Sunday, October 20, 2013

shout-out for family dinner

When the kids were toddlers, sitting at the table together felt like a circus.  I remember mushy food thrown on the floor, shared and slobbery silverware clattering on the table, halted conversation that competed with one child who banged their sippy cup on the high chair and another who whined about eating peas.  Amid the fussing and the mayhem, it's easy to wonder: What's the point?  In fact, while Steve and I always sat down to eat as a family when the kids were young, it was a civilized dinner by ourselves that I really craved.  THAT sounded like real quality time! 

Back in those baby/toddler years, we ate together because that's how Steve and I were raised.  It just felt normal.   I didn't know that during those nights spent wiping sticky fingers while trying to eat our black beans and rice, we were instilling a routine into all of us that would pay off down the road.

We all know that dinner time is social---even if some nights devolve into things less civilized.  But in our digital age, meal time can provide respite from phones, ipods, and other hand-held electronics.  When I was a kid, the rule was, "no books at the table"--I clearly grew up in a different century-- but the idea is the same: we should talk to each other.

I've also discovered that mealtime can teach respect for food.  Sitting together gives me a chance to brag about my cooking, which of course, I take full advantage of, but it isn't just self-serving.  Talking about cooking can reveal its artfulness while reminding the kids that food preparation takes effort, heart and soul. 

I also talk about where the food came from:  how's that chicken? you know it came from Polyface Farm; or eat up your arugula - it's fresh from our co-op today; or you know that farmer with the big melons (ha!), he said these beets would be like candy.  And my favorite: "how 'bout them tomatoes? You know I grew those!" --Except that latter thing happens so seldom with me being a plant killer and all.

Of course, sometimes dinner offers a chance to disrespect the food.  No matter how many delicious meals I've prepared over the years, the one that lives in infamy? eggplant custard.  I had high hopes when I set out to make it, but it proved a gray and slightly slimy casserole for which superior flavor could not overcome the shortcomings of color and texture. Alas.

Despite such misguided concoctions, mealtime teaches respect for the cook.  The rules around our table are far more lax than the ones I grew up with (sit up straight, napkin on your lap, no elbows on the table).  I can't be bothered to police the dinner table so closely, but there is one rule I especially treasure: you NEVER eat before the person who prepared your food has sat down to the table.  After all the work of making a meal, this one gesture of respect and thanks goes a long way to acknowledging the effort.

This is especially fun when the kids did the work.  We can honor them and also shower them with praise: Wow, look how well the vegetables were chopped; this pasta is a perfect al dente; who peeled that garlic?

If you respect the endeavors of the cook, then you are also more likely to eat the food he or she prepared for you. 

Then there's respect for each other: it's boring, but it's true that you learn manners when you eat in a group.  I never tell Olivia to chew with her mouth closed because her brother does it for me.  Better she learn it from him than on a date with a cute guy who doesn't like the looks of her fish and broccoli in partial breakdown. 

If you don't want to get kicked by a sibling, you also learn to pass food around the table after you've served yourself, to use your napkin when there's spaghetti sauce on your face, and wait your turn to tell that hilarious story from the lunch room at school.

While I saw over the years that family dinner could do all these great things: teach community, nutrition, manners, and respect, I didn't understand the value of family dinner as a sustained ritual until this summer when suddenly, Gareth had somewhere else to be every night: at Chipotle, playing soccer at the school, at the pool, spending the night at a friend's.  He could easily leave in the morning and not return for days--and all that time wearing the same pair of underwear! 

I was at first baffled about how to get him back.  If he's welcome at the friend's house, or has already eaten out, then why should he come home?   Then it hit me:  family dinner!  After years of eating together, it made perfect sense to him when I said, "have fun, but you have to be home for dinner."   We had taught him, perhaps inadvertently, that food is more than a convenience or a pleasure.  It is part of the social fabric of our family.

Looking back, I can see the seeds of that idea in bloom. Before we eat, we usually wait for everyone to be seated, but it's not always easy to get everyone to the table.  Have you ever called a child to dinner forty-eleven times and gotten no response?  When one of our darlings just cannot tear themselves away from Breaking Bad, or Switched at Birth, or whatever other internet/cable sensation has captivated them, we begin our meal without them. 

With the other child sitting gleefully at the table with us, we chew quietly and smirk at each other while we wait for the offending family member to notice the silence in the house: the lack of clattering pans in the kitchen, the absence of a bouncing soccer ball in the dining room (no balls at dinner unless they're collard balls!), the long period of time since anyone yelled, "Dinner!"  He or she will inevitably come bolting into the dining room: "You ate without me!" 

Yes we did. 

It surprised me the first time this happened to see how much it mattered to the kids.  I suppose no child (or parent for that matter) wants to be cast out of a family ritual. 

Rituals bring families together--something about the obligation to one another, the predictability of repetition, the knowledge that we can count on each other to show up, and for dinner: the responsibility of getting the food on the table together (who's turn to set the table? who's getting drinks? someone get those potatoes out of the oven please). 

Good or bad, there are things we can count on about dinner: Olivia will never stop talking, then will complain that we never let her talk.  Steve will ask us to comment repeatedly on the part of the meal he prepared, regardless if it only accounts for 10% of what's on the plate; Gareth will put ice cubes in his soup even if I tried to let it cool; I will huff when people use salt. 

None of that is to say we haven't had some bad times around the table.  Who could forget the animal-shaped napkin rings we couldn't use because the kids nearly tore each others' eyes out fighting over the rocking horse? 

the unwitting source of so much familial strife!

And that doesn't rival the night when a cabbage roll inspired the debate: is 'frickin' a cuss word

To make it work, family dinner doesn't always have to be pleasant (but I can say we've definitely laughed more than we've fought); it doesn't have to be fancy (eat cereal together if you have to), it doesn't have to be every night (we have dinner some nights at 9pm and others not at all because of soccer and swim schedules), it just has to be. 

As we transition through these teen years and the kids become more independent, I hope that our determination to eat with the kids while they were young will perhaps inspire our kids to eat with us when we're old. 

I know I wouldn't mind the company.  

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