With so many of us working and learning from home, the “nuclear family” has the renewed possibility to spend time together, including at mealtimes. Here are some thoughts on harnessing the time around the meals that we are sharing more of these days.
No Toys at the Table – That Means You, too, Dad!
In our household, we have a policy of no toys, writing implements, devices, television, books, or papers on the dining table while we’re eating. This way, there are no distractions. (Not to say that there is not an occasional infraction by someone checking the weather or making a to do list at the table.) It’s family time, food time, conversation time. Sometimes we talk about the issues of the day, topics from school, family plans, or boring parental work stuff. In theory, mealtime is a time to gather and exchange, to enjoy the meal (and talk about it, the way the French seem to talk about food incessantly).
The most positive friend I have (she has four grown children) makes a point of never discussing sad or bad things during a meal. Her family opens each meal with a prayer. In our family, we at least try to acknowledge each other at the beginning of a meal before digging in, by having each of us mention something we are grateful for. We sometimes forget, but consider it the appetizer to the family mealtime. It can be very revealing and can spark conversation, hearing out what each family member is grateful for at that moment.
We have lived in four countries with our two daughters and have maintained consistent meal times together as they have grown. Over the years, we have organized work, play, socializing, sleep, meals, meal planning, and shopping around our main priority: family time. My husband’s work defined where we lived overseas, but he tried his best to have a reasonable (walkable or bikeable) commute, so that home was nearby. As a diplomat, his evening and weekend events were plentiful, but we stuck to our eating and sleeping routines as regularly as we could.
Both my girls, without my prodding, have proclaimed that eating together so consistently has made us a close-knit family. They are both confident in their convictions (which backfires on us when they do not agree to do the dishes).
The only time our family-oriented focus was annoyingly (to me) interrupted was during my older daughter’s first fall field hockey season (and I do love field hockey), when we had just returned to the US from many years overseas. The evening practice and game schedule made me realize how, until then, we had not allowed outside activities (besides unavoidable work events) to disrupt our family schedule.
I understood why I had never wanted to be a soccer mom. I was shocked to see how an outside activity literally defined our family interactions and when we could or could not eat together. I was dismayed at how giving up the family dinner was expected of team players, and of the coaches. For one sports season, I had to run a short order kitchen at home, serving the same dinner up to three times in one evening. Pardon my French, but it was catastrophique!
Traditional cultures protect family first. While there may be some unappealing aspects to traditional ways of living, we put our sanity and our family priorities at peril by uprooting and forgetting the traditions and lessons of the past. I am more like the Tiger Mom in that way, driven by cultural tradition more than modern trends. I ask myself, who else will stick up for my family unit, if I don’t?
That’s not to say we don’t need friends or other family members. More than ever, we do need them now. But by not creating my own structure, I am relinquishing it to others’ random edicts. The pre-covid over-planned social calendar comes to mind, as do the continued industrial workaday structures and social conventions to which we feel beholden
Changing the World
Now that outside activities are limited for the time being, it really is a good time to focus on the nourishing habits of eating together and sharing your presence with your family throughout the day around the table. In our family, we are independent most of the work and school day (an option I know some parents with small children do not have). But when it’s mealtime – breakfast, lunch, or dinner, and sometimes snack time – we convene.
We work through each other’s anxieties, ideas, problems, hopes, and dreams every day. Strung together, this thread of closeness weaves a sturdy family fabric of habit, memories, love, and support. It’s a kind of reassuring force field of love. If you want your children to change the world for the better, start with the changes at home. Your children will thank you for it.