Family dynamics have changed over time. This is to be expected, and is often a good thing. But modern ways do not necessarily always represent actual improvement, and sometimes it’s tempting to take a step backwards and embrace the way families did things in generations past.
Mealtime might be an example of things that our grandparents did better than we do. Most people’s fondest images of family meals are not centered around mad dashes through the fast food drive-up lane or each person microwaving their choice of instant food and eating it in solitude. Most of us, whether it represents our own reality or not, envision the best family meals as the ones that are shared around a dining table.
It’s no doubt a lot harder to do that in the 21st century than it was in days gone by. Lifestyles are different, demands on our time are different, societal expectations are different. But here are some reasons why it’s worth making an attempt to sit down together at the table as a family—even if you can manage to actually make it happen only part of the time.
1. Kids learn table manners. Whether they use them all the time or not, good table manners help people feel confident in any situation in which food is involved, and kids will never regret having learned them. I’m not talking about fancy manners they might need for dining with the Queen of England, or even formal subtleties such as knowing where to place one’s utensils to signal being finished with the plate. What I do encourage is teaching kids basic skills—appropriate to their ages—like learning to wield a steak knife, nudge roly-poly peas into submission, and wind long noodles around a fork. But it’s more than how to use silverware. It’s knowing not to subject fellow diners to the sight of half-chewed food while they talk, and how to pass the potatoes and thank the host. It’s learning to be aware of house expectations—if no food is touched until grace is said or no hats are allowed at the table, it’s a lot less awkward when everyone knows how to play along.
When your kids leave home, they will take meals with a wide variety of people, from coworkers to important professional clients to future in-laws. The more comfortable they are at the table, the better off they’ll be. Mentoring and gentle reminders at home are the keys to developing table manners.
2. Everyone learns and maintains communication skills. Dining together involves not only sitting in the presence of others, but interacting with them. “How was your day at work, Mom?” and, “How did you do on the science test, Joe?” are excellent phrases for diners to start with. Saying “please,” “thank-you,” “pardon me,” “you’re welcome,” and “certainly” are all great follow-ups. The ability to listen to others, hear what is really being said, and respond appropriately are wonderful attributes which help people be better friends, spouses, employees, bosses and citizens. So does the discernment to know when and how to offer sympathy or encouragement, or when and how to respectfully decline or disagree.
3. Debates are respectful. Getting along with others is hard, whether you’re six or 60. Sharing a table with people who are not your Facebook friends or who disagree with your politics or whose hygiene habits are different from yours can be an exercise in tolerance and restraint. But in a world where tolerance and restraint seem to be less common than they used to be, the family table is a delightful place to develop and implement them.
My two sons have always been on the opposite ends of the political spectrum, and our evening meal conversations were always lively when they lived at home. We all arrived at the table from vastly different vantage points, argued the issues of the day, and were still family and friends at the end of the meal. Sure, there was some eye-rolling and even a few snorts of derision and raised voices now and then. But we all remember those debates with fondness, and still laugh about some of the more dramatic moments. I’m sure it enriched our interrelationships and strengthened our bonds rather than weakened them.
4. An opportunity for technology-free time. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve heard people lamenting the constant presence of communication devices in our lives. And yet, we all have trouble escaping it. It can feel like technology swallows us whole.
Family mealtime is the perfect time to set aside a time without phones, tablets, laptops, TVs or earbuds. It’s not a whole camping trip or day at Grandma’s—it’s just an hour or so. An hour of being fully present with those in the room without being distracted by flashing screens and seduced by advertisements.
I never allowed even a TV on in the room during evening meals. I maintained that if I could take time out of my entertainment long enough to prepare the meal, they could take time out from theirs enough to eat it. There were some grumbles at the time, but there are no regrets now.
5. A pleasing and peaceful setting. Ever notice how nice restaurants are the ones with ambiance? You don’t have to spend money on eating out for that. In fact, setting the table for a nice meal at home can be fun for the whole family. Kids can not only set the table, but can have fun creating a nice space for the meal. Think construction paper napkin rings, flowers gathered and arranged in a vase, or other creative accessories and décor.
Light a few candles, get out your best tablecloth (even if it’s a repurposed sheet from a thrift store), and put on some pleasing dining music. Dinnerware doesn’t have to match to be beautiful, drinkware can be mason jars, and it’s more important that chairs are comfortable than stylish.
People are drawn to beauty. A falling maple leaf, a symphony, a baby’s soft cheeks, a city skyline, a butterfly, a birdsong—and a beautiful table setting shared with loved ones.
6. Time away from outside stress. People are busy these days. I get it. I hear people saying that there is no time to sit down to a family meal together anymore. But the way I see it, today’s busy lifestyles are all the more reason to carve out a special time to set it all aside. Even if it happens only once a week or so, a family mealtime can be a mini-vacation from the pressures of the outside world—and for most families, it’s a break sorely needed.
7. Healthy eating habits develop. Our grandparents grew up learning to eat a variety of foods and not be fussy. Not everyone today does that, and it may be detrimental to our health. A well-rounded diet helps people maintain a healthy weight and avoid health problems. While both kids and adults might tend to reach for prepackaged junk food instead of roasted green beans or sliced tomatoes when eating on their own, it can be easier to make healthy choices when good foods are part of a family meal.
Instead of gulping down food merely as a means to curb cravings, sharing a family sit-down meal can encourage everyone to eat more slowly, avoid overeating, savor the flavors, and enjoy the experience.
If you’re still on the fence about family meals, here are some ideas to get you started. Commit to one night a week for the first few months, and ask everyone to make it a priority. Try offering simple family favorites at first and add new foods gradually, establish a few ground rules to begin and tweak them as you go, and involve the whole family in preparation and cleanup as much as possible.
Even if it doesn’t ever look like anything out of a Norman Rockwell painting, enjoying family mealtime at the table might end up being your own version of “picture perfect.”
Do you agree? Disagree? What tips would you add? Share your advice in the section below: