Thursday, June 22, 2006

More than just food: the family dinner

Now that our big kids are older, we often have a few extras around the table at dinner time. It’s a great way to get to know our kids’ schoolmates, and we like the company. While we're enjoying dinner together, I’ve taken it upon myself to ask a few standard questions of our guests – an informal survey, if you will.

One question is, “What is your favorite TV show?” You would not believe the answers I get to this one. It’s like a window into the soul. If an eight-year-old’s favorite TV show is Desperate Housewives, those big red flags go right up.

Another question I like to ask is, “Where do you keep your family computer?” (I also ask this when our kids go to someone’s house for the first time.). If it’s in their bedroom, or some other hidden-away back room, more red flags.

A new question I’ve started to ask is, “Does your family eat dinner together most of the time?” Sometimes, I don’t even have to ask the question, because I can tell by the way the kids are looking so uncomfortable at our family’s sit-down meal. Or they make a comment about how fancy the table looks with placemats. They don’t know to wait until everyone’s seated, or how to ask for food to be passed.

In my informal survey, I would say that close to half of the kids I ask do not regularly eat meals sitting down with their parents and family.

These are good kids, with loving families and caring parents. Parents that provide every educational, athletic and recreational activity they can to make sure their kids have advantages in life. Many of them attend church.

This saddens me greatly, not just because the family dinner is a dying American institution romanticized by Norman Rockwell. It’s not just because studies show that kids who eat meals at home with a parent have better nutrition, do better in school, and have fewer emotional problems (a recent Time article showcases these benefits).

It saddens me because of missed opportunities.

I suppose this issue is top on my mind right now because we are coming to the end of baseball and softball season here, and our schedule -- well, what schedule? The kids have spent the night with friends, had evening church youth group activities, and of course, up until this week, there have been the Mavericks to watch (sad, sad story, I know). We’ve done our share of pizza and fast food the last few weeks. Our regular, sit-down family meals have gotten pushed to the wayside more often than usual.

But even in the worst of ball season, we still try to eat all together at least four times per week. Everyone has a simple job, like putting napkins on the table or filling the water pitcher. Whenever possible, we set the table (even if that means paper plates to put the spaghetti and Ragu on) and we sit down. We try to wait to eat until everyone is seated, and no one is excused until everyone’s finished (except the toddler, who usually ends up in Dad's lap for the last part of the meal). Everyone of plate-carrying age is expected to help with cleanup. Dad usually does the dishes. The TV is off.

Each time we sit down, it’s an opportunity to learn how to eat what is placed before us. It’s a chance to learn patience while we wait for others to talk, to pass the salt, or to pass the towel because someone’s water just spilled. It’s a chance to hear a medley of the day’s happenings. It's an opportunity for little ones to learn what to do (or what not to do) from the big kids’ examples, and for the older ones to show respect while the younger ones tell roundabout versions of their day. It’s a chance hear Dad’s latest joke or Mom's latest mishap.

Like our (a bit more occasional, lately) walks, each meal together is an opportunity to lay down another stone in the wall that provides security against the gale-force winds that rock our culture.

I don’t think any one meal at our house has ever gone perfectly. First of all, I’m not that great of a cook. Our family dinners are not fancy. Most nights we use paper plates. There’s always a spill (we’ve adopted the phrase “First spill of the day!” to celebrate its inevitability). It’s generally loud, and invariably someone gets upset with another person for talking over them. Only occasionally will someone actually get to finish a thought.

But I really don’t think perfection is what’s necessary. I do think consistency is.

Every night we make the effort to do this meal thing, we are back for another round. Back to hear another story, to learn something new about each other, to talk naturally about God in the context of the daily-ness of our life. We’re back to sew down another odd-shaped scrap in the crazy quilt of memories that is our life.

I don’t think it’s by accident that Jesus’ command to love one another was spoken in the context of a meal. Jesus understood the power of setting aside the happenings of the day, looking into the eyes of those He loved, and telling them, “I chose you.”

