47. Screen-Free Meals. Or How to Build Real Face2Face Relationships at Home.

Posts 47 and 48 will consider some rules you can create and adhere to for a flourishing family meal time.  Because the table is an important training ground, children and adults both need to understand that certain table behaviors and attitudes are expected at every meal. The shared food is really only a small part of the power of the table. It is more important than you might realize that your family table be a place of nurturing, acceptance, and predictability.

At a family meeting, make a list of table rules. Your rules should stipulate that family, as a unit, always comes first. Perhaps some useful rules might include: (you will need to determine the consequences should a rule be violated)

  • All meals take place around a shared table set aside specifically for that purpose on set days at set times. While flexibility is a hallmark of good hospitality, the more consistent you can be in this area, the happier your family meals will be.
  • No one eats until all are served and thanks to God has been prayed.
  • Determine how grace is said, either corporately or by an individual; memorized grace said in unison is an important means for training children in the rhythm of gratefulness and family concord, while a free-flowing prayer by one individual allows for the influence of the Holy Spirit and for practicing the skill of “public” prayer.
  • Everyone eats the same foods. After teaching college nutrition for fifteen years, I cannot stress strongly enough the importance of not giving in to the power struggles food can cause between parents and children. I have shared meals with a host of adult students who still remove the crust from a piece of bread, who won’t touch a vegetable, and think cereal is an adequate substitute for a meal. A child’s taste buds do take time to mature, and some foods which are delicious to you are bitter, or have a ‘yucky’ texture to your child. You must learn to acknowledge that although they won’t like some foods, they still need to try each food presented. As taste buds mature, more and more foods become acceptable, and multiple attempts to “try it, you’ll like it” have been proven to create palatability over time. It is unrealistic, counterproductive, and servile to prepare separate food items for a family meal based on what each individual member likes and will eat. This is exhausting, and does not adequately prepare a child to view God’s great variety of foods with joyful expectation, respect, or thankfulness. Food aversion is natural, but yielding on a consistent basis to a picky eater can hamstring a child for a lifetime. Obviously, a child with a food allergy or food intolerance is a far different matter. If you have one family member with, say, a peanut allergy, it is important that peanut products are kept out of the home altogether, an adaptation each family member willingly makes out of love and concern for the affected individual.
  • Everyone must try at least one normal-sized bite of each food at the meal without theatrics or whining. If you serve something you know will meet with disapproval, a “one and done” rule can save a mountain of unpleasant confrontation.
  • Everyone is expected to help before and after the meal in age-appropriate ways. This can be an assigned service (don’t call it a chore) or a rotating one. ‘Everyone’ means all adults and children in the home.
  • No one leaves the table until everyone is finished- this is family time. Allowing children, especially, to leave the table early fractures the family dynamic, and means that an untended child is off doing his/her own thing with no adult supervision. Young children do have trouble sitting still over long, protracted meals. But, they should learn to sit through and participate in a normal family meal. They must also understand that once they do leave the table, they are officially done eating. A child who wanders away after a few bites, then returns to the table only to leave again is disruptive. You will have a hungry child on your hands by 8:00 p.m., but you need to stand firm. The table is where we eat, and meal time is when we eat. Period.
  • No electronics during dinner. This rule applies to all family members. Do not allow cell phones or other personal communication devices, computers, or headphones at the table. Do not answer a ringing phone. Do not eat on trays in front of the television.[1]

We will continue looking at some more rules in post 48.

~Julie A.P. Walton, Ph.D.

[1] My husband and I were seated recently next to a large, three-generation family at a nice restaurant. To our amazement, the father pulled out a laptop device and started a loud, intrusive (to us) movie for the children at one end of the table so the parents and grandparents could ‘enjoy’ conversation at the other. This is no way to build intergenerational relationships or significant family ties, and it is rude to other diners in a restaurant.

46. Pitching In, Licking Clean: Meals Take a Team

For a regular shared dinner, teamwork is essential, because meal-making cannot simply all fall on one person’s shoulders. Our daughter was nine when I went back to work full time. She was already setting the table each night before dinner, and my husband was helping with kitchen clean-up after dinner, so it was only natural to build on that involvement. When I got home from work and readied dinner, our daughter set the table as before. As she got older, she often undertook age-appropriate preparation tasks with me in the kitchen. After the meal, I was formally excused from any further work. I like to think of it as the 5-D plan: dad, daughter, and dog doing dishes. Dad rinsed the dishes, our daughter put them in the dishwasher, and our black lab joyfully licked them each for good measure. Over the years, this time of shared father-daughter kitchen duty helped them build a vibrant, laughter-filled (most times at my expense), and wonderfully joy-filled relationship. They shared music, jokes, and news of the day. They teased. They snuck extra dessert. It provided this father-daughter duo the opportunity to work together and create a sense of collusion in “mom’s” kitchen that gave them glee. It also helped our daughter begin to learn the value of saving leftovers by having to sort them into containers, prep them for lunches the following day, and creatively think about other ways the food could be combined and prepared for additional meals. It was good practice, and today she is a marvelously creative young cook who entertains on a shoestring budget, having learned early that sharing food- its preparation, consumption, and clean-up- is a rich and happy exercise in what it means to be fully human.

