Food fights and happy meals: The family dinner table as a place of conflict

Power at the table: Food fights and happy meals

From Cultural Studies ↔ Critical Methodologies

The image of the happy family meal is culturally and politically exceptionally powerful. In the United States, government agencies, multinational firms, and religious organizations spend millions of dollars a year on publicity campaigns that exhort families to sit down together to share a happy meal. Academics have done their share, producing reams of papers and research which purports to show that family meals are healthy, universal, socially integrative, and an antidote to social evils of all kinds. This article seeks to understand how a powerful coalition of forces and agents has come together to make the family meal a part of the cultural politics of the contemporary United States.


This article argues that out of the vast diversity of different ways that North Americans eat together, the idealized “family meal” has become a kind of cultural icon, a hegemonic collective representation of an ideal form of social behavior. The fact that few people actually achieve this ideal, or enjoy it in daily practice, does not seem to undercut its power or tarnish its image; it has the enduring power of mythology. The author draws on their own own research, and narratives collected by others to expose the gap between the real and the ideal, to highlight the everyday unpleasantness of many family meals, and to raise the issues of power and gender, which often make the dining table a scene of social drama and conflict.







In family meals the normative and the performative are very far apart—though everyone likes to think of the family table as a place of harmony and solidarity, it is often the scene for the exercise of power and authority, a place where conflict prevails. My interest in this topic was sparked by research on middle-class parents’ struggles with their “picky eater” children. Besides narrating the way the dinner table became battleground with their own children, many parents also recalled their own childhood family meals as painful and difficult. From this very narrow focus on family struggles, I expand the discussion to the larger question of why this topic is relatively ignored in social science, and I question the sources of the normative power of the family “happy meal.” The ideological emphasis on family dinners has displaced social responsibility from public institutions to private lives, and the construction of normative family performances is part of a process that constructs different family types as deviant and delinquent.


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Article details
Richard Wilk (2013). Power at the Table: Food Fights and Happy Meals Cultural Studies Critical Methodologies : 10.1177/1532708610372764


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