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A family meal is a meal which is prepared for the staff of a restaurant, and typically eaten before service, although sometimes a family meal occurs at the end of the night. The family meal is more formally known as the “staff meal,” especially in employee handbooks, and some people refer to this meal colloquially as “crew chow.” Family meals are quite diverse, depending on the restaurant and its attitude towards its staff, and they are typically offered as a benefit; in restaurants where family meals are not offered, staff may be given an allowance to spend on menu items to compensate.
At its most basic, a family meal is simply an opportunity to use up leftovers, ensuring that the restaurant runs as efficiently as possible. If a dish doesn't sell out on the floor, chances are high that it will show up in some incarnation in the family meal. The meal may also include things like leftover pasta, bread, and vegetables which cannot be used to serve customers. On occasion, such family meals can be a bit gruesome, depending on how the leftovers are stored and prepared.
In other establishments, the cooks prepare a specific meal which may have nothing to do with the actual menu as a family meal. Since the staff can be large, the meal is typically kept fairly simple, but the ingredients are basic, wholesome, and fresh. Sometimes kitchens with a large ethnic crew may have ethnic family meals, regardless as to the style of the restaurant. In a very large restaurant, the family meal may also be different for different groups of people, with people in the higher ranks eating better food.
Some establishments take the quality of their food very seriously, and their family meals may take the form of menu tasting. While employees are unlikely to receive full portions, they will get a taste of new menu items. For waitstaff, this allows them to speak with authority about those items when customers ask, while kitchen crew learn what these foods should taste like. A menu tasting also instills respect for the ideals and goals of the restaurant.
As the term “family meal” implies, a family meal is often used as a chance to socialize and connect on minor kitchen issues. Many kitchen staffs grow quite close, because they work for long hours in close quarters, and cooperation is crucial to the success of their restaurant. The family meal tends to be casual and friendly, as many guests at such meals have noted, building camaraderie between the employees.