This post is intentionally short.  At this point, I encourage you to really think and pray about ways to MAKE a nightly family meal happen…without stress.  This usually involves INTENTION.  PLANNING.  MENU-MAKING.  It is a WHOLE-FAMILY RESPONSIBILITY.  This week, write down some ways you and your family can come together around a nutritious and comforting meal most nights of the week.

Post 47 will begin to lay out some ground rules!

~Julie A.P. Walton, Ph.D.

 

 

45. Disrupted Family Time, Or, Just How Many Subs Can You Eat in a Week?

Well, you have to start somewhere, and taking a long, honest look at the disruptive schedule is a good and necessary first step. I wrote earlier of my belief that our children today are overscheduled and their lives over-managed by parents. While it may sound harsh, the more we schedule our children into adult-led structured activities outside the home, the less time they have for creative free play, learning the joy and discipline of solitary studiousness,[1] and developing the ability to resolve their own differences. When they get home too late in the day, they are often over-tired and over-stimulated, and low blood glucose makes them cranky. What’s more, today’s children live in an increasingly unstable world, including unstable families, and family instability is unhealthy at any age.[2] A shared family meal on a near-daily basis can go a long way in providing children with what they most need from their family: safety, face-time, encouragement, down-time, comfort, discipline, mentoring, and yes, even the predictability of structure, including set times for meals, homework, prayer, and lights out. Research clearly shows that children of families who frequently share meals at home actually perform better academically.[3] [4]. This is because children thrive on the dependability a structured family time affords, and truly benefit from the regular chance for practicing conversation, story-telling, shared prayer, and listening skills. Furthermore, as communication technology becomes increasingly ubiquitous, face time has become imperiled. Meals create opportunities for face-to-face exchange of ideas when the life of the family takes precedence, and the texting and phone calls are temporarily banned.

So, we probably can all agree that shared family time is critically important in a child’s development, and that because we all have to eat, a family meal is an ideal place to come together. But, our shared dinner hours are difficult to make happen. I believe that sports participation is the second most common cause of fractured family time at the dinner hour, the first being when all adults in the family work full time outside the home, or one or both parents’ work requires frequent travel or shift work.[5]   At some point, you may have to admit that it is not necessary or healthy, for your younger children especially, to participate in sports on a year-round basis. When we get caught up in travel teams, twice-weekly lessons with a pro, and hiring a special sports trainer for out-of-season conditioning for our 10 year-olds, we have stepped over a line in most cases, and we have done so at the real peril of regular, intentional family time. It is important for parent and child alike to learn that no one family member’s activities should consistently dictate the entire family’s schedule and routine.

Try to find several days each week when every family member is expected to be home for dinner at a reasonable predetermined time. Teenagers with work and school obligations will need to negotiate nights off from the family meal commitment, but should not be allowed to assume that their presence at the table isn’t important on a regular basis; while it is critical at this age for teens to begin to learn about the privilege of independence, they must not forsake their place in, and obligations to the family either.

In post #46 we will continue to look at ways to get a family meal on the table in these hectic times.  PLEASE!  If you like what you are reading, share this blog with friends at church.  Leave your suggestions and comments in the LEAVE a REPLY box below.

~Julie A.P. Walton, Ph.D.

[1]a very under-developed characteristic in my college students

[2] Susan Fiske, “The Spiritual Costs of the Missing Family,” By Faith Magazine 34 (Winter 2011): p.29.

[3] Catherine E. Snow, Unfulfilled Expectations: Home and School Influences on Literacy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000).

[4] Sharon M Fruh et al, “The Surprising Benefits of the Family Meal,” The Journal for Nurse Practitioners 7, no. 1 (2011): 18-22.

[5] As a child-athlete myself, and the spouse and parent of child-athletes, I do not pick on sports with random disdain. The ramped-up nature of the sporting world has made indelible marks on Christian families that we ignore to our peril, and we need to start and continue serious ongoing theological reflection and discussion in Christian circles of the true and rightful place of sports in a child’s and family’s life. The same can be said for any other extra-curricular activity.