In that meal, He prepared His disciples for what was to come. He told them of the Comforter. He reaffirmed His own love for them.

Family dinner can be so much more than opening that jar of Ragu and boiling water for spaghetti. It can be one more way to say, “I love you.”

I don't want to miss any opportunity to do that.


Susanne said...

That was great! We always sit down together at our house too, even if it might be a little hurried due to basketball practise or youth events, etc. It's also my time to find out about their day and ask pointed questions towards that. Love your questions for guests. The T.V. show and computer ones tell you tons!

Millie said...

Thank you so much for this post. I've strengthened my resolve to have family dinners more often. You're a great source of inspiration! :)

Beck said...

Excellent post. I know so many loving families who rarely eat together because they're so overscheduled, and it seems really sad, like they've given up having a family life for other accomplishments. Thanks for reminding me to take the time to do what's worthwhile.

Michelle- This One's for the Girls said...

I'm so with you on this one. I am a STRONG believer of sitting together, around the supper table, everynight. We actually didn't allow one of our kids to play softball a few years ago because the practices were during our standard family supper time. She would have missed our nightly routine ALL FALL. (She's not a softball star or anything--it was going to be a new adventure for her.)

We play a little game called "Hi/Lo." (What was the high point of your day? What was the low point of your day?) I love supper time.

Code Yellow Mom said...

THere's a cookbook/help book that came out some tiem ago called, "Saving Dinner" - I think it's about the importance of the family gathering adn talking and all the things that you miss if you don't have this family tradition. Ours has kinds gone to pot this summer, with Dad gone and two kids who play with more than eat their food, but I love dinnertime and sitting down together, praying together, and talking about stuff. You are right on - it's indispensable, and a shame that more families don't take advantage of the opportunities.

Bethany said...

This is an excellent post and you make many, many great points. I'm considering a post to follow this up with some of my own thoughts.....

Thanks for sharing!

T.S. Eliot said...

Great idea to "interview" your children's friends. It's so good the know there are families like yours out there, working hard to instill Godly values in their children.

(We do sit down as a family right now... its a tag team effort to keep a steady stream of food into Elijah's mouth to keep him from whining. It's hectic but it works.)

Unknown said...

More sage advice, Katherine. Thanks.

I do love to host playdates with my 7yo's friends here, because I feel like I learn more about them. I love your questions. They are unobtrusive, but you do find out a lot.

Nettie said...

Great post! We try to do family dinners as much as possible, too. When I was a kid we had family breakfast, too, but I haven't managed to pull that off yet. I love your list of questions, too. I'm wondering if it would be intrusive to add, "and does your family own a gun and where is it/they stored?"

Anonymous said...

Well said, Katherine. We're family meal-eaters, too...and it is on everyone of our kids' favorite memories. We have most all breakfasts and suppers together--it makes a huge difference in our home. Thanks for the affirmation.

Katherine@Raising Five said...

Nettie - I think any question concerning the safety of your kids is valid, and can be said in a loving, non-threatening way. I've found it's best to say these things up front in the relationship than to find out and have an uncomfortable conversation with a parent later (been there-not fun).

Even another question I ask is "Who's babysitting?" I don't want to put a dad or an older brother in a position of the "appearance of evil." A good thing to think about with our own husbands as well.

I'm really not paranoid, but I do think it's foolish to assume all others have our values. The worst thing that can happen is that I might offend someone. The best thing that can happen is that I might protect my kids from something bad happening to them.

Katrina @ Callapidder Days said...

Katherine - This post really hit home with me. It's so easy for me to let my husband's work schedule, or the fact that we have a new baby in the house, or my "diet" that prevents me from eating what the rest of the family is keep us from family meals together. It's easier sometimes to leave the TV on and have everyone scattered througout the kitchen and family room. We do shoot for more family meals than not, but I fall short most weeks. Your post has encouraged me to renew my efforts, to take advantage of this opportunity to let me kids know that I love them. Thank you.