MY DAUGHTER HAS A DOLL HOUSE with a dining room. There are images of gold-framed artwork on the walls and a tasseled rug on the floor. It is quite formal, as dollhouses are concerned. It came with a rectangular dining table and four wooden, high-back chairs. Playing alongside her, I set up the table and chairs in the dining room. She moved the furniture into the kitchen—the only place she has ever eaten meals in her young life—and carried on.

I am part of Gen. Y (those born in 1981-1996), also known as the Millennials, and I grew up on the East Coast in a middle-class home with a formal dining room. A china cabinet in the corner displayed teacups, plates, and bowls (that I never remember being allowed to use) behind glass doors. The centerpiece of the room was the dining table, complete with a lace runner and a large vase of dusty, fake flowers. It was an outlier room of our house, sparse and breakable in a home otherwise warm and lived-in. We hosted Thanksgiving in the dining room, with the table’s leaf extended and a slew of mismatched chairs pulled up, but the other 364 days of the year, the room seemed exiled from the rest of the house.

Perhaps more than any other room in the home, the dining room has struggled with its identity over the years. The concept of separate eating areas originated with the Ancient Greeks and Romans. They (just the men, that is) would gather on 7-15 stone or wood “couches” arranged against the walls, each with its own little table. Reclined on their left elbows and propped up on pillows, the men would use their right hand to eat and drink. The center of the room was kept open for serving food, entertainment, or drinking games. The concept of these early dining rooms spread throughout the Mediterranean and persisted for over 1,000 years.

During the Middle Ages, only the upper echelons ate in dining rooms, and not every night—think: banquets in castles. The tables would have been long wooden boards set on top of supports similar to modern-day sawhorses with benches for seating. The most important people at the meal would have been seated in chairs upon a raised platform, which is where the term “the high table” derives from. Dishes of food were shared and eaten with fingers or with the “eating knives” some carried on their belts.

The Industrial Revolution brought with it more widely distributed wealth and larger homes with dining rooms began to appear in middle-class America. Just as the societal shifts of this period changed the way people ate dinner, they also changed the way they ate lunch. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, the mid-day meal was considered the most important of the day. It was served hot and called dinner. But as factory workers became less likely to go home for their mid-day meal, they packed leftovers or bread and meat in tin pails, and lunchrooms within factories emerged to take the at-home dining room’s place.

By the mid-19th century, dining rooms were a widespread middle-class symbol of respectability with the help of newly printed literature based on social etiquette and domestic economy. These books outlined how dining rooms should be used and furnished and further explicated that this was the women’s role within the household. It was at this time that gathering nightly for dinner was the mark of a traditionally valued family. With the belief that security and stability were vital and started at home, the Normal Rockwell-vision of a family gathering at the table became entrenched in society’s collective psyche.

The dawning of the 20th century brought with it a gradual shift toward the kitchen replacing the dining room as the main space for eating. Eating meals in the kitchen offered greater convenience and efficiency, albeit forfeiting the ritual and recreation of more formal dining—it was clear that Americans’ values were changing. By the 1950s and 60s, home designers literally broke down the wall and it became posh to merge dining and kitchen areas. In the ‘70s, we took it one step further and “open-concept” became a household phrase. These wall-less floor plans reached an apex in the 1990s, promising home-owning Generation X that cooking, socializing, parenting, and even cleaning would be made easier. Nearly all new construction incorporated some version of an open-concept floorplan.

By 2017, an Angie’s List survey showed that about two-thirds of homeowners who still had formal dining rooms were using them for other activities such as storage, crafting, or homework. Still others, about 13%, had completely scrapped the table and chairs and converted their dining room to a permanent guest room or home office. The Millenials were becoming new homeowners now. A generation blighted by massive student debt and many of us entering the labor force in the wake of the Great Recession, we were forced to delay major life purchases or limit what we could afford. The America that Gen. Y became adults in is not the same America that our parents, Baby Boomers or early Gen. X, bought their starter homes in.

