Ah, family life – chaotic schedules, piles of dirty dishes, endless grocery trips and a “Parent taxi” sign pasted on the back of the family car! That seems to be the reality of family life for so many of us. “I can’t remember the last time we all managed to sit down together for a home-cooked meal,” sighed a close friend of mine one day over coffee.
Yet research tells us that family mealtimes can be very important for family health, both mental and physical. It’s not just about the food we eat, but how we think about each other, what we talk about and how we learn to listen — vital ingredients for any meal…
Mealtimes can either be a chaotic, tension-packed event, or a relaxed and joyful family gathering. Studies show that if we cultivate moments of relaxed family connections, everyone gains in healthier outcomes. Easier said than done? Remember those 1960’s TV sitcoms that showed us smooth and effortless family meals with never a ripple of tension on the tablecloth? For most of us that scenario is a myth.
So how do we develop healthy family mealtimes?
Growing up without a family and often a guest at others’ family dinners, it was always interesting to watch how families interacted. From gut wrenching fights and abusive put-downs, to genuine and loving interchanges – I saw it all. But I did learn one thing that stayed with me when I raised my own children – taking the time to foster healthy social interaction based on love may take great patience, but reaps huge dividends.
One gem I learned about family meals was from a parent who regularly created a meal from scratch, feeling that it was a way to pour love into every member of the family. This deep thinking Christian would take time to think about the family while baking, cooking and chopping, even if it was days ahead of the intended meal. Rather than resenting the time taken to cook, it was used as an opportunity to love.
Another lesson I learned from this family was that every member’s opinion was respected, no matter their age or their different point of view on a subject. No one was allowed to belittle another. Additionally, grace was always said before the meal began, and gratitude was expressed to the cook at the end of the meal.
When my children came to the table with their grudges and anger, it was time to either leave the anger outside the room, or to share it in a constructive way. Mealtimes are occasions for parents to check in with their children’s mental health – where their hurts need binding up, or where their disappointments and failures need encouragement . Mealtimes can become safe places in which to share, if these times are carefully nurtured.
When looking for guidance about healthy family behavior at the dinner table, I always turn to St. Paul who wrote the ultimate table-manner etiquette to be learned and practiced. He wrote:
Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud or rude. It does not demand its own way. It is not irritable, and it keeps no record of being wronged. It does not rejoice about injustice but rejoices whenever the truth wins out. Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance . . . . Three things will last forever—faith, hope, and love—and the greatest of these is love.
This guidance teaches the essence of what it means to really love – listening deeply in ways that heal, checking impatience, forgiving and forgetting. It is not just the healthy food we eat at our dinner table, but the health-giving actions and thoughts we entertain about each other, based on an attitude of love.
The definition of family has greatly changed over the last couple of decades – single-parent families, blended families, working families, inter-cultural families, extended families, and so on – but the healing benefits to be gained regardless of how the family is composed are priceless. At the dinner table, every one needs to be fed with the love that St. Paul describes. It is the best comfort food there is, and great medicine for healing all the little hurts and stresses of the day.
So try leaving all the smart phones in the bedrooms, and have a wonderful family meal time – full of love!
By Anna Bowness-Park