The shared family meal used to be a given. While breakfast and lunch might be taken according to individuals’ specific needs and schedules, suppertime has for generations been a family’s chance to sit down and break bread together while catching up on the day.
The centrality to family life of a shared mealtime is reflected in its long history of being portrayed on film, running the gamut from the idealized . . .
to the comedic . . .
to the satirical.
Even disco stud Tony Manero in “Saturday Night Fever” sat down with the fam before heading out for an evening of drinking, women, and dancing:
As the traditional family paradigm—with dad pulling a paycheck and mom staying home—has become less of a norm, the practice of observing a regular family mealtime has suffered. When there are two wage-earners, a lengthening school day, and a heightened emphasis on keeping kids busy with multiple extracurricular activities, finding an hour of the day when everyone is simultaneously home and available has become increasingly difficult.
Yet studies, not to mention experience and common sense, show numerous benefits to the family that shares a meal on a regular basis. As outlined in The Atlantic, when families routinely eat at home together, children are less likely to be overweight and also do better in school. The latter may have something to do with the fact that families who eat together talk to one another more, increasing children’s vocabulary and thinking skills. You don’t need a scientific study to know that eating together as a family strengthens the bonds between individual members, contributing to the overall emotional well-being not only of the family unit but of the people in it.
A quick online search yields a number of articles dedicated to providing tips for instituting or safeguarding family mealtime. There is even an entire website devoted to it! Here are a few strategies my husband and I have used in our own family over the years to make mealtimes occasions for nourishing not only the body but the mind, heart, and soul as well.
Make a Mealtime Pattern
Develop a liturgy, or pattern, for your family meals, and require that everyone stay for the entire time. In our family we accomplish this with prayer, praying not only at the beginning but at the end of the meal. Our children, even the adult ones when they are home, don’t leave the table until the closing prayer signals that the meal is over.
If you are not inclined to pray, prayer could be replaced with some other kind of ritual, such as lighting a candle at the beginning of the meal and blowing it out at the end. But if you’re not already in the habit of doing so, I encourage you to give prayer a try. The ones we use are found here.
Give Everyone a Job
At each meal, or perhaps weekly, assign specific jobs to everyone who is old enough to help: table setter and clearer, dishwasher loader and unloader, drink pourer, salad tosser, etc. When it’s time to eat, make clear that everyone is expected to help in some way, not just show up at the last minute to fill their plates.
For the meal itself, designate a table master and table server. The master is boss of the meal, leading the prayer, granting permission to those who wish to get up, and choosing the server. The server’s job is to tend to diners’ needs throughout the meal, procuring needed items, refilling water glasses, etc. The default server and master are mom and dad, but others, even very young children, can be given these roles. Doing so provides opportunities for children to take on more responsibility and turns serving into a privilege rather than a burden.
Make family mealtimes an opportunity to practice the art of conversation. It can be easy for children to be overlooked, “seen and not heard” during meals as mom and dad discuss family issues or the news of the day. It can also be easy for the needs, wants, and behavior of the children to totally take over the meal.
To impress upon those present that everyone is important and has a contribution to make, set aside a time of orderly sharing during the meal. In our family we tend to do this towards the end, before the closing prayer. Dad, or the designated table master, goes around the table asking each person in turn if he has something to share. The item shared might be a piece of news, an observation, a joke, a compliment, a question, or something else. The point is to make sure that at each meal everyone has the floor at least once to bring up whatever is on his or her mind and to be heard by everyone else.
Protect the Time You Can Muster
The older the children in a family get, adding jobs into the already crowded mix of activities and homework, the harder it can be to maintain a schedule of regular family meals. But it’s important to try. The strategies above may seem rather obvious and basic, but they are easily lost in the blur that is an average day in the life of the modern American family.
Drawing a border around the family meal, setting it apart and providing it with some rituals, marks it as something special and worth showing up for. Even if you can only manage it three times a week, those three shared mealtimes will do wonders for family communication and cohesion.
It probably goes without saying that phones and other devices should be left elsewhere. At family meals individual pursuits should stop and people should come together and focus on one other until the last person has finished eating and the closing prayer has been said. Then everyone can help clean up!
The author and her husband are indebted to their former pastor, Rev. Gerald V. Freudenburg, for many of the strategies outlined in this article.