Traditional, formal dining spaces are one of the most expensive rooms in the home to furnish. The cost of a large wood table and 8-10 wood chairs, wallpaper, china sets, and their accompanying cabinets, sideboards, linen, candles, and artwork does not come cheap. For a Millenial home buyer, it is hardly practical. In Hawaiʻi, where the average home’s price per square foot is $600, and the average formal dining room is 224 sq. ft., to consider paying $134,400 for a room in a house that is used but a handful of times a year, is unthinkable.

The Norman Rockwell vision of the family gathering around the dining room table, mother in an apron serving a meal that took all day to prepare, is no longer the status quo, nor even an accurate illustration of middle-class America. With many families unable to afford for one parent to stay home to cook the meal, set the table and serve, the image now seems almost pretentious.

The rituals that humans partake in revolving around food and mealtimes directly reflect societal values and generational needs. For Millenials, pre-pandemic, this equated to more flexible dinner options for day-to-day—a boom in food delivery services and at-home meal kits provided vast and international options. We were eating with roommates well into adulthood, or extended family, or alone. At restaurants, on floor cushions around the coffee table, at the kitchen island counter, in our car, while we watched our kids play sports. We were still breaking bread, often together, but trying not to get crumbs on the couch (a bit full-circle when we consider our Ancient Greek and Roman forefathers).

Enter: 2020. The interior designers could not have predicted it—without warning, around the globe, we became trapped inside our houses together and the lack of walls felt suddenly suffocating. Families were spending more time together than perhaps ever before. Home became the hub for the workday, school day, playtime, each and every meal, exercise, and leisure. We weren’t hosting dinner parties—if we were even having them before. We blew kisses through closed windows during the holidays, had Zoom birthday parties, socialized through text threads. Those who still had dining rooms rejoiced, for they had a room that offered one of this pandemic’s most coveted commodities: seclusion in a house full of people. But in turn, these dining-room-blessed homeowners did the only thing that made sense: they utilized their dining rooms as something more useful.

Our experiences inside our homes during COVID will undoubtedly shape the real estate market for generations. Many will never return to a traditional office setting. Many children are still attending school from home. Although things are no longer as dark as they were in 2020, potential buyers will be considering the “what if” factor when looking at properties. If we are ever in this situation again, would the home be able to accommodate? Connected living spaces and open floor plans aren’t going anywhere—they remain the best way to maximize square footage, improve traffic flow, increase access to shared light and for many who live in small spaces, they are the only option (because to have walls, you need space). But, with a new appreciation for outlets of privacy, the real estate market is highlighting homes with “hybrid rooms” or “flex space,” a bonus room in a home that could be used for any number of activities, including, when the occasion arises, formal dining.

After a very long season of trying to create more space in our finite homes and feeling crossed between wanting to gather and also yearning for solitude, we emerge irrefutably changed. Perhaps now more than ever before, we consider what space means for us and how we wish to fill it.

Friendships are rekindling, families are reuniting. Many who spent the bulk of this pandemic alone are reminiscing about the days of dinner parties and sitting around a table for an extended meal and the conversation, connection, and culture that comes along with it. COVID forced many of us to begin cooking for ourselves and each other again—for some, it was the highlight of the day. A recent survey found that over half of the Americans who began cooking more in the past year say they will continue this trend on the other side of the pandemic.

Perhaps it took families being forced to gather nightly again—around the dining room table, or the kitchen table, or the couch—to remind us of the value in eating together with intent. When eating together is the event, when we carve out meaningful time to de-stress, catch up and connect, there are quantifiable positive effects physically and psychologically, for adults and children alike. We perhaps found that to force formality was to restrict us, but that just the act of eating in the same space, phones down, eyes meeting, we felt healthier and happier. It is possible that after its relatively brief hiatus, a renaissance of gathering for the dinner bell is now occurring.

Our homes might no longer have formal dining rooms, or maybe they never did to begin with, and the heart of the home might now be our kitchen counter or even the couch. And maybe as a family, we’re eating take-out or left-overs or bowls of cereal instead of a hot, home-cooked meal, but that doesn’t change the value in convening around food.

The dining room in my daughter’s dollhouse is still empty but the doll family gathers for meals at the table in the kitchen. They chit-chat, they pass the wooden food around, they smile at one another. They seem very happy. [ eHI ]

Lily Katz, Lihau Collier and Noah Katz at the dinner table. Waihe’e Valley, Maui