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Reclaiming the Family Meal

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I love to eat. But what I love even more is sharing a meal with someone. There is a difference, you know. One is an activity. The other is a blessing.


Lately, I’ve been reflecting upon the fact that here in the United States, we travel through our days with the velocity of a cheetah or the urgency of an ambulance. We consume food the same way. We eat standing up, on the run, or in our cars. We eat alone or in shifts, passing family members like ships in the night on the way to the refrigerator. We fill our bellies, gratifying our appetites, yet, we remain unsatisfied once the deed is done. What we appear to be missing is connection—the connection with the gift of food, as well as our connection with others with whom we can share such bounty.


Mealtime is so much more than an experience of shoveling down edibles. It can be the lifeblood of a family or friendship; the staple of a healthy connection to one another; an intimacy-building activity that ensures we stay emotionally in tune with our loved ones when busy lifestyles have the potential to disconnect us. The question begs to be posed. How is your household doing with mealtime fare? Are you experiencing the joy of food and fine conversation or are you slamming down quickly prepared grub as you head out the door?


I noticed this happening in my own family about eight years ago. My oldest daughter had just turned sixteen and was holding down her first after-school job. She wasn’t around for meals anymore. Soon after, my son had his first job and he was gone too. Then, it was just my eleven-year-old and myself sitting at a big oak table, staring at empty chairs. It felt so lonely we moved to the counter to eat at stools, or in the car at the fast-food restaurant, and, well, you can imagine how it went downhill from there.


Sometimes we have to make a concerted effort to restore activities that nourish our family life. Reclaiming the family meal is one of those. By taking some simple steps, like the ones I suggest here, you may find the empty chairs of your dining table full once again and laughter rising from the kitchen. Not to mention how much better food can taste when you’re sharing it with the people you love!


Make It Happen
Set aside specific days and times for communal meals. If family members have conflicting schedules, find common times when everyone can gather. This doesn’t necessarily have to be dinner time. It can be breakfast or lunch, too. Don’t accept excuses for busyness or other plans. Reestablish with your family how important it is for all of you to connect and make time for one another, even if it’s only a few times a week. 


Make It Inviting
Set the stage for a meaningful repast. My mother always said, “You can’t have a meal without a placemat.” I listened to her good advice and bought a lovely set of placemats, enough for everyone. I can’t believe how different my table feels when placemats or a tablecloth on it. So inviting! Light some candles. The ambience of a candle or two can change the atmosphere to one of welcome, relaxation, and enjoyment. These simple gestures can say to your kids, partner, or friends, “I’m so glad we’re here together!”


Make It Uplifting
Foster positive communication at mealtime to build connection. One way is to invite each person to share something positive from their day. Focus on each family member for a brief time so everyone feels included and no one person dominates the conversation.


As the mealtime matriarch, you can suggest that conversation be uplifting and positive, instead of complaining or negative. That way the gathering becomes an experience people look forward to, instead of something to dread. In the early days, my husband and I often found ourselves choreographing conversation until people got the hang of our positive bent: “Let’s change the subject, shall we, to something that feels better?”


Make It Meaningful
I adore breaking bread with my friend Mary. Part of her preparation for a mealtime gathering is to select a blessing to be read. Even though, Mary is Catholic, she chooses a blessing that honors the guest and their spiritual preferences. She also offers a blessing of thanks for that person’s presence at the table. With such a warm welcome, how can any meal be anything but absolutely wonderful? One of my favorite books to use for such table blessings is A Grateful Heart: Daily Blessings for the Evening Meal from Buddha to the Beatles (Conari Press, 1994). Obviously, you can tell by its title, there’s something in it for everyone. Even if you’re not particularly religious, by offering a blessing of some sort, you set a tone of gratitude for this unique opportunity to gather and share, not only your food, but your hearts, and your love.

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