member, Campus Crusade for Christ in Latin America and the Caribbean


As my children were growing up, we sat around the dinner table each night and took turns praying before the home-cooked meal. It was not a time for correcting problems, but a time of sharing experiences and challenges of the day. One night each week, we had a family night when one of us had the role of “chairman” and prepared an activity, discussion question, or experience (which could be something such as going for a bike ride or playing a game after dinner).

—Susan Giboney, Retired Professor, Pepperdine University


My family always gets together for Thanksgiving, and we have a few traditional meals over multiple days of the holiday. First, we have Mexican food for dinner on Wednesday as everyone gets into town. Then, Thursday is our traditional turkey-day meal with all the usual “fixins.” Finally, on Friday, we have my grandmother’s brisket followed by Hanukah sugar cookies that are decorated by the grandkids (we celebrate Hanukah when we’re all together at Thanksgiving)!

—Julie Leventhal, Senior Lecturer, Department of Educational Psychology, and Co-Chair, University Undergraduate Curriculum Committee, University of North Texas


My favorite food ritual occurs on Sunday nights when I go to my parents’ house for dinner. During the summer, my dad smokes barbeque ribs, my mom creates an incredible salad, and my sister and I fight over who sets the table (this happens every time even though we are adults and know better). After the cooking and arguing is over, we all sit on the porch, enjoy the delicious meal, recap our past week, and laugh so hard that we cry. It is the joy, effortlessness, and love I feel during these dinners that make them the best.

—Maddie Hansen, Education and Certification Coordinator, NCFR


Foods that are significant to me include meatloaf, green Jell-O with carrots grated into it, and raisin-filled cookies, because my mother made them; bread, milk and sugar, and Postum, because my father ate them; and penuche, because my grandma made it. It’s not the food, it’s the memories it brings of the ones I love.

—Sterling Wall, Associate Professor, University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point


As our sons were growing up, we always had a sit-down birthday breakfast and dinner together. Since I had to be to work before my husband, he was the breakfast chef. We celebrated birthdays at breakfast on the special day. The honoree chose the breakfast menu, and gifts and cards were given at that time. This started the day of celebration when we all were fresh and not harried. In the evening, I prepared the dinner meal and dessert, both chosen by the honoree (one time the dessert was baked Alaska).

—Jane O. Cook, Ph.D., CFLE, LPC, NCC, CCMHC, Mental Health Counselor, Private Practice


There have been two food rituals in my life. On New Year’s Day, my parents always cooked pork chops, sauerkraut, and mashed potatoes served with applesauce and rye bread. In German tradition, to cook any kind of poultry would make it a “fowl” year. The more, the merrier for this day, and the good china was always used.

My husband’s family introduced me to the Polish tradition of a seven-fish dinner on Christmas Eve, called Wigilia. Slightly different from the Italian version, the Polish are not particular about serving any particular fish. Again, the more, the merrier, and it was cause for the good china to be used.

In both cases, these were wonderful family traditions that my husband and I were honored to continue. We hosted and cooked the sit-down, seven-fish Christmas Eve dinner for between 16 and 27 family members for about 17 years—our gift to my husband’s family. After my father died, we were the setup and cleanup crew for Mom’s New Year’s Day dinner, also a sit-down meal for between 14 and 24 people, for almost 20 years until she passed, and we moved from New Jersey to North Carolina. Even though it’s just my husband and me now and the menus are reduced, we still cook fish on Christmas Eve and pork on New Year’s Day.

—Margaret Stridick, Parenting Program Facilitator, Prevent Child Abuse Rowan


The rituals that are significant in my family include continuing at the table after eating to talk about traditions or share successful stories or any topic related to the family. This happens most after dinner or in the day off from work or school.

We also pray for our food before eating at home and when at a restaurant or other places. This keeps us connected to our family background and relatives that my children don’t often see or have never met. It also unites us and shows gratitude to God for providing us with the energy and health to be able to obtain our food.

—Milagro Guardado, Family Support Worker III, University of Nevada, Reno Early Head Start


As I think about my mother’s meatballs and sauce, my mouth waters and I can smell them. Growing up in an Italian Catholic home, my mother’s ritual was to make “sauce” and meatballs Sunday morning before church. My seven siblings and I would wake up to the smell of garlic, olive oil, and tomatoes. If my mother heard one of us in the kitchen, she would ask us to stir the pot of meatballs. How tempting it was to steal a meatball! After church, water was put on to boil the spaghetti. This is my favorite meal to make today. It is “home.”

—Phyllis Carella Penhallow, Senior Lecturer and Academic Advisor, University of Rhode Island


Minnesota hot dish! Our favorite was tater-tot hot dish—very Minnesotan. This includes hamburger, onions, cream of mushroom soup (with a little milk), and tater tots on top. Chicken hot dish was a Thanksgiving-like compilation of chicken, shredded cheese, cream of celery soup (with a little milk), and stuffing mix with melted butter on top. A brunch favorite was egg hot dish, combining buttered bread, eggs, onions, and cheese on top. Delicious! 

—Phyllis M. Myers, Instructor, Normandale Community College


I have warm memories of making Christmas cookies with Mom—rolling, cutting, frosting, and decorating—but mostly, loving conversations. We used Aunt Helen’s recipe, which called for powdered sugar, yielding an extra soft cookie. The Christmas cookie tradition continues with my four children who dart to the kitchen to join the fun in making the cookies. Lots of love, smiles, and conversations are rolled into those cookies every Christmas.

—Elizabeth Ramsey, Family Educator and Rule 31 Family Mediator, Tennessee Child and Family


One of my family’s food rituals includes turning off technology and media and focusing on each other’s conversations. As a family, it is important that we have open and honest communication with one another, while enjoying our food as well.

Hannah Mills Mechler, Adjunct Instructor, Texas Woman’s University, the University of North Texas at Dallas, and Tarrant County College


There are a couple of food rituals in my family: We bless our food together; we eat special meals, if not most meals, together at the table; and we discuss our “good news” for the day (dinner only). After dinner, the kids get a sweet treat if they eat all of their food. This allows us to be intentional about checking in with each other and spending some quality time together.

—Sara R. H. Brooks, Adjunct Faculty/Academic Advisor, Grand Rapids Community College


Our family has a recipe for a cheese ball that has been handed down over three generations. A family gathering is not complete without “the cheese ball.” When planning gatherings, someone always asks, “who gets to make the cheese ball?” This is so essential to our family that my husband and I had one at our wedding for our wedding party, and of course us, to munch on. With basic ingredients and an easy-to-memorize recipe, this simple dish is pure comfort food for us. 

—Elise Radina, Professor and Chair, Family Science and Social Work, Miami University


The cuisine I grew up with was Goan—my maternal grandmother, who lived with us, treated us to a variety of Goan dishes everyday, even though preparations could be long and laborious. She made one of her prized dishes, called potato chops (meat-filled Indian potato pancakes), on religious feasts and other special occasions like birthdays and celebratory parties at home. They were not only delicious but also perfect in their shape and size and loved by everyone.

—Nicola Rodrigues, Instructor, Family Science and Social Work, Miami University