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An Intimate Look at Dinnertime Across the Nation

Photographer Lois Bielefeld explored the dinning habits of everyday Americans.

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For decades, dinnertime has been depicted as a time when families gather together after a long day to sit down and have a home-cooked meal and bond with loved ones. But how true does that depiction ring today?

From 2013-2013 photographer, Lois Bielefeld traveled through parts of America for her series ‘Weeknight Dinners’.  The artists, who’s represented by Portrait Society Gallery, visited households in states including Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi to see how families sat down for dinner on typical work nights when individuals have less free time.

Weeknight Dinners
Wednesday: Emilio, Rhonda, Benedetto, Skylrae, Jacomo. Cudahy, Wisconsin (Lois Bielefeld)

Here is what Bielefeld had to say about her project:

What inspired you to do the ‘Weeknight Dinners’?

Lois Bielefeld: I’ve always loved food. Growing up, one of my chores was to make a weekend lunch for the family. I could make whatever I wanted but I needed to follow a recipe, write and give my parents the ingredient list, and then make it for the family. My family always ate together for the evening meal and we had to ask to be excused to leave the table. This being said, I have very little memory of the time we spent at the table and the conversations. I wonder if through this project, a small element in me is chasing the void of my own childhood family mealtimes. Regardless, I love mealtime with my wife and daughter- we chat and reconnect and share about our days. That being said often our irregular schedules dominate and I would say we eat together maybe half the week and the other half we each do our own thing. There is something deeply rooted in the American psyche regarding dinner. The American ideal is to eat a home-cooked meal as a family around a table with no distractions while talking about the day. When thinking about this project I was very interested in this ideal versus the reality, which has very much so plays out in my own mealtimes.

Weeknight Dinners
Monday: Zoe, Dave, Emma, and Karen. Mequon, Wisconsin (Lois Bielefeld)

When thinking about future project ideas, often I’ll have that serendipitous moment of an idea, write it down, and then it will regularly come up until I recognize it’s the right time to pursue it. I don’t remember when I first started thinking about Weeknight Dinners as a project but I knew that I was interested in observing people’s habits and nightly rituals. The project specifically is shot Monday through Thursday evenings, as I wanted to capture habits and rituals that are shaped by the weeknight time crunch rather than the weekends when people have more time. I work in series as I love to see the similarities and differences people exhibit within the same topic – we all eat. I started the series in 2013 during the Mary Nohl Fellowship that I received in fall 2012. I worked on the series from 2013-2015, making 78 portraits predominantly in the U.S. but also 16 while overseas in Luxembourg during a 10-week artist residence in 2015.

Weeknight Dinners
Tuesday: Alden and Alan. Baton Rouge, Louisiana (Lois Bielefeld)

How did you find your subjects?

LB: Often when I begin a new series, I reach out to people I know and often whom I’ve photographed for other series (I love seeing different views into the same people’s lives over the span of time and sometimes space). As a project progresses I start reaching out to strangers in a variety of ways. Sometimes in public I’ll just see someone and approach them, other times people will recommend people to me. I have also posted about projects on community forums and bulletin boards (both online and physical). And if I’m looking for someone specific (say someone who lives in Tulsa, OK) I’ll often put something out on FB and see what surfaces.

Did you find it a little uncomfortable in the beginning to photograph your subjects during such an intimate time?

LB: Not at all! I’ve always craved going into people’s homes- it’s inspiring, curious, and gives so many sometimes subtle and sometimes blatant insights about someone. Basically, I’m super nosy about people’s habits and I ask a lot of questions. Do they cook, if so from recipes or ad-libbing? Who cooks? Tell me about why they eat in this spot in the house? Do they always eat together? Who does the shopping and meal planning? Do they have any favorite meals? How do they plan around busy schedules? I find this helps put people at ease while a camera is aimed at them. I love being in people’s homes and seeing their space and aesthetic.

Weeknight Dinners
Wednesday: Glynis, Liam, Jorin, and Mona. Muskego, Wisconsin (Lois Bielefeld)

What has your series taught you about people and have you noticed a change in the way families and individuals view ‘dinner time’?

LB: The project specifically is shot Monday through Thursday evenings, as I wanted to capture habits and rituals that are shaped by the weeknight time crunch rather than the weekends when people have more time. I work in series as I love to see the similarities and differences people exhibit within the same topic – we all eat.  I was surprised by the vast differences in where people ate and what they ate. This reality contrasts with the archetype or projected ideal associated with dinner which is families eating at the table – everyone eats at the same time and eats the same food. This ideal is deeply rooted in the American psyche. And this ideal was rarely the case with my portraits. Some families would picnic on the floor every night while another gentleman always stands at the countertop, reads the newspaper, and looks out the window on the street while he eats. Other families ate in different parts of the home and all prepared their own quick meal. I observed this quite often – people would eat together but eat different things. It was a way to make mealtime peaceful with different tastes. I definitely noticed in the family structure that often parents catered to both their children’s schedules in terms of dinner timing but also the foods they served (such as chicken fingers or noodles with butter). Some families had a specific TV show they would all watch together, for example, one family was on around the 200th episode of Fraser. It is this ritual and routines that I personally find fascinating and gives insights to our culture.

Weeknight Dinners
Wednesday: Ernesto. Fox Point, Wisconsin (Lois Bielefeld)
Weeknight Dinners
Wednesday: Natalia and Maryann. Austin, Texas (Lois Bielefeld)
Weeknight Dinners
Wednesday: Leo and Michael. Austin, Texas (Lois Bielefeld)
Weeknight Dinners
Tuesday: Seynabou, Rui James and Marie. Baton Rouge, Louisiana (Lois Bielefeld)
Weeknight Dinners
Monday: Sálongo and Daphne. Natchez, Mississippi (Lois Bielefeld)
Weeknight Dinners
Monday: Nuco. Arlington, Illinois (Lois Bielefeld)
Weeknight Dinners
Monday: Steven and Jomo. Manhattan, New York (Lois Bielefeld)
Weeknight Dinners
Wednesday: Brandy and John. South Milwaukee, Wisconsin (Lois Bielefeld)
Weeknight Dinners
Wednesday: DannO and Amelia. Milwaukee, Wisconsin (Lois Bielefeld)
Weeknight Dinners
Wednesday: Kathy. Milwaukee, Wisconsin (Lois Bielefeld)
Weeknight Dinners
Monday: Joel and Florence. Cedarburg, Wisconsin (Lois Bielefeld)
Weeknight Dinners
Thursday: David and Cathy. Waukesha, Wisconsin (Lois Bielefeld)
Weeknight Dinners
Wednesday: Willie Mae. Milwaukee, Wisconsin (Lois Bielefeld)