I grew up in a large family of 6 children. One of the highlights of each day was our evening meal around the very long table. It wasn’t the food that made it special (although always tasty and made with love); it was the simple act of being all together around the family table. There are so many benefits in coming together to eat. We would connect, discuss the day’s events and talk about what was to come. The conversation flows and flows (if you knew my brothers, it just doesn’t stop some days). As the family has grown and multiplied, so has the noise and the logistics of feeding and seating that many people. Even though it’s not a frequent event, I’m certain that if you asked any of the family, they wouldn’t change a thing.
Gathering around the family table is a habit that I have tried to maintain with my own family from the early days until now, even when not all of us are home. Now that our own children are grown, and busy, it is difficult to co-ordinate diaries but I believe in the benefits of this pattern. To sit at the dinner table and have long conversations together as a family, no matter the frequency, unites us back to relationship. Looking back, I can see how having regular family meals has nurtured our family.
Involve the Kids
Particularly when families are young, mealtimes can nurture practical skills. Let’s be honest, preparing a meal is much easier done alone. However, including the kids in the process is a great opportunity for them to develop and practice practical life skills. I’m very proud that all my children can produce a yummy meal, when they need to! They have learned etiquette of cutlery use, simple manners, and conversation skills. We could discuss their day at school and get to know their friends, and who they were hanging out with.
The most interesting years of this habit were the teenage years. Eating together, one meal a day, around the family table certainly had to be an intentional process. There were evenings when it would have been easier not to persist- the thought of “what do I cook tonight” and “why am I the only one who can cook a meal AND then clean up” and “why is this so hard?” were at the forefront of my mind. But it definitely is worth the effort. I love that my kids have always felt comfortable to bring friends home for a meal. On occasion, we’ve had their friends turn up even without our own child, just for a home cooked meal and conversation. I love that.
And believe me when I say that I’m pretty sure eating together wasn’t necessarily recognised as important by my kids at the time, but now as they reflect on their ‘growing up’ years, they see that it was.
What’s for dinner?
As for WHAT to put on the table…I have always struggled. Working full time in a stressful career as well as raising three children and other commitments, my brain was often fried. (Still is if I’m totally honest.) I didn’t even have the energy to do the whole ‘meal plan, grocery plan’ deal that mums would talk about. And organic, homemade, home grown…pffft. That was never going to happen.
As the teenage years loomed and kids became more independent, I became less exhausted (just a little). My journey of meal planning stepped up a notch and I began to set a weekly menu and grocery list. I have not met too many mums (or dads) who have the perfect solution to the logistics of meals. They either go in and out in waves of successful menu plans, highs and lows of ‘healthy’ eating vs ‘whatever they’ll eat’, meal prepping or too many expensive take away meals – so I decided not to beat myself up about it and just try what I could, when I could.
My tips to make family dinner happen
- Take the time to prepare a weekly menu. Have a regular time each week and sit with your recipe books. My meal plan is just scratched out on a notepad on the fridge. It is helpful to reference the book and page number of the recipe so you don’t forget. Make the plan simple, and food your family will eat. Personally, I like to try at least one new recipe a fortnight. When I know a day is busy, an easy meal is planned that night. It’s even ok to have a night of takeaway, baked beans on toast, to visit mum’s, or make it the teenager’s turn to cook!
- Plan your grocery list from your menu. Quite simply, it makes your shopping a lot faster, you only buy what you need, so it’s also better for your budget. Pro tip: if you write chocolate on the list, then it’s a legitimate purchase!
- Use a family calendar. Again, keep it simple. For many years, I have used Microsoft Publisher to create a month by month calendar. A copy goes up on the fridge where everyone can see it. I put the dates of known events, meetings, sports dasy etc. The kids (when living at home) were responsible for adding nights they knew they’d be out. It’s not a fool proof method, but it takes a lot of anxiety out of my day. (The family have also come to find it interesting to see what I add to each calendar by way of family photos, jokes and motivational quotes.)
- Don’t sweat it. It’s just not worth getting upset, or comparing yourself with other families. Your kids want a happy mum, not a perfect one.
Food is a great unifier. Throughout history, many important decisions and resolutions have been advanced through the sharing of a meal. Lessons have been taught. Just think of the many tables that Jesus sat around, or called people to. When He wanted to spend time with people He often did so around a meal table. Sharing a meal calls us back to relationship. It is important.
As a society we are more divided than ever. Yet we still have food in common. Let us get back to the family table. Just as you take time to think about WHAT to feed your family’s belly, take a moment to think about WHAT you are feeding their hearts too.
Natalie is a wife, Mum to 3 grown children (and mother-in-law to 3), a part time primary school teacher, small business owner and Mentor at Humeridge Church of Christ Mops.