Eating dinner together as a family at the same table at the same time is important. It’s not my opinion, it’s a fact. Whether you are family of two or ten, young or older children, this time together is sacred, even when it might feel like the last thing you want to do. There are all sorts of data that suggest that children who regularly engage in family dinners are less apt to experiment with drugs and other risky behaviors. (Ron Taffel, Ph.D). How about that? For the doubters among us, listen to your heart. Reflect on your last family meal, or your own childhood. I bet your gut instinct says that it is indeed important to have meals together as a family.
Your perception of family dinners is going to be in no small part influenced by your own historic experience. In my case, I recall Sunday dinners in the dining room of my childhood home where my sisters would incessantly stick their fingers in the candle wax, in complete disregard of how many times my parents would ask them to stop. More importantly, I recall saying grace before each lovingly prepared meal, conversation, as well as certain unspoken rules and traditions. The house phone could ring and would remain unanswered. My mother and father would direct their attentions and dialogue towards me and my sisters. We would enjoy a leisurely meal and all topics were fair game. Most of all, I recall attention. We had both of our parents focused on us free of distraction.
Now, dinner was served every night of the week, but these were more cursory events. While present in the kitchen, my mother rarely sat at the table. As I was the youngest, I often sat alone, occasionally joined by one of my elder sisters as they headed to and fro in their busier lives. I also recall many evenings alone rustling up a meal with items left for that purpose by my parents when business beckoned my them out for the evening. These nights were more common, yet the ones that stay in my memory are those spent around our dining room table or out at the many local restaurants we also frequented.
Most clear and crisp are the feelings, what is indelible is the attention, the conversation, the focus on me. The interest my parents showed in what I had to say, the questions, the love, the attention of the spoken word directed at me.
Take time to reflect on your own family table. What traditions do you wish to or do you currently maintain in your present life? If family meals were nonexistent, have you begun your own traditions or do you deny their value because they were not part of your history? Ask yourself some questions and listen carefully for what the answers do and don’t tell you.
How you interpret “family meal” is not the focus. There is no right or wrong in the how. The only right and wrong exist in whether you create this time or you don’t.
The family table in our home is a work in progress. It is constantly evolving, and hopefully improves over time.
I believe that this can and should happen as your family’s life evolves and changes. In order for the family table to be a sustainable notion, it must ebb and flow and accommodate your lives’ demands.
I used to come to my current Sunday dinner table with my weekly calendar so that we could use the time to organize our week together. A nice idea perhaps, but I found it flew in the face of stress-free, open dialogue. It felt like a meeting. A quick survey around the table, and that practice got the ax.
We rarely eat in the dining room, but we mix up our meal locations choosing the island, the kitchen table or outside, if weather permits.
If cooking and preparing culinary masterpieces is enjoyable to you, go for it. If the idea of cooking alone causes you to cease and desist from any attempt at a family table, then keep it incredibly simple. Do what will make this practice sustainable. I have a friend who sets the Sunday family table with china and linens and flowers from her garden (bless her). And I have friends who eat together as a family almost every weeknight barring a major conflict. They alternate cooking responsibilities and often eat out as well. They are committed to this practice and see it as a sacred time to share and invest in their family.
If you are already having nightly meals together, kudos and keep it up. If you have laughed in the face of this post because your reality seems to defy family meals, keep reading and see if the pointers below provide a glimmer of hope. Have an open mind and an open heart. And of course, jump in and let us know how you make your family table. Remember, though many of the ideas in this post are geared toward families with children, they are completely relevant to partnerships, and any group who calls themselves a family.
Here are some basic rules and guidelines for a successful family dinner:
- Make the family table a safe haven. Whenever possible, make it a judgment-free zone. The goal is for all family members to look forward to sharing meals together. It is a time to unwind from the stressors and pressure of the outside world. Your children, spouse, even you, are more likely to share and communicate if you feel safe.
- Really listen. Listen to what is being said, what is not being said and what is trying to be said.
- Absolutely NO distractions. No phones, no technology, no television in the background. Nothing but food, family and flowers if you choose.
- Start with a prayer, grace or intention for the meal. Regardless of religious beliefs, gratitude is universal. If this is completely uncomfortable for your family or off-limits, then say your own silent appreciation for the meal and your family.
- Invite laughter to the table as often as possible. Everyone loves to laugh. It provides a common connection that can cross boundaries that may be difficult to bridge in any other way.
- Try to set a predictable schedule so family members can begin to anticipate these meal times. Whether you join a family table once a week or every day of the week, try to get everyone on the same page in terms of time, place and expectations.
- While there will be times when a specific topic must be discussed, try to keep the meal time agenda-free, allowing for organic, natural conversation to evolve. I know some of you, especially with teens, or uncommunicative partners, are full-on rolling your eyes and envisioning monk-silent meals. I get it. Here are some tips for navigating the rockier shores:
- Make yourself the sacrificial lamb. If there is silence or you feel a coup is in the works, share something about your day. Be vulnerable. Something embarrassing happen in your day? Share it. Did you lose your patience with someone or something? If so, tell the story. Then sit back and see what happens. All of a sudden you will hear your child talk about the teacher in her favorite class today or her tumble down the stairs in front of everyone.
- Skip the open-ended questions that only lead to frustration for all involved. “How was your day? What did you do today?”. Stop yourself and ask something totally unexpected. Show them you know them or their world and really care about what they have to say.
- Still really stumped. Order one of these: http://www.tabletopics.com. Pull one out, start asking. Some of our best dinners have centered on one of these questions. Lots of free question lists on the internet too!
- Play Would You Rather and be as funny, outrageous, silly or serious as your family table warrants. Most children seem to love this game and it is one where everyone can participate.
- Let each family member choose the menu on a given night.
- Make a family member choose one item for dinner that they have never tried before and serve it up!
- No matter what, do not give up and do not despair. Even the most defiant, sarcastic teen wants to be loved and craves your undivided attention, even if they have strange ways of showing it.
- Know that they will remember these times together and these experiences will shape how they create a future family table with their own children.
It would be wonderful if even a few readers bring the family table into their home life as a regular practice, or even use this encouragement to tune your table time up a notch or two. If you are already eating together as a family on regular basis and have tips or ideas to share, we would love to hear from you. Family meals and sharing this time together are important. However you decide to interpret the family table, the only request is that you try it. For you and for your family.