Buon appetito

The Italian tradition of eating together

Words: Angelique Hechavarria
Illustration: Mary Hart

A long wooden table laden with fragrant foods and Mediterranean flora has been placed among the olive trees. Chairs of all shapes and sizes have been brought out in readiness for the long-held Italian tradition of dining as a family.

Here, the Italian proverb, A tavola, non si invecchia, loosely translated as ‘At the table, you never grow old’, comes to life. This is where a midday break can last up to three hours, shops are closed and the streets are silent.

Why is eating together a tradition in Italy?

Taking the time to have a leisurely lunch is built into the daily routines of many who live in Italy, and Michela Chiappa, Welsh-Italian TV chef and co-author of Simply Italian: Cooking at Home with the Chiappa Sisters, sees the table as an essential building block of Italian culture: ‘In the UK, when looking for a quick lunch, the most common thing you’ll find would be a sandwich from a supermarket or café. In Italy, while they do have paninis, most places will serve a quick lunch, but it will be a plate of pasta, with a little bit of meat, it will probably have a coffee or a glass of wine with it. Lunch might be one to three courses, and, culturally, that’s hugely different.’

Of course, many people don’t have the option to dedicate several hours to a midday break or to prepare a meal from scratch. Work, busy schedules and other commitments can make finding time for yourself difficult, let alone trying to arrange a slot that coordinates with friends and family. In the workplace, a hurried sandwich on a bench or eating at your desk is common. And, at home, varied shift patterns might equal separate meals, with adults and children eating at different times and in different places.

‘Most of our friends had a television in their kitchens, and my dad used to say: “Absolutely not! The table is where we sit,”’ recalls Michela, who grew up between Merthyr Tydfil and Aberdare in south Wales. ‘Now, I’ve realised how valuable that time was, because it’s not just where you eat. It’s where you socialise, it’s where you can take a moment to slow down and, in a fast-paced and busy world, that’s even more precious.’

Screen-free eating

One of the ways to embrace this precious time is to ensure you can be fully immersed in the dining experience, without the distractions of screens. Michela sees it as a chance to check in on others, to slow down and come back to centre, whatever the day has brought. For her, it’s a time to teach children manners and mindful eating habits and to form deeper connections with loved ones and your surroundings. ‘The [dining] table is one of the best places [where] you can educate your children and the generations to come, demonstrate to them how important eye contact is and how important it is to slow down for a moment. A conversation can help in slowing down a meal as well.’

While it’s not practical for everyone to aim for a family feast every mealtime, there are ways to make eating a more sociable affair (see below) and reap the benefits of la dolce vita. There are also opportunities to become more mindful of what and how we eat. Those who prefer eating in the peace of their own company, for example, might extend their awareness beyond their food to the space around them. So, take those work lunches outside and pay attention to the sights, sounds and smells. When it has to be indoors, focus on the food, the nourishment, the textures, the spices. Put your phone on silent and enjoy the time.

Set the scene for dining as a family

If company’s your thing, rituals such as laying the table and adding comforting touches or decorations create an enjoyable ambience and can extend the pleasure of the occasion. Schedule a regular Italian-style lunch and invite friends and family to help you cook and create a convivial atmosphere.

Michela suggests taking an extra moment to feel thankful for each aspect of the meal: ‘Think about the ingredients that have gone into the flavours. Use your senses, the smell, the taste, and spend even just five minutes thinking about the food in front of you and where it came from,’ says Michela. ‘My dad always says the table is sacred. It’s not just for eating, it’s for cooking, chatting and being together.’

Tips for dining as a family

Embrace the Italian tradition of eating together

  • Invite the neighbours. Drop a note next door asking if your neighbour would like to join you sometime during the week to enjoy a meal together. You might find yourselves sharing stories and uplifting conversations and building deeper connections.
  • Find a table. If you’re out and about and need a quick lunch break, consider choosing a restaurant or café that has waiting staff. This slows the pace and provides a level of personal interaction, which, combined with the conviviality of being surrounded by other diners, can lift the spirits and make the whole thing more enjoyable.
  • Phone a friend. Try scheduling a regular lunch date with a colleague or friend. You could return to the same spot at the same time each week to establish a tradition or mix it up and go somewhere new each time. Take it in turns to choose where to go and you may also find yourself sampling culinary styles that you haven’t tried before.
  • Go screen-free. Try dedicating yourself to a screen-free mealtime (that includes the TV). Focus instead on your dining companions or the food on your plate. Savour every morsel of conversation and every mouthful of your meal.
  • Elevate the ambience. Choosing some favourite tunes as a backing track to your conversation is a great way to elevate your dining experience and will signal to your brain that this is a time to relax and recharge through good food and companionship.
  • Set the table. Focus on the space. Whether alone or in company, make your dining space special. Light a candle, lay a tablecloth or decorate the table with some flowers.

You can read more articles about wellness in the latest issue of Breathe magazine.