My mom used to say that every evening at dinner time. All of us kids would come running from wherever we were in the house, wash our hands, and sit down to a family meal together where we laughed and talked.
And then came high school and busy schedules and the food was still on the table but we ate in shifts; sometimes alone, sometimes with one or two others.
Then I went to college. For my first two years, I swam on the college team and we had about 15 minutes from the time we got to the dining hall until it closed. Since we were famished after a long hard practice we gobbled up round one of food and rushed through the line for seconds before it was shut down. I ate at the table in the dining hall, but much of my eating was also snacking on the run or late night pizza or popcorn or cookie dough (yep – raw from a tube) sitting around the floor with friends.
Fast forward a decade plus a few years, and I have kids of my own and really value sitting around the dinner table and eating with my family. I can quote research articles on the psychological and physical health benefits; manners, IQ, social skills, family connectedness, vegetable and nutrient intake, happiness are all associated with the family dinner table.
I have great memories of growing up with this wholesome, traditional habit, and overall, we do sit down, at least the kids do, for breakfast and dinner. Lunch is my favorite, because it is relaxed, just the girls and I, and we all do really sit down and chat and laugh over a simple meal.
Yet I see for myself and the families around me that food so often isn’t on the table with others, but rather a snack at the playground,goldfish crackers in the car, or sometimes just grabbing a piece of fruit from the bowl on the counter or a handful of pretzels from the pantry just because. Why are we grazing like cattle rather than dining like humans?
We are what we eat, but we also eat what we are. And when my family is stretched, over-committed, too busy to sit down and linger at a good meal, our diet shows it. For the last two weeks we have been doing swim lessons every day after school, and while it has been great for improving swim skills, it’s been tough on the dinner-and-homework routine.
What are habits that get in the way of having a fun, social dinner where everyone eats and enjoys conversation?
1) munching because it’s fun and it tastes good rather than because we are hungry. Because then nobody is really hungry for dinner, and I know my kids take a long. long. time to finish eating.
2) standing/walking around the kitchen and eating. I keep getting onto my kids for this, but then I catch myself doing the same thing at snack time in particular, but also when I need to get a couple more condiments, napkins, or other items that should have been on the table when the meal began.
3) car snacks just to “tide us over.” They make a mess! That said, sometimes little tummies need food more frequently and there are some great alternatives out there. I have found that praying together over our food, even when driving, changes the atmosphere enough to make it more satisfying.
4) too many activities: sometimes it’s a matter of priority; last week swim lessons were more important than a leisurely dinner for me, but usually I love to be able to sit down to good food and chat with my family at home rather than at a restaurant on the way home from practice.
Some other common dinner busters are technology and not knowing what to make for dinner until it’s too late. My kids are too little for technology at the table. We are also pretty good at avoiding the last minute fast-food syndrome since I’m pretty consistent about menu-planning now.
My favorite meals are often the simplest; a picnic together outside with the girls,relaxed Sunday night dinners with my the whole family, or even going out to eat with friends. I hope my kids will always have fond memories of eating together, talking and laughing together, and coming around the table to just be together as a family.