“After a good dinner, one can forgive anybody, even one’s own relations.” ~ Oscar Wilde
“We sat together as a family for dinner at night. And my mother had a job. My dad had a job. But there was always a meal on the table at 6:00, you know.” ~ Trisha Yearwood
“When I’m sittin’ down to dinner with the family, stuff [another Yogiism] just pops out. And they’ll say, ‘Dad, you just said another one.’ And I don’t even know what the heck I said. – Yogi Berra
There is a difference between eating and dining. Eating nourishes our bodies, while dining is a ritual that can also nourish the mind and soul. The keys to accomplishing the latter in a family setting is to create a structure and a routine. Because when families of all kinds dine together, the family unit is reinforced.
Sadly, only about 30% of American families dine together on a regular basis.
And yet, we know that children and, yes, teenagers crave structure, even though it doesn’t always seem that they do. Routines establish consistency and help youngsters feel safe, secure, respected, supported, valued and loved. And as the kitchen is often referred to as the heart of the home, it follows that dinner is the heart of the family. It certainly can be the heart of family communication.
A decade and a half ago, family dining underwent a resurgence, and then it petered out again. It resurged during the COVID pandemic, with so many families working and schooling from home, and that was one of the silver linings. While there were lamentations over children not attending school in person and being with their friends and teachers face to face, they were face to face with their families during that time! Let’s talk about that! Families should capitalize on the re-establishment of family closeness and make family dining a strong part of the new normal. If attending school in person is healthy for children, so is dining together on a regular basis with their parents and other family members. Parents and children too often go through life on parallel tracks. Couples, as well, can find themselves becoming ships that pass in the night if they, too, do not establish togetherness routines, and one of those should be routinely dining together.
Life is too short, and soon children will be grown and gone in the blink of an eye. As well, adults who establish dining time together will mitigate the shock of adjusting to retirement. Many couples — whether they have children or not — have difficulty adjusting to so much togetherness after retirement; this will not be an issue if dining together has been the norm throughout the relationship.
So, it’s time to get back to basics and ensure that our children benefit from strong family ties. It’s popular to poo-poo family dining as old-fashioned. But is it better to dine separately, on the run in the car, or just on holidays and special occasions? No, it’s not family dining that is out of date, it’s modern families that are out of synch, with 70% of them not dining together frequently and regularly. But what is more important than developing close bonds with our children? And what better way to ensure that those bonds grow than structure, routines and regular dining together?
Way Back When
During my childhood, my parents both held down jobs. Those were the days when women were expected to be the homemakers, no matter what else they had going on. But my mother maintained a busy professional schedule as a wedding and specialty cake artist and part-time sous and pastry chef at a renowned private club. She arranged her schedule so that she was always home for me after school, to make dinner and dine with my dad and me, and to make sure that I did my homework and got to bed at a decent hour. On the weekends, we often hosted company for dinner. But then my mom was a professional chef and she could put together a scrumptious meal with whatever was available, in any kitchen, blindfolded, and on short notice — and that certainly isn’t the case with everyone, including myself (I did not get that gene).
However, growing up in my household, I learned the importance of proper table manners and the ability to carry on a cohesive and polite conversation over a meal. Our family dinners were not always perfect and did not always go smoothly, and there were some squabbles. Looking back, though, what I most remember is how they made me feel — safe, supported and intellectually stimulated. And it was not only dinner; my mother made sure there was a structured breakfast, as well, so that our day started off with physical, mental and emotional nourishment. Those routines did not eliminate teen-age angst and traumas, but it helped me to cope with them.
I was not and am not a professional chef like my mom, but I was a career woman who, along with my husband, was determined that while he and I both had jobs away from home, one of our family routines would include having dinner regularly with our daughter for the 18-20 years she would be living with us, challenging as that might be.
And it can be challenging to schedule family dinners every night, especially when single or both parents work. And whether families are affluent or struggling financially, the obstacles can be the same:
- Parents are too busy to plan or attend meals, or they cannot get away from work.
- Children have after-school activities.
- Kids are distracted by technology and tend to squabble among themselves, thereby ruining dinner.
- Too many family members are either picky about or are sensitive or allergic to certain foods.
- The adults are too tired after a long day and long commute to cope with the kids over dinner.
- Teenagers prefer to be with their friends over their families.
To get past these obstacles is a matter of prioritizing what is important and creating a routine. It’s well worth the effort. After all, despite the work or aggravation involved, many parents’ jobs require that they dine frequently with clients, business associates and partners and coworkers to stay in touch and build strong and enduring relationships; dining with one’s children should be just as important for the very same reasons.
That said, no one is alone in facing family dining challenges. Take a stroll down yesterday’s family dining path to peek in on the experiences of some well-known real and TV / movie families — and note how they have coped, for better or for worse! I’m sure there are many more; which are your favorites?
How To Shine
As with other gatherings around food, either in the social or professional sense, the real purpose of being together over a meal is connection with others — family, friends, neighbors, acquaintances, clients, coworkers, business prospects; the list is long. We can always grab a bite alone, but in social and business settings it’s not about the eating, it’s about the greeting; it’s not about the boozing, it’s about the schmoozing. Not that food isn’t important; but when we are dining with others, food should not be the main focus. Being with others — especially our families, and how that can enrich our lives as we visit, share and learn — is what’s important.
Here are some approaches to help make family mealtimes happy, and actually happen:
- Schedule Fewer Dinners – If parents or children have evening work, school or important extracurricular activities or commuting schedules, rather than have dinner every night, try to two-three weekday dinners and one weekend dinner, preferably Sunday (to wrap up and wind down the weekend and get ready for the week ahead). There will be some schedule juggling, but parents and students do that all the time. The key is to elevate family dinners to match the importance of all the other activities, and then work that scheduling magic.
- Keep Them Simple – Meals do not have to be fancy or formal. As much as possible, prepare meals ahead of time and freeze them, so that it’s fast and easy to put something together. Again, parents and students are adept at prep and planning; this is just another assignment.
- Make Mealtime Fun and Educational – Engage children and teens in planning and executing meals, as appropriate. Such activities may include menu planning, grocery shopping, setting the table, helping to prepare one or more dishes, listing topics to discuss at dinner, which can include world or local news, amusing or interesting personal anecdotes, interesting puzzles or games, and funny (clean) jokes.
Dinner guidelines should include being on time, cell phones and TV off, pleasant and respectful conversation, and generally practicing good dining etiquette. Exceptions may include keeping one cellphone on if someone is expecting a truly urgent call or if an urgent topic must be addressed; in any case, respect and consideration should be applied and unpleasant disruptions avoided. Establishing such behavior parameters helps youngsters to navigate dining (as well as other social situations) away from home, and learn where the socially acceptable lines are that generally should not be crossed.
Below is a sampling of previous posts from my Dining Etiquette Series (there are many more for adults to peruse!) that can help parents teach their children the conventional dining basics. Such lessons can be interwoven into family meals to make then interesting, fun (there’s that word again!) and instructive. These will not only help families to shine and endure together, but will also help children to shine in their own rights when they are out in the world — socially, academically and professionally — during the present and into their bright futures.
Until next time,
The Power Of The Early Arrival
The Complexities Of Serving Coffee
P.S. – For more on dining etiquette, go to my blog page and place any of the following words in the search bar:
place card, appetizer course, main course, amuse bouche, formal dinner party menu, the hostess gift, fruit & cheese, service personnel, who sits next to whom, the pleasure of your company, dining etiquette
2 thoughts on “FAMILIES THAT DINE TOGETHER SHINE TOGETHER”
Thanks, Jeanne. Nice post! Best, Candace
Thank you, Candace.