This story appears in the May/June 2020 issue of LDS Living.
As many of us have restructured our Sundays to accommodate “home church” this year, family dinner has remained an important Sunday tradition. How is Sunday dinner different than every other meal during the week? What is it about Sunday dinner that has made it a staple in homes for decades, and why is it a ritual that should continue?
“Why did the prodigal son come home for dinner?”
I’m the interviewer, but my former bishop, Phil Millett, turns the tables and asks me this question as I talk with him and his wife about the importance of Sunday dinner. The Milletts are one of many families who have welcomed me into their home over the last 10 years as I have lived more than 2,000 miles away from my own family. Time and again, I have felt the love and generosity behind each invitation.
This story about Sunday dinner began with a simple NBC News article calling for a return to the Sunday dinner table, but it ended up teaching me more than I imagined it could.
“To make a delicious platter of food and serve it to a group of your family and friends, to see the delight on their faces and luxuriate in the quality of conversation and the deepness of affection around the table—that’s a real gift,” New York Times food editor Sam Sifton told NBC News. “How great it is to experience that time around the table and those conversations. It’s much more than simply the food” (“Sunday nights get you down? It’s time to bring back the Sunday supper,” Stephanie Thurrott, March 1, 2020).
When I think of Sunday dinner, I immediately think of the many people who have invited me—on a day that is often about spending reverent time with family— to momentarily be a part of their family. But as I have interviewed a few of these people, I have realized there is actually much more to this concept of Sunday dinner than I previously supposed. It has opened my eyes to the sanctity of this meal and sharing our table with others, whether with our families or our friends and neighbors.
Sunday Dinner Memories
Roast beef with gravy, mashed potatoes, a vegetable, and a dessert—maybe two. If this menu sounds familiar, you are not alone. This seems to have been the menu for most families on Sundays at one point in time. It probably stuck because it made sense logistically for an earlier generation— the roast could be put in the oven or Crock-Pot before Sunday School and be ready for the family to eat before they returned for evening sacrament meeting. In addition, it made sense economically, as the staple roast and vegetables could easily feed a large family or make a quick leftover meal the next day.
But whatever the reason, the smell of a cooking roast is still associated with special Sunday meals and family memories for many, including Stacey Farrer, whose son served his mission in my home ward while I was in school at BYU. Stacey fed me while my mom was feeding her son in North Carolina. “The best thing about the [Sunday] meals, in my opinion, was the smell of whatever was cooking all day long, making the actual sitting down all that much more enjoyable,” Farrer recalls.“To finally get to eat the stuff that filled the house with the most mouth-watering smells was so great!”
But despite these mouthwatering memories, I’ve discovered that Sifton was right in his NBC article—it’s not the food that keeps Sunday dinners alive. It is the meaning of the meal for those who make it happen.
“There’s nothing religious about my notion of Sunday suppers,” Sifton explains.“Maybe there’s something spiritual. Certainly there’s something ritualistic, but [dinner] can be enjoyed any day or any time as long as you do it regularly, once a week, once a month, once every two weeks. You can gather on Tuesdays if you want.” While this is true, as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we believe that Sunday is a special day—one set apart from the other days of the week—and I would submit that sitting down to share a meal on that day plays a role in making it special.
Phil Millett, a former young single adult (YSA) ward bishop in Salt Lake City, Utah, found himself with plenty of time to think about this exact topic in self- isolation due to coronavirus precautions in early 2020. He began to realize that while the sacrament was certainly an important part of every Sunday, his Sabbath was also defined as “the day we go to church.” So what happened when church meetings were canceled? What made Sundays different from every other day of the week if not church?
“Sunday is about serving others,” he concluded. “It’s about being a minister. It’s still going to be [primarily] about the sacrament, and then it’s going to be about family—family dinner.”
For many, preparing Sunday dinner is an act of service.
“It is a labor of love for me,” Farrer says. “I guess it is part of my love language, so that’s how I show that I love [people]. I remember how comforting and special the smells were growing up, so I want to create that in my home also.”
I met Thomas Wirthlin McConkie while hosting the All In podcast, but his parents serve in my YSA stake and have invited me to share meals in their home. McConkie explains, “Only people who love one another share important resources [like food] with one another, and so to be in any group, whether it’s family or friends, where we pool our resources and share with each other and sustain each other, it’s a really intimate and spiritual act.”
