Eating together is an important family ritual. Shared meals enable families to spend quality time together and allow children to learn good eating habits from their parents.
A 2011 study explored family meal participation by young people (school years 9–14) over a week. It found that:
- 35% shared seven or more meals with their families
- 41% shared three to six meals
- 24% shared two or fewer meals.
Maternal employment was not associated with the frequency of family meals – families with working mothers ate together just as often as those with mothers not in paid employment.
Paihia missionaries Marianne and Henry Williams were accustomed to receiving large numbers of visitors – Marianne referred to the mission as the ‘Paihia Hotel’. On one occasion, when they were hosting a missionary committee, she fed ’32 Europeans to different sittings to tea and 27 to dinner’, some of whom included ‘accidental visitors’.1
Providing visitors with meals and food is a long-standing New Zealand tradition which pre-dates European settlement. In the Māori world it is encompassed by the term manaakitanga (hospitality). Amongst Europeans, the expectation that visitors – both familiar faces and strangers – would be given something to eat, even if they turned up without warning, arose from the uncertainty of food and accommodation availability in the early years of settlement. This hospitality was typically dispensed by women.
Food-based hospitality was a survival mechanism. It turned into a social code which survived into the late 20th century, when women were expected to bake regularly to ‘fill the tins’ and to cook extra food for main meals so unexpected visitors could always be fed.
Special meals which deviate from the normal eating pattern and include guests make eating a more public event. Women in the upper echelons of society held midday luncheon parties in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Some women demonstrated their baking skills at morning and afternoon teas held in homes or, if related to community activities, in public places such as community halls.
Evening dinner parties where guests dined in a private home were also common, even when the main meal was ordinarily at midday. Dinner parties remained an important way of offering family, friends and acquaintances food-based hospitality in the 2000s. Pot-luck dinners, where hosts and guests contribute food, are more informal and probably rose in popularity in the late 20th century as more women entered paid employment.
Katikati settler Adela Stewart wrote a delightful description of a picnic she hosted in 1882: ‘My brother suggested a moonlight picnic on the Waihi beach, so … we set to work and made all sorts of cakes, pies and sausage-rolls…. Then after early dinner we started, a party of thirty, in carts and on horseback, to the beautiful Waihi beach spring where the boys lit a fire, boiled water in billies, made tea and feasted. Then followed songs, dances and athletic sports on the sands, and so home at one in the morning by moonlight.’2
Picnics have taken diners outdoors since the 19th century. Māori, farm workers and swaggers (itinerant single men) regularly ate outside. New Zealand’s barbecue culture is more recent, getting started in the 1950s.
Eating is a key element of major celebrations, events and religious observances. In Māori communities, sharing food is a traditional part of events such as tangihanga. Vast quantities of food were consumed at hākari (feasts) held to mark auspicious events, such as peace agreements between previously warring tribes.
Formal public dinners celebrating people and events were popular in the 19th century. These dinners were typically held at hotels, and diners bought tickets to them.
Shared meals take place at annual events such as Christmas and special occasions such as weddings. Lavish eating is conspicuous by its absence during religious observances such as Lent, the period of self-denial by Christians in the lead-up to Easter.
Lent was observed by missionary and church families, but not always universally, as this 1851 excerpt from churchman Vicesimus Lush’s journal shows: ‘Dear little Charlie’s birthday. Though it was Lent we had to commemorate the event a stewed beef steak and baked plum pudding: and after dinner a glass of wine between all the children over which they drank one another’s health.’3
Eating traditional foods together is a way for people from minority ethnic and religious groups to retain the cultures of their homelands. For instance, Lebanese people who settled in Dunedin from the late 19th century made a point of gathering together for meals of traditional foods. Chinese communities held feasts at Chinese New Year and meals were shared during the Jewish Passover and Diwali (festival of lights celebrated by South Asian peoples). Free communal meals were available at Gurudwara, Sikh places of worship.