Image courtesy of J.R. Photography/Stocksy United Credits: Image courtesy of J.R. Photography/Stocksy United
Her Facebook News Feed provided the solution: an almost-effortless dinner-party movement called Friday Night Meatballs. Cooked up by Philadelphia-based writer Sarah Grey, Friday Night Meatballs is a weekly meal designed to bring family and neighbours together to reinforce connection and community. And keeping spaghetti and meatballs at the core means meals are inexpensive and easily expandable.
When Shayla kicked off her Friday Night Meatballs dinner, she asked friends and family to bring only their hunger and chairs, keeping food contributions voluntary. "I was excited to host our first meatball night, but I was nervous about what to expect," she recalls. "I had no idea who would respond."
As the late-October sun set that first night, Shayla had just laid out a family-style spread of spaghetti and meatballs when her brother-in-law showed up with a package of bacon. Without missing a beat, she fried it up. "It turned out bacon is really good on spaghetti, and we all loved it," she says. Just like that, a Friday-night tradition was born.
"It was comfortably chaotic," says Dick MacKenzie, Shayla's boss and a guest at one of her first Friday-night dinners. Even though he knew only about half of the dozen people aged one to 70 spread throughout Shayla's 1,100-square-foot house, he says conversations popped up "like buttercups in a pasture. It reminded me of a huge family enjoying the reunion of scattered members. The atmosphere was unplanned, unpretentious, pleasant and as warm as pudding."
Gatherings like these are a welcome contrast to our tendency to connect through technology rather than face-to-face. And while Skype and FaceTime have helped narrow the loneliness gap, they don't compare to physically being in the same room. "There is a difference between in-person interactions versus online connections. In person, one has the opportunity to read facial expressions, eye messages and nonverbal nuances," says Cindy Negrello, director of client services at the Canadian Mental Health Association, Calgary Region. "We enjoy being able to share and process together, and adding food and beverage brings a sense of community and meaning for the get-together."
Finding meaning and connection are particularly important at a time when families are scattered, workdays don't end at 5 p.m. and we're stuck in a car or on transit for too-long commutes. Less time for face-to-face interaction means an upswing in fast-food meals eaten in haste over the sink and, for many, in solitude. According to a 2012 Statistics Canada report, more Canadians live solo than at any other point in history. "We tend not to go out of our way to get to know our neighbours, and this is sad," says Negrello. "A once-common expectation of neighbourly engagement has become one of choice and whether it is convenient."
Simple weekly dinners don't seem like much, but the very act of getting together and socializing goes beyond a pot of meatballs. "Researchers and clinicians often think of loneliness as the social equivalent of physical pain or hunger," says Dr. Andrew Starzomski, a psychologist with the Mental Health and Addictions Program at the Nova Scotia Health Authority in Dartmouth, N.S. The range of communication that flows when we're face-to-face is much more stimulating, playful, organic and complex, he says. "Texting, despite the odd emoticon, is really not on the same footing for most people."
Carving out time for those closest to us can also help us look past some of the more trivial concerns in our lives, says Dr. Starzomski. "We hear more about others' lives, we learn and try new things, feel accepted and valued, have fun and contribute to the creation of meaningful and interesting experiences."
Shayla agrees. "Even though we started small, our friends caught on to the idea and, after a while, it became something people looked forward to."
That's why, after a summer break, Shayla started up Friday Night Meatballs again this fall. "I find that, in the summer, we meet people on a more casual basis, so it doesn't feel as vital to have scheduled social time," she says. "But it really does help through the darker, colder days."
Get a group going!
Don't want to cook? No problem. It's easy to start your own group, your way. Here's how:
Start a Facebook group
Whether you want to get involved in a community-garden program or build a network of restaurant-going foodies close to home, you can set up a Facebook page that will help members organize their time together, as well as share photos, sign up and stay in touch.
Create a meetup.com account
This web-based hub makes it simple to create your own unique local group. On Meetup, everyone from coast to coast can list their group's upcoming events, have people sign up and generate comments.
Look within your group
Starting your own group and recruiting new members can be as easy as asking around. Want to start a cycling group? Try advertising at your gym, a local community centre or a related group, like yoga class.
More ways to connect
Hamilton Community Garden Network
This network brings community gardeners of all types together and offers information about how to set up a garden. It also maintains a directory of local community gardens and an events calendar for workshops and events. For more information, visit hcgn.ca.
Edmonton Outdoor Club
This volunteer-run group organizes affordable monthly outdoor activities such as hiking, camping and canoeing and helps connect people looking to participate in a healthy lifestyle. For more infor-mation, visit edmontonoutdoorclub.com.
This West Coast group for food lovers of all ages meets up for dinner, brunches, picnics, potlucks, food shows, farm and wine tours—even just a coffee. The annual membership fee is $10, which helps with operating costs. For more information, visit meetup.com/victoria-foodies-group.
Halifax Parents & Tots Coffee House and Playgroup
This community-based group in Halifax for parents and young kids up to three years old meets weekly to swap stories as the kids play and the parents sip coffee. For more information, visit meetup.com/halifax-parents-and-tots-coffee-house-and-playgroup.
Host your own Friday Night Meatballs dinner and make our Tested-Till-Perfect Spaghetti and Meatballs for your guests.
This story was originally part of "The Supper Club" in the November 2015 issue. Subscribe to Canadian Living today and never miss an issue!