Family

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Family

A Must: Family Meals Together

November 22, 2016 by

Ann’s family gathered around a table and a birthday cake

Some grace-filled families regularly experience peaceful, even enjoyable, family meals. The rest of us probably dig in our heels at the-family-meal-is-the-best-part-of-the-day hype, wincing as we picture our recent family circuses round the table. Recklessly we may have suspended all efforts to eat with our kids as the day begins and ends. Don’t be disheartened if your family flounders on this issue; you and your family are not irretrievable failures.

You do however need to come to grips with the fact that family meals are important, even a must, but a successful family meal takes practice. Think of it like training for the Olympics. You don’t learn to dive perfectly by bouncing off the board once a week. It takes preparation, dedication, and grueling repetition: your family needs plenty of opportunities to eat together before you reap any rewards.

My husband David and I raised eight children, patchily perhaps, but we did believe in meals together. When everyone was little, I spent mealtimes spooning in mush, chopping up someone’s sausage, grabbing the choking toddler, or attempting to tether (metaphorically speaking) the five-year-old with a spring-loaded bottom to the bench. This was nowhere near nirvana; this was the often-fraught business of a young family eating together.

There were several years in our lives when my husband’s work started at a shockingly early hour and the five (at that time) kids and I breakfasted without him Monday through Friday, a common enough scenario – the one-parent breakfast. Braiding the girls’ plaits around breakfast and before school exacerbated the morning’s tensions. Admittedly, I was not the calm mother I should have been. At some point David and I figured out that if we all started that much earlier, the kids and I could manage the school wind-up routine without me, and by osmosis them, going crazy. Since most children respond negatively to any pressure to hurry, more time allotted to dress and to chew and swallow brightened our mornings.

By far our best day was Saturday when David joined us at the table. We ritually celebrated with egg bagels, real butter, and cream cheese. If you mention this particular menu to someone who grins back at you all starry-eyed, you’re speaking to one of ours. Thankfully, in those woolly years my husband and I registered that not only is eating together a priority, but eating meals all together rates celebratory food.

We were fortunate to have children who played outside, got plenty of exercise, and so arrived ravenous at the table. They weren’t picky. Then again neither were we. Both my husband and I had been raised by parents who insisted on our eating what was set before us. I had to try at least “one bite of everything.” This mantra worked for us.

As you have most likely discovered, your family moves through different stages in the sitting-round-the-table experience. Once most of your children move up to primary school level, your family meals notch up. You will still be managing bouncy kids and the ubiquitous spilled drink, but almost everyone is able to talk, to communicate. Although vocalizing can jettison a peaceful meal, if you keep your ears open you can move your offspring beyond chiding remarks to civil responses, the actual art of communication. Even the adventures of the most enthusiastic eight-year-old can wait, without grimaces, mutterings, or interruptions, until a younger sibling has stopped describing in excruciating detail the worm she found.

Later when your youngest has proudly attained school age, you will discover creative means to guide family meals. Some of our friends read a story aloud (a family focus that bypasses verbal sparring); enterprising families discuss world events; we generally have one person speak at a time (a demanding discipline); some families allow everyone to talk at any time to anyone (chaotic, but exhilarating if you manage to keep a keen ear out for what is being said and how). Especially at the older end of this stage and into the teen years, parents need to be razor-sharp to catch gossip and snide comments about neighbors, classmates, or teachers. Though entertaining, these can ruin the entire tone of your meal and derail the attitude you are trying to engender: thoughtful awareness of others.

Time together at the table offers countless opportunities to look out for each other, spotlighting the art of requesting and passing food. Even though our children’s manners were far from impeccable, they did manage to eat without clambering onto or sprawling all over the table to reach what they wanted. They also learned that noisy demands for food or rude insults when they didn’t speedily receive what they so desperately needed were not options. Our youngest daughter developed her own winsome style of food requests: “Somebody isn’t passing me the ketchup.” Such a non-vindictive accusation always garnered an active response as we all vied to figure out who exactly wasn’t. And then, of course, somebody did.

Ann’s family gathered around the living room table for a family meal
Both images: Family time around the table as Ann's children were growing up

Oddly enough the effervescent talk that floods a table with school-aged children can go deathly quiet, at least at breakfast, when the crowd is predominately teenagers. The plateau of achievement at this point is that as parents you are finally able to eat with your children, not just facilitate; you are no longer cutting up food or scrambling about to clean up one more messy mishap. Our teens’ saving grace was that they always had someone younger at the table to care for. It also proved difficult for our sons to remain moody or distant when their youngest brother, grinning broadly, tipped his bowl of porridge onto his head and banged it triumphantly with a spoon.

During every level of family development we learned that inviting someone brought more than just the guest to the table. Most of the family could share in the preparations, from making name place cards to decorating paper napkins to peeling carrots to icing cupcakes to pouring the water to setting the table. Lots to do, many hands to help. If we took the time to make the meal special, it naturally became special. Friends once assured us their kids behaved better when they invited someone to their meal. Ours never did, but we always noted an added richness when we included someone else.

As we ate our way through these different stages, my husband and I unfortunately did not think too deeply about our table time as a family. Although we continued to honor the paramount importance of daily family meals, I feel keenly we missed optimizing this opportunity, especially as our family grew older. Too often I was raring to move on to my plans for the evening when what we all needed was a relaxed creative pause. Each meal should be more than a mechanical get together; it can be a festival, a celebration, or just a simple, warm-hearted break in everyone’s busy, demanding day.

One final consideration when you sit down to eat. Undoubtedly your family arrives with technological giants in tow: smartphones, tablets, games, which can craftily undermine the focus of a family meal. Your job is to set the tone. It is your home; it is your table; it is your God-given task to guide your family. Stick to whatever guidelines you decide on in spite of vociferous protests. Although it took one of our daughters years to appreciate certain ground rules we had set for her when she was a teenager, after she became a mother she appreciated that we had cared enough to hold the lines we had drawn though she loudly and persistently railed at them.

Interestingly, family habits established at the table are entrenched for life. Often at the end of breakfast, my husband would matter-of-factly eat up the still intact pieces from the plates of our younger children who had hit satiation before achieving the status of a clean-plater. One brunch when our daughter and her young family were visiting, she automatically passed her plate with the last quarter of her croissant to her father. David burst out laughing as he passed it to her husband. “It’s not my job any more. That’s why you married him.”

But more importantly, you married each other to raise a family. Eating meals together is one of the most potentially stabilizing, satisfying, and strengthening times you can experience with your family. Don’t miss these moments. Make them happen. And make them memorable.


This year, try out Ann’s classic pumpkin pie recipe.

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About the author

Ann Morrissey photograph

Ann Morrissey

Ann Morrissey lives in Beech Grove, a Bruderhof in England, with her husband, Dave. They delight in the English countryside...

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  • Wonderful piece taking me back to when, there were only three of us, we would always discuss any problems that had occurred that day, round the table. If we were to go to a new job then this was discussed by all as it effected all of us. Of course the most important table was the one the disciples sat around with our Lord.

    Jacquie Watson