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A couple cutting up vegetables on a kitchen counter.

Kitchens with accessible and easy-to-clean counters are more likely to encourage families to cook, says U professor Tasoulla Hadjiyanni.

If there is room at the table...

By Kate Tyler

From eNews, June 23, 2005

The terms "kitchen layout" or "dining room table" don't appear anywhere on the USDA Food Guide Pyramid, but that doesn't mean the spaces for preparing and sharing family meals aren't part of the big picture of healthful eating.

Tasoulla Hadjiyanni, an assistant professor of design, housing, and apparel in the U's College of Human Ecology, studies the connections between design, culture, and identity. Of primary interest: the theories of "sustainable" residential design that are as family friendly as they are eco-aware. In Hadjiyanni's residential design course, future designers draw up home blueprints that reflect a concern for healthy human interaction. That means safe, renewable building materials and specs based on "universal design" principles--regulations for creating spaces that can accommodate all kinds of people, regardless of age, gender, size, or disability.

"The idea is to bring families together through design," says Hadjiyanni. "As designers coming from a human ecological perspective, it's our responsibility to help our clients create flexible, nurturing environments where their families can thrive. People have very busy lives these days. Both parents and kids are stressed out. Multitasking is seen as a good thing. But that's precisely why it's important to reconnect around the dinner table."

Shared family meals are essential to creating strong families, she adds, citing both her own experience as a working mother of two and the work of a colleague, Bill Doherty. (Doherty, director of the U's Marriage and Family Therapy Program, has written several books on the importance of family relations.)

But if the kitchen layout is wrong, the dining room is uncomfortable, or the table is too small, family meals may be hard to pull off--or may on occasion, add stress instead of enhance family connectedness.

"...affordable housing designs will need to include space for elaborate dinners involving perhaps 200 guests as well as huge pots and pans," says Hadjiyanni.

"Often in affordable housing, corners are cut to save money and there's not even room for a table," notes Hadjiyanni, who teaches her students to design appealing family eating areas that incorporate windows that let in natural light and afford a pleasant view. Whether in the kitchen or in a separate dining room, the spaces are away from the TV and convenient to the refrigerator, stove, and dishwasher for easier meal prep and cleanup. "Kitchens with easy-to-clean counters and readily accessible dishes encourage families to cook," says Hadjiyanni. While abundant storage spaces allow "room for the special dishes, candles, and place mats, people need to maintain family rituals and cultural traditions."

"Culture includes all the layers of how families construct meaning and express their identities, whether Hmong meal traditions, Kwanzaa celebrations, religious observances, or special things families do around birthdays or Halloween," says Hadjiyanni.

During a housing study of Twin Cities immigrant groups, Hadjiyanni and several colleagues found that a standard dining table does not fit every family's needs. For the Hmong in St. Paul's Frogtown neighborhood, "affordable housing designs will need to include space for elaborate dinners involving perhaps 200 guests as well as huge pots and pans," she says. And for Somali families in Minneapolis, tradition calls for eating "on the floor in a circle, with a common plate in the middle."

"The food itself isn't important, which is quite different from the Hmong and from my own culture," says Hadjiyanni, who grew up in Cyprus. "It's the sharing of food that's important. The company. The connectedness."