It's dinnertime somewhere.
Families sit around a dining table, or gather around a short-legged table, or settle on a rug in a circle.
A baby may be in a highchair or on his mother's back, having food handed to him. He may be in a hammock, gently pushed every so often, dozing, not eating, and absorbing the sounds of his family enjoying their evening meal.
Why regularly share the evening meal as a family? How does this routine activity serve us beyond nourishment?
It has been said that the table is the heart of the home. At the table, we rejoin the pack in a timeless ritual. We are no longer separate and solitary; we regain our identities as part of a greater whole.
As we eat together, we mark milestones, divulge dreams, bury hatchets, make deals, give thanks, plan vacations, and tell jokes. It's where children learn the lessons that families teach: communication, cooperation, manners ("so you'll be comfortable when you have dinner with the queen"), self-control, values, following directions, sitting still, and taking turns. It's where we make up and make merry. Children can count on spending time with their parents and learning about the adult world. Sitting down for a meal gives us a fresh chance to reconnect.
Families vary in their expectations or rules regarding the family table. In some families, all members are expected to be at all dinners; in some, only Sunday dinner attendance is required. Common expectations are no television and no phone use.
In some families: If you're hungry before dinner, eat an apple. If the food is passed family-style, take only what you want and eat what you take. If a food is offered for the first time, you must try at least one bite. Carry your dishes into the kitchen. Everyone helps with clean up; it's part of the meal. If you're still hungry after dinner, have some cereal or a peanut butter sandwich.
In other families: Stay at the table until everyone is finished eating. You have to ask to be excused from the table.
Some parents strive for fun at the table. Criticism is not allowed. You can't complain about the food or bicker with your siblings. If you say something negative about a brother or sister, you must follow it with something positive.
HELPING EXTENDS TIME TOGETHER
Good stuff happens in the kitchen, before and after the meal. Working together to prepare food and clean the kitchen later fosters a sense of teamwork. When a parent and a child are working side by side, with a sense of cooperation, it can be easier and less confrontational to say something private and important. Cooking together teaches cooperation, respect, and patience and instills confidence.
My grandmother's preparation for supper included tying on a clean apron and walking outside to meet her husband as he came in from their orchard. Her children noticed this ritual that reflected their mother's love and respect for her husband.
I know families that like to highlight dinner with flowers, candles, a tablecloth, cloth napkins, and child-made placemats and place cards. They encourage the children who are setting the table to make it interesting and attractive. Decorations can be something simple and easily available, such as rocks from outside, leaves, and braided dandelions.
Welcome your children's friends to your table. It's a way to get to know them and for them to see your family in action. It is nice to have the inviter help choose the menu and pitch in to cook the dinner.
SAVE TIME FOR A WORD OF GRATITUDE
Some families take a period of time before the meal to focus on gratitude. There's the hubbub before the meal, getting the food on the table and herding everyone into their places, and then it's quiet for a moment. It's time to give thanks for the food, each other, and the cook and to ask for our bodies to use the food well.
Part of the ritual may be to join hands while we repeat something together. My son John and his wife Dana taught English in Osaka, Japan, for two years before they had children. Today, years later, before their evening meal, they hold hands with their daughters while the family says a prayer to Mother Earth and Father Heaven. Then, with palms together, they say together, "Itadakimasu," a Japanese grace that means "I receive from above." John told me he then thinks to himself, "May my heart and my choices do God's work."
The gratitude time before the meal may be formal or informal. One person might speak or sing, or all might spontaneously chime in, one at a time. This brief time of focused attention acknowledges that we are together again and fortunate to share this meal.
SHARE FAMILY VALUES & CULTURE
Every time you encourage your toddler not to bang her spoon on the table, every time you cock your head and listen to your spouse or your child tell a story from the day, you are clarifying your family's culture. You are saying: This is who we are; this is how we operate.
The word "companion" means "one who breaks bread with you," and companionship assumes communication. Parents need to establish an atmosphere where it's safe to share personal stories and opinions without fear of criticism or putdowns. Family members can have healthy debates when the goal is joint exploration and not one-upmanship.
Ask questions. Listen respectfully. You'll get an idea of how your child is reacting to the outside world and how the world is reacting to your child. Play to your child's strengths and interests. Who made you laugh today? Who did you make laugh? Consider the 1-2-3 game; for example: one thing you learned in social studies, two people you sat with at lunch, three things you saw on the way to school. For the older child: What was most interesting in today's news? Will it affect your life? Keep an encyclopedia, a world globe, and a map of your nation nearby.
REPAIR THE FAMILY HEART
Families need not avoid serious topics at the evening meal. We all confront challenges and losses and emergencies that blindside us. It's healthy to let our children see us worried, concerned, or sad and to see us grapple with the tough parts of life; they also see us clarify problems and develop plans to tackle them. They watch parents listen to each other with empathy and see them console each other.
They recognize our resiliency and move toward becoming resilient themselves. Children who know the tough stories as well as the happy stories from their family history can cope better when things don't go well in their lives. Terrible things have happened, but we're okay; our family survives.
Hearing the family tales again and again over time anchors a sense of who we are and gives us hope and a feeling of belonging. Children may find heroes in their own family.
Supper can be about prevention and repair. A child may feel safe to talk about his own tough stuff at the table. His problems may not loom so large after they are shared with the family during a meal.
A CAUSE FOR CELEBRATION
Meals are the perfect place to celebrate anything. Causes for celebration: the last of the snow melts in the yard, a child finishes a school project, the first crocus is blooming, the neighbor's cat had kittens, a half-birthday (with half of a cake), 30 years ago this month one of the parents graduated from high school.
In our home, the birthday child enjoys The King or Queen Treatment all day: no chores, choose the menu for dinner, go to bed a half hour later, etc. Birthday traditions give the celebrant something familiar to look forward to. Every year, I knew my mother would make me an angel food cake with seven-minute frosting and choose the prettiest peace rose from the garden to put into the hole and in the top. My heart warms when I think of her choosing a rose and bringing it in to place on the cake she made for me.
Sing for your supper. We borrowed this idea from our good friends for Thanksgiving one year, but a family can do it anytime. Everybody prepares something to share between dinner and dessert, from the youngest person to the oldest. You don't have to perform something, but you'll probably want to. Read a poem, do a somersault, explain your research project (using markers and a chart on an easel), sing, read your favorite children's book, play an instrument, tell a joke, relate a family incident from many years before. This activity produces fabulous memories.
Try dinners with variety: breakfast for dinner, joke night, eat with your fingers lunch, a picnic in the living room, foods from other cultures, or green milk and mashed potatoes on St. Patrick's Day.
WHAT DOES YOUR FAMILY TABLE LOOK LIKE?
There are a zillion reasons for eating a meal together. It provides nourishment of all kinds: emotional and mental as well as physical. We get to know each other better. Family meals can be a bulwark against the pressures we all face every day. Sitting down to a meal together draws a line around us; it strengthens the bonds that connect us. The number-one reason? It's just plain fun.