More than Food
At the many different dinner tables at which I have found myself seated over the last decade, I’ve observed people taking the opportunity to have deep conversations over food. McConkie’s mother, Lis, recalls that her father, the late Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, always made Sunday dinner a priority, and she cherishes memories of the conversations her family shared around the table.
“We always talked about the last days and the prophecies of the last days. That was a big topic for our family—we loved talking about that,” she recalls. “We talked a lot about Church topics. We also talked a lot about politics.”
The Milletts have similarly tried to use Sunday dinners to create a safe space for each of their family members to come as they are and to respect one another’s beliefs. For example, one of their sons-in-law, who is not a member of the Church, is given the responsibility of calling on someone to bless the food. Then a family message is shared by someone previously assigned. Topics of the family message have ranged from health to scriptures, and they have found that while there may be differences in belief among those sharing their family table, their Sunday dinner conversations have brought them closer together.
Still, it seems that all agree that what is felt during Sunday dinner is more important than anything that is said.
“I think there’s so much benefit that comes out of just being with each other and different generations being around each other,” says Kyle Curtis, whose wife, Barbara, served with me in my stake Relief Society presidency and whose family feeds me dinner almost every Sunday. “When you recognize people that you love and respect and admire—uncles and aunts and grandparents—I think it plants in you a desire to find out what makes them who they are. So I think in a roundabout way, [time spent at Sunday dinner] plants a seed of the gospel as far as growing and learning and trying to develop.”
Intention, Rhythm, and Ritual
I’ve found that there is no right way to do Sunday dinner. But there is a tangible spirit as families gather. Millett believes that feeling is the spirit of Elijah spoken of in the scriptures—the turning of the hearts of the children to their fathers.
Returning to the question Millett asked me in our interview, he reasons, “Why is there this homing beacon? Why did the prodigal son go home for dinner? He knew there’d be love there, and I think the spirit of Elijah is love. . . . The spirit of Elijah is not governed or driven by membership in the Church. It’s global. Every child of our Heavenly Parents has the spirit of Elijah because it is your heart.
“The reason the prodigal son went home for dinner is because he knew that there, he would have love, and that’s what’s important to all of us.”
Thomas Wirthlin McConkie has experienced this firsthand, as there was a time when he was in a position much like the prodigal son and felt a significant emotional distance between him and his family. It was 2011, and he had just returned from living abroad in China. He decided that with the physical distance eliminated, it was time to intentionally strive to improve the relationship between him and his family members. For him, three words put into practice at dinner made all the difference in restoring his familial relationships: intention, rhythm, and ritual.
“You can do the same thing every day without intention and nothing much changes, but with [having] the intention of healing relationships and becoming closer to my family, the weekly rhythm [of dinner] steady-like-a-heartbeat-every-Sunday at 5 p.m., and the ritual aspect of it meant I could relax . . . I didn’t have to worry about the details. Ritual is really powerful, among other reasons, because it simplifies our lives and it allows the thinking mind to just totally relax.” Having time set aside each week to spend with his family and eating dinner while talking gave him a low-pressure setting to connect with his parents and siblings and heal from previous misunderstandings. Sunday dinner truly brought him home.
McConkie spoke of Millett’s same “homing beacon” and its power to lead us back to our heavenly home in episode 41 of LDS Living’s All In podcast:
“There’s no experience you can have in this human life that God does not completely redeem through His love for you . . . It’s like this homing beacon. It’s like the compass of a needle that always knows where north is, no matter how dark, how turned upside down, how confused, wherever you are, you can actually be still and that compass needle, it will find north, and you can trust yourself and you can trust your feet. And my experience is that God calls us all home.”
I think that is what Sunday dinner has the ability to do for all of us, whether literally or spiritually—it turns our hearts to our fathers. For me, Sunday dinner is memories of sitting at card tables in my grandma’s living room and watching old Church videos on VHS tapes after dinner. It is éclair cake and Pepsi. It is my grandma working tirelessly every Sunday to make sure everything is perfect until one day, her hands and feet stopped working quite like they used to, and gradually Sunday dinner moved to our house. And that is how it seems to go, generation after generation.
In this way, perhaps Sunday dinner is playing an even deeper role in the grand scheme of things than any of us ever imagined. Perhaps it is preparing us for a gathering much greater.
“If you have the blessing of gathering your children home and in some way having them understand the love that exists around you,” Gretta Millett, Phil’s wife, says, “that is just a precursor for them [to recognize that feeling when] going home to their Heavenly Parents.”