Family Dinner at the Table:By Nava Atlas
Reconsidering an Endangered Ritual
According to a number of studies, about 30 percent fewer American families eat dinner together today than they did 20 years ago. Some polls paint a less dire picture: A Roper poll done in the ‘90s indicated that slightly more than half of American families eat together five or more times per week. Other polls paint a somewhat less optimistic picture, showing that only about one-third eat together regularly.
Contrast this with a report sent to the International Herald-Tribune in early 2004 by American writer Marianne Jacobi (who lives in Aix-en Provence, France), which asserts that 75 percent of families eat dinner together in France today. I suspect that this number is similar in other European and Asian cultures that value the tradition of sharing meals.
Let’s take a page from the global community and re-examine this simple yet sustaining tradition.
Why eat together?
With work schedules, lessons and sports practices pulling family members in all directions just as the day should be winding down, it’s no wonder fewer families are finding the time to eat together. Yet at the same time, it’s encouraging to know that many others are making great efforts to keep this ritual alive.
Studies have been done comparing children and teens who have regular family dinners at home to those who don’t. The results are consistent and striking. Teens from families who eat dinner together are far less likely to use illegal drugs, alcohol and cigarettes than teenagers who rarely eat dinner with their parents. Another practical (if predictable) perk is that children who have regular, at-home dinners eat meals that are healthier and include more vegetables. In addition, children who have regular family dinners are believed to fare better in school.
If busy families can enjoy but one significant daily ritual, regular dinner together at the table may be the top choice. Few daily rituals offer better opportunity to connect, converse, share, appreciate and feel nourished. Food writer Marion Cunningham calls the family dinner “our most civilizing ritual.”
Make the table a welcoming place
Set the table and set the tone. It takes little effort to make your table look welcoming with dishes and utensils that you and your family enjoy using. This may not seem like a major point, but like the three bowls used at Buddhist monasteries, they are an intrinsic part of the experience.
The tableware you use should be both functional and interesting; ceramic dishes that lend an earthy flair to the table; jazzy colorful plates, or vintage dishes that belonged to your grandmother. Maybe your little ones can have their own special plates — small, colorful dishware might help them enjoy the dinner ritual that much more. Some families use certain dishes or a special candlestick only when all are able to be present at the table.
Fresh flowers, a seasonal centerpiece, colorful napkins — all these little touches help bring attention to what is before us. From a young age, children can set the dinner table. Give them this responsibility early on.
Have a beginning and ending. A signal that the meal is about to begin, such as lighting candles or reciting a blessing, helps create a framework the experience. Teach your kids to respect the cook by waiting to take the first bite until he or she is seated.
As soon as it’s realistic to do so, get children into the habit of sitting through the meal until everyone is done, but be flexible. Better to let your little ones go off and play rather than get restless at the table; likewise, if your adolescents are inundated with school work, don’t require them to sit for undue time at the table.
The end of the meal can be signaled by thanking the cook and cleaning up together. Make sure that everyone participates in cleanup; even those who left the table earlier should come back and pitch in.
Engage the senses. Rounding up the family and putting a nourishing meal on the table daily is challenging enough, to be sure. But once you get a routine down, you can consider those elements that take the dinner experience from routine to ritual.
By engaging the senses in the experience, even the most ordinary meals can be made memorable. The beauty of candles or flowers at the table, the snap and crunch of a raw vegetable platter, the surprising lilt of a fruit salsa or chutney on the plate, the scent of fresh bread, the touch of hands joined around the table for a moment of gratitude — these are but a few ways to add to the pleasure of eating with a few easy nods to the senses. Adding these small but significant embellishments helps transform the daily dinner from routine to ritual.
Sit and chat. Ideally, of course, the dinner table should be a place for conversation and connection. The reality is that by the time we sit down to the evening meal, many of us (especially if younger children are involved) feel too weary for sparkling repartee. It helps to provide a common thread from day to day, like opening with a simple blessing or giving thanks for the food and company. Dinner time is for checking in, exchanging news, enjoying good food and just being together.
Having a set of prompts in mind works well to spark conversation. Discuss an interesting news story or community event, or have everyone talk about the high point of their day. My older son recently suggested that we celebrate or commemorate something that happened on that date each day at dinnertime — a significant historic event or the birthday of a person we admire. Many web sites such as infoplease.com have such listings.
If you want to keep conversation light, try “conversation in a jar,” suggested by Meg Cox in The Book of New Family Traditions. Prepare a container to be set on the table, containing strips of paper marked with questions such as "The strangest thing that happened to me today was..." or "The best book I've read recently is...".
Explore blessings. Many families enjoy starting the meal with some sort of blessing; others find this feels rather awkward. Some report that saying a blessing can at first feel forced, but after a while, it becomes a calming way to begin a meal.
If you’d like to explore this idea in a less conventional way, consider going outside your personal tradition with blessings from other cultures. Chinese, Indian, Native American, Tibetan, Irish and other cultures and traditions have lovely blessings that can be adopted -- or adapted. A few lines from a favorite poem can also be an offbeat way open your meal. Saying Grace: Blessings for the Family Table (edited by Sarah McElwain) is a little book filled with ideas from worlds religious traditions, great poets, Aesop and even cowboys.
Be flexible and realistic. If your family’s schedule simply won’t allow for dinner at the table every night, try to carve out the time for at least some meals together. If it’s only twice a week, so be it; make the most of those meals together.
And in truth, it’s unrealistic to expect relaxing family meals with toddler, babies and tired young children. When my sons were toddlers and preschoolers, I often fed them dinner early so that my husband and I could enjoy a quiet meal. We kept revisiting the concept of eating as a family at regular intervals as they grew up. Gradually, a full-fledged family dinner evolved. Generally, kids are ready for the dinner ritual once they are school age. Remember, rigid food rituals are hardly better than no rituals at all.
Use candles at the table. Candles are often saved for special occasions, though their soothing glow provides an easy way to elevate the nightly meal. The simple act of lighting candles gives the meal a definite beginning; older children enjoy this task. Dinner is over when the candles are blown out — the perfect “job” for little ones.
Candles are most welcome during the dark days of the year. For casual daily meals, try short, chunky candles or colorful tapers in ceramic holders. It’s also fun to set a tiny tea light at everyone’s place. Send a long, safe candle around so everyone can light their individual candle. When the meal is over, everyone blows out his own candle. While hardly a revolutionary idea, candles can sharpen the focus of a family dinner while softening the atmosphere.
© Nava Atlas
NFO regular contributor Nava Atlas is the author and illustrator of many books on vegetarian cooking and other subjects, including The Vegetarian 5-Ingredient Gourmet, The Vegetarian Family Cookbook, Vegetarian Soups for all Seasons and Vegetariana. Read more about Nava.