January 30

A Brief History of Family Meal


A Dive Into the History of Restaurants Providing What Is Known as Family Meal — Or at Least, Part History, Part Mystery

Just last week, I sat down with the best intentions of scrolling the web to find a rich history of family meals. To my surprised and half-panicked mind (I got deadlines, people), there wasn’t any information on the origins of the family meal in restaurants save a few minor points. 

This shows that we work in an exciting industry with a rich and obscure history—things don’t just start from nowhere, right? 

Having some knowledge of weird restaurant traditions, like the kitchen stage, I think we can still make this history of the family meal work—but keep in mind, there will be quite a few assumptions that I wouldn’t recommend taking as historical facts.  

Let this be a fun theoretical dissection into what we DO know about restaurant history and how it might point to some assumptions on how family meals were solidified into tradition. 

First, There Were Apprenticeships

To assume the origins of family meals in restaurants, I’ll lean on my research from writing the History of Kitchen Stages

Here, I learned that the term stage comes from the French word “stagiaire,” meaning intern, trainee, or apprentice. The documented use of this word first appeared in the 19th century, which was the beginning of the modern restaurant industry and the emergence of haute cuisine. 

Like today, a stage was essential to kicking off a culinary career. 

There weren’t culinary schools in the early 19th century, so there wasn’t an alternative to breaking into the field other than having a connection and learning the skill by training under an expert.

Most of these apprenticeships were unpaid. Instead, the master craftsman, or in this case, Chef, would be responsible for the boarding, feeding, clothing, and moral welfare of apprentices—basically adopting them into the family.  

While they might not have used the term “family meal” or “staff meal,” I think we can safely assume they made one big meal and shared it, rather than each person fending for themselves—which is costly and wasteful. 

Before this time, when famous chefs worked for royalty, restaurants were mainly part of inns and bars, serving workers and tenants. Typically, there was little choice in what was served. One source claims that the woman of a household would serve diners the same meal she had made for her family. 

By analyzing what we know about working in restaurants, we can see where the roots of sitting down with a legitimate or makeshift family and eating a meal before service may have sprouted.

Then, There Were Cookbooks 

Fast forward over 100 years, and the first mention of the family meal is finally documented when Thomas Keller included a whole section on “Family Meal” in the French Laundry cookbook. 

Then, a year later, Chef David Waltuck of renowned New York restaurant Chanterelle published a book entirely on the concept.  

At this point, Family Meal is out of the bag and a known term at large. 

This is also where most of the information online starts. There are countless articles covering the modern ideas of family and staff meals and how important the tradition is to restaurant culture. 

Once food writers began to show interest in the concept and unveiled the behind-the-scenes lifestyle of restaurant workers, it became clear that not all family meals were alike

Some apply a practical approach to family meals, utilizing foods that might otherwise go to waste, performing a pre-shift meeting, and ensuring their team is fed and energized before giving it their all on the floor. 

Others treat family meals as a team-building exercise, allowing the crew to shoot the shit and take turns hosting the event, practicing their culinary skills, and sharing their creativity and culture with the rest of the team. 

And others don’t offer family meals in the traditional sense. Instead, they offer what is more accurately described as a shift meal. 

Shift meals are becoming more common since they’re flexible, so employees can get a free or discounted meal before or after a shift and order directly from the menu. 

Of course, a shift meal can still offer a communal aspect, as it’s typically eaten with other team members who are also off at the same time. 

The Benefits of Feeding Restaurant Staff 

No matter how family or staff meals evolved over the generations—there have always been direct benefits to the tradition, including: 

  1. Building a More Robust Company Culture
    One of the most essential benefits of offering or participating in a family meal is bonding as a team. 

    Sure, employees socialize on the floor. After all, restaurant work is a very team-driven environment, so there’s no way around getting to know one another. That said, there is just something about eating together that creates a stronger bond.

    A family meal sets aside uninterrupted time for the entire team to come together and get to know one another before or after a demanding service, where the whole team works together to create a stellar customer experience. 
  2. Encourages Skill Development and Creativity
    Family meals can be an opportunity to take the reigns on running a kitchen and develop skills needed to advance in a career—and do it on the company’s dime. 

    It’s an excellent opportunity to get feedback on recipes or try something new you might not have the equipment, ingredients, or space for at home.

    If you’re an employer, offering this opportunity to your staff can be a great way to invest and support your team to keep them motivated in their culinary goals and identify potential for future growth. 
  3. Helps reduce food waste 
    Now, some restaurants buy ingredients specifically for family meals, but most of the time, restaurants just use what’s available and need to move quickly. 

    Considering a quarter of all food waste comes from the service industry, family meal is a great opportunity to utilize ingredients at risk of being scrapped and reduce food waste. 

    It’s also an opportunity to educate or learn how to use every part of an ingredient and build awareness around food waste issues. 

No matter where or how family meals started or how they continue to evolve in the restaurant industry, sitting down, eating, and serving one another is an essential part of working in the food service industry

It’s essential to take time for ourselves and one another as a team before or after giving so much to everyone else. 

So, while this might not be an entirely accurate history of the family meal, I hope you’ve learned something you can take to the conversation at the next family or staff meal—and if you know more about its history that this article doesn’t cover, we’d love to hear it! 


About the author

Ashley McNally likes to cook, loves to bake, and is always dreaming of her next meal. With over 13 years of experience working in various roles within a restaurant — McNally has made a home in hospitality.

About the author

Ashley McNally likes to cook, loves to bake, and is always dreaming of her next meal. With over 13 years of experience working in various roles within a restaurant — McNally has made a home in hospitality.