Can Mealtime Strengthen Your Family Values?
“Life itself is full, not only of charm and warmth and comfort but of sorrow and tears. But whether we are happy or sad, we must be fed. Both happy and sad people can be cheered up by a nice meal.”—Laurie Colwin, American writer.
YEARS ago in Western lands, many homes had a treasured ritual. The whole family gathered around a table, at least once a day, to have a meal. No interruptions were allowed. Nobody watched television, wore earphones, or sent text messages to friends. A peaceful environment provided an opportunity for those present to absorb wisdom, strengthen family bonds, and laugh together over daily happenings while enjoying wholesome food.
For many people today, the family meal may sound like an old-fashioned custom. In many homes family meals are the exception not the rule. Why do families find it so difficult to eat together? Is this traditional custom worth preserving? What benefits could it bring to each family member?
Family Meals—A Disappearing Custom
“The fact that it [the evening meal] has visibly diminished in the course of a single generation . . . is remarkable evidence of how rapidly our social connectedness has been changing,” explains Robert Putnam in the book Bowling Alone. What factors have contributed to this phenomenon? First, the high cost of living has led both husbands and wives to work longer hours. Single parents, whose economic situation is usually more precarious, face an even greater strain on their time. Second, today’s hectic pace of life encourages fast food and hasty meals. Not only adults but also children have many commitments, such as sports and other after-school activities.
Additionally, there are fathers who prefer to arrive home when the toddlers are already asleep because they want to avoid tantrums at supper. Other parents, who do get home in time, choose to give the children supper first and send them to bed so that husband and wife can have a quiet meal together.
Such situations lead families to have separate eating sessions. Notes stuck on the refrigerator replace mealtime conversation. Each member of the family arrives home, warms a precooked dish, and sits in front of a TV set, a computer, or a game console. These social trends may seem irreversible. So is it worthwhile to think seriously about bucking the trend?
Merits of the Tradition
Family meals offer parents a unique chance to care for their children’s emotional well-being. The supper table is “an obvious place for kids to get regular access to parental presence and low-key attention,” explains Miriam Weinstein in her book The Surprising Power of Family Meals. “Family supper may not be a panacea, but it sure looks like a relatively painless fix.”
Eduardo, a middle-aged father from Spain, agrees. “When I lived with my parents, there were 11 people at the table every day,” he recalls. “My father made a great effort to return home to eat with his family at midday. It was a special occasion in every sense. We kept up-to-date with the lives of each family member. Good humor and laughter were often present. Those fond memories convinced me that I should imitate my father’s example.”
Family meals also help children to live a more balanced, healthy life. The U.S. National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University found that youngsters who eat with their family about five times a week have fewer problems related to anxiety, boredom, or lack of interest, and they get better grades at school.
“I believe that family meals give children emotional stability,” Eduardo adds. “My daughters are not worried about when they will be able to tell us something. Family meals present the perfect opportunity each day. Furthermore, as a father, these occasions help me keep informed of my daughters’ problems.”
Apparently, when families eat together, it can even help them to avoid bad eating habits. The University of Navarre in Spain reports that eating alone increases the risk of suffering from eating disorders. True, those disorders could still develop, but the absence of regular shared meals makes this more likely. “When eating together becomes a routine, children feel cared for. Family meals give them the emotional security of a warm, loving family environment,” explains Esmeralda, a mother of two daughters.
Family meals also offer parents the opportunity to care for their children spiritually. Some 3,500 years ago, God encouraged the Israelites to spend time with their children in order to inculcate spiritual values in their heart. (Deuteronomy 6:6, 7) “By praying together and considering a Bible text, family meals become a spiritual occasion,” says Ángel, a father of two. In view of the many benefits that family meals offer, what have some families done to make them a regular feature of their lives?
Making It Happen
“Organization and willingness are essential,” Esmeralda explains. “You have to adapt the timetable as best you can to accommodate the one who arrives home last.” Maribel, a mother of two, says, “We all have supper together every day, come what may.” Some families use spare time on weekends to prepare ingredients or even whole dishes for suppers during the week.
Viewing family meals as a priority also helps. “I had to adjust my job in order to be home for our family supper, but it was worth the effort,” says Eduardo. “Now I feel more aware of family affairs. Since I have to concentrate for many hours a day when I am at work, it would be inconsiderate for me not to pay the same attention to my family at mealtime.”
What about distractions? “My family eats in a place where there is no television,” says David, a 16-year-old. “We take advantage of the time to tell Mom and Dad about our day, and they often give us good advice.” “Nowadays teenagers don’t talk much to their parents,” David adds. “Even when the whole family is at home, each one eats separately while watching television. They don’t realize what they are missing.” Sandra, aged 17, agrees: “I feel sad when my classmates say, ‘I wonder what my mother will have left in the fridge.’ For me, family meals are not just for nourishment. They give us time to laugh, to talk, and to show affection to one another.”
Family meals can become “a bulwark against the pressures we all face every day,” asserts The Surprising Power of Family Meals. Could they provide an opportunity for your family to draw closer together? If you live a busy life, family meals offer the chance to slow down and talk to your loved ones. The effort will certainly be worth it.
[Box/Picture on page 15]
WHILE SHARING A FAMILY MEAL YOU CAN LEARN TO . . .
Converse. Children can learn to talk and listen respectfully. Conversations enrich their vocabulary and teach them how to express themselves.
Eat healthful meals at regular times.
Display good manners. Learn generosity by sharing food and not insisting on getting the best portion. Also learn to care for the needs of other family members while eating.
Work as a team. Children can cooperate by setting and clearing the table, cleaning up afterward, or serving others. As they grow older, they can also help to prepare the meal.