We have a golden rule in our house, and it's one that I will insist upon until the day I die. Dinner is a meal meant to be shared, a meal that requires we are all around the dinner table, together. Let's talk about the power of connection when it comes to mealtimes.
Because it's 2016, you can easily find scientific reasons online that will support the idea of sharing meals as a family. There is evidence out there pointing to the fact that eating together as a family or a group is better for everyone's health: this article explores the importance of language development that happens at the dinner table for the very young, and goes on to explore the nutritional benefits of those children who predominantly eat at home. This study delves in to how eating as a unit can help protect children against asthma (!!!). Looking for a little more light reading? This article explores how regular family supper hours can be protective for adolescents, keeping them away from high risk behaviours. You can uncover quite a few more articles fairly easily if you need the science to back this notion of eating together. (Click on the links within)
For me, it just makes sense with or without the scientific backing. It's a set time every day where our family can gather 'round the table, with some food and conversation at the ready.
Before we sit down, we tend to work together to pull this meal together. Our daughter helps prepare the vegetables, is learning to make sauces and learning how to pull a good salad together. Sunday's dinner this past weekend saw her in charge of assembling the roasted beet / pistachio / goat cheese salad with dressing. It's important to me that she develop the sense of flavours, and to build confidence in preparing meals, knowing she can rely on her tastebuds to make a dish taste just right, not feeling she needs to stick to a recipe.
Cooking is really one of those essential cornerstones we as parents need to impart to our children I think. As a parent, it's up to me to make sure that my daughter can swim, that she enjoys reading, she consume some vegetables and that she can make herself a good meal. Getting her involved in the cooking process is key to developing these skills. They're also important components in raising a child who will be independent and able to care for herself.
I think too, she starts to get to know some of the basics of cooking, and now has an appreciation for what goes in to preparing a meal. Perhaps because of my influence as a Nutrition gal, my girl now loves to read ingredients and nutrition panels on packaged foods, wondering what the chemicals are that are listed. You should hear her reactions, figuring out how to pronounce some of the words, wondering what kind of effects they have on us. I don't go on and on about it for her, however it is something that she has started questioning and wondering about on her own. Meal prep time is the perfect time to hash through these questions, address these concerns. (I think some of this stems from reading the labels on her Halloween candy stash; we are working on the concept of balance with her. (Parenting is HARD!))
Everyone is expected to participate at meal times. While I do the planning and defrosting and most of the cooking, my kiddo helps with prep for sides and salads, my husband will sometimes help with the finishing touches like grated cheese or making the gravy (if he's home in time). We set the table together most nights, clear it together, and the person who did not do the majority of the cooking is in charge of washing the dishes. Our daughter is the one loading the dishwasher and putting away the ingredients, while I'm putting away the leftovers and preparing lunches for the next day. It's truly a family affair, and requires three people to get the whole thing done from start to finish. When someone is missing, we really feel their absence. I think it's important for our children to feel like their contributions matter, like they're part of a team and that when they are not there, they are truly missed. I also know how much routine can be a nourishing part of the day, supporting a child's development. Not only that, but routine is exceptionally supportive to the adrenals, both young and old. This kind of routine is good for what ails ya, and if nothing's ailing ya, it's good for that too (as my father would say!).
In sitting down together we three to a meal every night, I think we are teaching our daughter how to be a part of society if I may be so bold: how to use cutlery and what kinds of manners are expected at the dinner table. Sure we sometimes have silly food nights where those manners can fly out the window; it is, after all, about balance.
It's about connecting (and disconnecting from media!)
My favourite part of dinner is that we get to connect. We do have a rule at our table that at dinnertime, there is no reading, no cookbooks, no comic books, no phones, no radio and no screens at all. No distractions. If you happen to call the house when we're eating, we won't be answering your telephone call (don't be mad!).
Dinnertime is when we get to sit around the table, and we take our time to eat the food in front of us. It's understood we all come to the table with stories about our day; it's a great time to find out how our daughter's apprehension at last night's supper table in regards to today's presentation in class was unfounded. We get to hear of her struggles and successes. We get the updates on the children in my husband's class, giving us a little window in to their day. Dinnertime is a great time to come up with solutions to problems, or talk through some of the issues plaguing us. We do eat at a leisurely pace most nights; my kiddo is a naturally slow eater, always taking her time. It used to infuriate me (although I tried to keep it inside) – now I make a point to sit with her while she finishes her meal, and it gives me an excuse to sit an extra five or ten minutes and really just hang out with her, without any distractions.
It took me a few years to realize we had to plan extra curricular activities later on in the evening in order to really allow the time for us to sit and share a meal, without the feeling of being rushed. Piano is now at 7.15 instead of 5.45. Swimming has now been relegated to Saturday mornings. You picking up what I'm putting down?
One important part for me is that just before tucking into the meal, we say a verse of gratitude. This is a prayer my family said before supper time growing up, and it's en français: it keeps a part of my youth and family's traditions alive at our table. This verse is very simple, and says thanks for the good food at the table and for everyone who had a hand in getting this food to the table. It ends with a wish for good food to be shared with those that are without. Short and sweet, but a ritual nonetheless. I have pondered lately on the importance of including this verse before meal. I see it as a signal to our bodies that a meal is about to come in, and wondered if it helps 'turn on' digestion. I know the benefit of meditation and prayer in helping reduce anxiety; I can only imagine that this brief word helps settle any anxieties and introduce a sense of calm. It is in this mode you need to be in order for digestion to be optimal, this rest and digest mode. Just a thought.
I have been concentrating on the idea of meal time with your family unit, but please do not get stuck on this idea. A meal time can be a meal shared with friends, or a standing dinner date with your roommates. I had a standing weekly lunch date on Thursdays with a coworker, certainly a highlight in my week. Sharing a meal with someone is what we are talking about here, connecting with people who are important in your life.
Further to the idea of saying grace before a meal, I wrote an article earlier this year focusing on the benefits of being mindful at mealtimes, and how to go about it. I think you'll find this a good article to read for further scientific exploration of this concept, as well as practical suggestions on how to make this an attainable task.
If you feel intimidated by the idea of preparing meals during the week, consider doing a little batch cooking on the weekends, in preparation. At our house, meal planning has taken some of the post-school chaos out of the equation. I did a wee write up on this here, I urge you to reconsider if you, like me, originally scoffed at the idea.
If you are feeling a little lost, and are looking for direction on how to make dinnertime a family event minus the distractions, I found this wonderful post from The Family Dinner Project, a non profit organization based out of Harvard University. They're about food, fun and conversation about things that matter, with suggestions and tips on how to approach mealtime with children from the very little to the almost-adult-teenagers sitting across from you at the table. I highly recommend this read! They suggest some games you can play in order to get conversation started; come up with solutions to help dinnertime be a smoother and less tumultuous affair.
Now go play with your food, and eat with your gang. It'll do your body good.