The Importance of Meatballs: Recognizing the Role of Food in Family Life

Dawn Cassidy, M.Ed., CFLE, NCFR Director of Family Life Education
/ Summer 2018 NCFR Report


Longtime NCFR member and past president William Doherty, Ph.D., wrote one of my favorite books, The Intentional Family: How to Build Families Ties in Our Modern World (Doherty, 1997). Doherty recognizes the role and importance of the family and the need for intentionality to maximize the full potential of all that the family can provide to individuals and to society. In a chapter on family meals, Doherty addresses both the biological and social function of eating meals together. When families eat separately, or in front of the TV, they miss important opportunities for connection and bonding, for communication, and even for learning skills in conflict resolution.

Family professionals who become Certified Family Life Educators (CFLEs) receive the magazine CFLE Network, of which I serve as editor, as a benefit of their certification. For our spring issue we decided to follow Doherty’s lead and focus specifically on families and food. The articles highlighted programs that promoted the role of food and meals in strengthening families and provided great examples of how some CFLEs have incorporated food and nutrition into their work as Family Life Educators. It was fascinating to read how the authors’ CFLE backgrounds proved helpful in recognizing the importance of individual, family, and cultural context in carrying out their work. Here are a few highlights.

“Food is an integral part of family life affecting parenting practices,” wrote Lori Eccles, CFLE, in her article. “How we feel and relate to others, family and cultural traditions, and more—all find expression through the family meal” (Eccles, 2018). Eccles detailed her responsibilities working with the Mothers-in-Motion (MIM) initiative offered through Michigan State University Extension. MIM involved both face-to-face classes and the use of technology through teleconferencing and texting to share information about food awareness, food preparation, and an understanding of the benefits of cooking and shared family meals. In her work, Eccles experiences firsthand how her skills as a Family Life Educator can improve the physical health and wellness of the families she serves. One mother in the MIM program explained to Eccles how eating a family meal together “represents safety and security and connectedness.” During this exchange, Eccles realized that her skills can also benefit families socioemotionally.

In her role as a county family and consumer sciences agent, Karim Martinez, M.S., CFLE, often hears stories of how family dynamics can impact eating habits. One common theme is when a sudden change to a family member’s dietary needs—such as being diagnosed with diabetes—affects the whole family and causes feelings of conflict, resentment, or isolation. In her article, Martinez describes a New Mexico State University Cooperative Extension service program called Kitchen Creations. The program is a cooking school for people with type 2 diabetes that encourages participants to bring a family member to class. “This recognizes that people with diabetes are part of a family unit and the family needs to negotiate healthy meal options together as a unit. The curriculum promotes the idea that healthy eating for diabetes is healthy eating for everyone” (Martinez, 2018). 

Several authors shared current research or experiences on how communication at mealtime provides opportunities for socialization and increases children’s abilities to develop regulation skills, which are important for their social and emotional growth. Heather McCullom, Ph.D., CFLE, designed a curriculum for a three-week summer camp called Youth4Health that incorporated nutrition, gardening, communication, and exercise. One learning event involved the introduction of mealtime question cards. Rather than focusing dinnertime conversation on daily logistics such as homework and chores, the question cards steered the conversation to topics such as “How was my name chosen?” and “If you could plan a vacation with your family, where would you want to go and why?” (McCullom, 2018). Both campers and their parents reported a renewed interest and appreciation for family mealtime with the introduction of these conversation starters.

Food provides a multitude of opportunities for learning within the family. Through food we learn about cooking and nutrition, and about 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. Simply put, food does much more than simply nourish our bodies.

As part of the Network issue, I invited CFLEs to respond to this question: “What food or food ritual has significance in your family, and why?” Several recurring themes emerged from the many thoughtful responses. It is clear food plays a role in celebration, tradition and routine, faith, culture, and connection. I’ll close by sharing the response from Phyllis Carella Penhallow, M.S., CFLE, to my question, as it sums up many of these themes perfectly:

As I think about my mother's meatballs and sauce, my mouth waters and I can smell it. 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.”


Doherty, W. J. (1997). The intentional family: How to build family ties in our modern world. Boston, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Eccles, L. (2018). More than a meal: Fostering family coping and cohesiveness. CFLE Network, 31(2), 14, 17-18.

Martinez, K. (2018). Families and food: An extension perspective. CFLE Network, 31(2), 1, 10-11.

McCullom, H. (2018). Youth4Health: Summer camp about healthy lifestyles for adolescents. CFLE Network, 31(2), 12-13.

Mechler, H. (2018). Mealtime provides important communication opportunities. CFLE Network, 31(2), 18-19.