By Anna Ferguson
Denise Hall is not married to Jim Krall. The two are not engaged or dating. They are not brother and sister or cousins. And yet, here the two sit, side by side, sharing an ornate family meal.
Laid before them is a spread of dynamic proportions. Platters of pita bread and hummus, grilled fish, sausages and roasted lamb line the table. Plates are passed to the right, then to the left, and glasses are clinked in a toast.
About 60 people are gathered at this white-linen table at Ecco in Atlanta. Some are married, some are friends, some have arrived alone. But all are here to join in the cathartic practice of communal dining.
"We are very into creating a family with our neighbors, since most of us aren't married," said Krall, who lives next door to Hall in Midtown.
"I see people here who live in my neighborhood, people I would otherwise not get a chance to meet," Hall said. "Coming to a family meal here is like having a meal with family at home, except there are more people, the food is much better and you don't have to do the dishes."
Every Sunday evening at Ecco, patrons flock to The Sunday Share. This family-style dining event features a different themed menu each week, for a fixed price of $25. Weekly, Ecco's general manager Andy Fox sees diners sit beside people they may not know and quickly make friends. It's not uncommon for him to witness a clique of diners return week after week, with their new foodie friends in tow.
"I see people who return every week and keep making new friends," Fox said. "When new people come, the other groups will take them under their wings. Our customers really enjoy the warm feel and the camaraderie that's shared at these tables."
Family dining has benefits
It seems there is something uniquely intimate about sharing a meal with family and friends, no matter how new they might be. Families who make dining together a priority, whether it is in the home or going out to eat, reap the benefits.
"From my own experience, families that eat meals together are stronger, they have more opportunities for positive reinforcement," said Dr. Tom McIntyre, a family psychologist in Snellville.
Shared time at the dinner table allows families to discuss the events of the day and promotes healthy relationships, as well as more nutritious meals.
Children and teens who regularly have meals with their family are less likely to get into troublesome behavior such as fighting and using drugs, and are more likely to have better academic performance than those who do not, according to research collected by the Child Trends Data Bank.
Schedule time for family meals
With school back in session and agendas packed with sports practices, play rehearsals and after-school events, it's easy to let family meals fall by the wayside. Yet, McIntyre urges, families should strive to maintain the routine of a family meal as many nights a week as possible.
"It's going to depend on the family how often they can eat together, but do it whenever you can. You have to make it a priority and that might mean dropping an activity," he said. "With so many distractions in today's world, it can be easy to become fragmented. When families eat in a fragmented way, with one person in the bedroom, one person watching TV, one person at the computer, that often leads to a fragmented family."
Dining out as a family counts as bonding time and can be an opportunity to teach younger children how to behave in public, order from a menu and make their own decisions regarding food, McIntyre said.
The dinner table should not, however, be used as a time for punishment. Instead, keep conversations positive, or as a time to discuss changes in the family.
"There is plenty of time for discipline in the day," he said. "Try to keep the family meal positive."
For those not living with a central family unit, communal dining can be tricky to conceptualize. For college students newly removed from home, for a single person living alone in a city, for the elderly who are recently widowed - no matter the circumstance, it's equally important for those who live alone to partake in group dining, McIntyre said. Planned meals such as The Sunday Share and organized at-home meal gatherings are ideal for creating the feel of a family and community.
"Eating a meal together is a pleasurable experience and there is a lot of comfort found there," McIntyre said. "Whether it is with your family or with a community of friends, it's an important time for bonding and sharing."
SideBar: If You Go
What: The Sunday Share at Ecco
When: 6:30 p.m. every Sunday
Where: Ecco, 40 7th St., Atlanta
Cost: $25 per person, not including drinks
Info: The weekly event features family style dining set to a particular theme. Past events have included European Street Food and Quintessential English Pub Grub. Each dinner kicks off with a champagne salute, followed by a self-paced evening of dining with family, new friends and enough food for the whole neighborhood.
Space is limited and reservation are required. Call 678-302-3251 or visit www.fifthgroup.com.