Before we moved to Rhode Island, my husband’s job kept him out so late that we could only eat together as a family on weekends. We weren’t living what we valued, and when we moved six and a half years ago, we made family dinners a priority.
Growing up, we always ate dinner together as a family. We kids would share stories, but we would also be privy to listening in on adult conversations and it offered an entree into serious topics. I remember my Dad talking about letting an employee go because he was on drugs, which initiated discussion about how he wanted to help him, about addiction, responsibilities, safety and business management.
My Dad built our family dinner table. In the years since my parents sold our childhood home, that table has resided in my sister’s New York studio apartment, in storage and has been restored. Now my own family enjoys eating around it at my parent’s in the summertime. My husband built our family dinner table and I love the parallel to my childhood and the meaning and care within.
When we moved to our current house, the kitchen eating area was too small for any table we owned and we measured at furniture stores, but because of the cabinet layout and the standard table widths, we couldn’t find a kitchen set that would allow us to sit and have space around the table (which is why my husband had to build our table!) So we had family dinners at our counter seating area.
On special occasions or with guests, we would eat at my great aunt Mary’s table in a step down area off our kitchen. I didn’t want to eat there on a daily basis simply because it was “too far” for setting, serving, and clearing, but mostly because it gave me another whole area to clean every day.
My Mother was the one who continually encouraged us (okay, she bugged me about it regularly) to have family dinner at a table. We were eating together every night so I didn’t think it would matter, but she was completely right. It feels different and it really is different to eat together around a table.
I love the ritual of family dinner and there are so many lessons in a meal, so many opportunities for connecting. We start with grace and it helps us to pause and wait for everyone to be seated, we teach respect for the cook (usually the last one to sit) by waiting. We can get into a bit of a rut with our standard mealtime prayer: “Dear God, thank you for loving us and help us to share your love with others. Amen.” Our youngest, though, is expert at adding special, individual notes to grace, thinking of others or giving thanks for specific blessings.
We talk about our days and spur conversation by going around the table to relay our day’s high point and low point. This tool forces us to examine our day and appreciate moments. It also allows us to hear our kids pains, concerns or frustrations. We talk as a family, offering an ear or weighing solutions to a problem. It’s priceless to hear siblings helping and comforting one another.
Family dinner offers endless possibilities to communicate. Sometimes I’ll offer a a story about something we want to discuss, a story about a child who fell out a window then we discuss safety, a story about a knock on the door when no adult was home or a story about teens huffing and the dangers of smelling household products and chemicals even once.
Over the years, some dinnertime activities have come and gone organically. For awhile, we left a dictionary near the dinner table and picked a new word to learn each night and just last night, we fell into solving math problems, not sure what got us there but suddenly we were multiplying and subtracting at various grade levels.
Sometimes we break out in song (or something that resembles music). Other nights I laugh because, while the words are English, it sounds like foreign tongues and I don’t understand a word of the conversation: “collect block pressure plates, gigantic wool mansion…obseidian of flint and steel makes a really cool portal…spider jockey is like a skeleton on top of a spider and snowballs do triple the damage on the Enderdragon…arms spinning around but it’s good because you can get blazerods…silverfish come out and spawn and transfers you to a box way underground… all MineCraft vocabulary.
Besides the chance to teach and demonstrate good nutrition at family dinners, it’s a perfect way to introduce children to different and new tastes. Offering healthy foods is our job as parents, what they eat and how much is up to our kids. Like many of you, we’ve always had the rule that you have to try something once. One bite swallowed and then you can decide you don’t like it. The tasting rule is in effect no matter how many times a food has been served, at any meal, you have to try everything. Generally, there isn’t much our kids don’t eat (though our teen is going backwards and is more picky than any of the kids ever were as toddlers!) They’ve been having real, “non-kid” meals since they graduated from mush, and I think tasting new things makes a valuable difference.
Family dinner is a perfect time to reinforce manners: hand in lap, use your napkin not your arm, elbows off the table and chew with your mouth closed. My son likes to use his fingers to eat so “Use your fork” is often heard at our dinner table. Recently, our eight year old had us laughing when she popped up with “Luke, use the FORK” in her best Star Wars voice.
It was at family dinner that we met Dave Wadapadatuckachuck. I blurted out this fictitious name over a conversation about getting married and a woman’s decision traditionally to change or not change her name. Dave Wadapadatuckachuck has become part of our family lore and is a regular attendee at family events now. He still cracks us up!
One never knows what will transpire over family dinner. If you don’t already enjoy this ritual, try it tonight, even an ordinary, unremarkable dinner together makes for a stronger, closer family.