Featured Image Credit: http://edacious1.blogspot.com/2008/06/good-eating-at-ball-park.html

 

44. Tricky Balance:Food Idolatry vs Quick, We Need to Eat!

Actually, food preparation is an important concept to think about. We are currently experiencing a rash of new writings about food- what constitutes real food, why fast food threatens our health and way of life, why we should consider eating only locally grown foods, and why the planet cannot sustain food production for the anticipated population of nearly nine billion people worldwide by 2050. The latter chapters of this book attempt to address our individual connection and ease of access to food in the United States with issues of food and water scarcity in much of the rest of the world. For now, suffice it to say that our present national attention to food is, perhaps, overindulgent, and a fascinating study in human nature. On the one hand, we idolize food and nearly make food practice a religion. Food critics, cable cooking shows, and internet bloggers remind us that the world of food has its own language and rules, where food takes on godlike characteristics. On the other hand, such obsession-compulsion and misplaced fidelity is contradicted by a post-modern and relatively mainstream insistence that food be characterized, above all else, by convenience. We don’t have time to fuss over food, and we just want something to mollify our hunger. Somewhere in this dilemma, most of us find ourselves having to work very hard to find middle ground. We want to provide healthy food for ourselves and our families, and wish we could enjoy it together more often.

Unless you have hired help, procuring, storing, and preparing food is a necessity that someone in the home must meet on a consistent basis. Because nutritional needs across the age span can only be met by regular consumption of a variety of healthy foods, we need to understand the importance of the roles of planning menus, buying food, keeping ingredients on hand, and making time and space for preparing food in ways that are appetizing, wholesome, and, yes, even convenient. What’s more, most of us need to do this on a tight budget.

More often than not, this obligation falls to the adult women of a household, but more and more, men are taking an active role in a family’s food needs. One of my colleagues is a single father with two elementary school-aged daughters. The three of them have a routine for the four nightly meals they share each week. On Mondays after school, they go together to the grocery store. Each girl plans the menu for one meal and dad plans two. They walk and talk themselves through the store, picking out the ingredients they need for their planned meals. Once home, they work together in the kitchen to put foods away and begin the evening meal prep. It is not unusual for some of the girls’ friends to stay for a meal with this little family. Each meal begins with prayer, and dad intentionally guides the conversation around biblical stories and themes while having the girls replay the day’s events. My colleague says that this activity of planning, shopping for, making and sharing meals has bonded the three of them together like nothing else they do. In the process, the girls are learning to shop and compare prices, consider substitutes, store and prepare food, and entertain friends in their home over a shared meal.

No matter who sees to the food provision in your home, that person must be well-versed in the age-appropriate nutritional needs, within budgetary limits, of all of the family members being fed. And, if time is tight, it is a job that requires planning, discipline and creative thinking. In Post #45 we will begin to address where to start.

~Julie A.P. Walton, Ph.D.

Photo credit:  K. Luymes

43. Table or Trough? Does Your Family Dine or Feed?

Have you ever stopped to wonder if the shared meal is less about food and eating as it is about the time set aside (meaning sacred) for coming together? In this way, the shared meal sets us apart from the animals. Animals feed, eating whatever they find on their sorties, and as their appetite dictates. Humans, on the other hand, dine- a process of planned menu and shared dishes and, in families, companionship (com meaning with, pan meaning bread). When eating at home is degraded to each family member grabbing food whenever it suits them, we lose much of what it means to be both human and family.

For those with children still at home, you might, at this point, be tempted to say that although this all sounds great, it would never work in your family. Your table is messy and noisy, and people are distracted. Your mealtimes are more like boxing matches or a three-ring circus, with fights over food, over who sits where (or won’t stay seated at all), over who manipulates the conversation and hijacks attention. The hour is not settling but restless. I have a friend whose three children argued constantly over who got to sit in between both parents at their round table. With one more child than parent, it always turned out that at least two of the siblings had to sit next to one another each night without a parent on both sides. The poking wars, verbal as well as physical, were endless. I know of another family whose table was always in such constant motion that the mother began reading children’s adventure stories during the meal as a way to keep the children seated throughout the meal’s entirety.

Despite the chaos, it is good to remember that the table is probably the best place in the home for teaching children about respect, manners, and service and sensitivity to the needs of others. It is at the table we learn firsthand what it means to work for the common good. This helps fortify the notion that each child is indeed a member of the family, this tight little community called “us.” At the table a sense of belonging, of kinship is born and nurtured. Will there be times of conflict, of petulant teenage resentment, of childish behavior?   Most certainly. Just remember, there will also be times of shared joy where drama and comedy play out around the table every night as food is shared. If you want to build family, share the table.

There are, of course, other barriers to regularly sharing meals at home. Often, children are so hungry when they get home from school they fill up on snacks then aren’t hungry for dinner. For some children with attention disorders, medication has begun to wear off toward evening making this a frustrating time for parent and child alike.[1] What’s more, it is not unusual for a family with two or more children to have something scheduled for every night of the week. It is also typical for one adult in the family to bear the lion’s share of food-related acquisition and preparation; let’s face it, somebody has to be in charge of the food, a responsibility that is difficult to sustain in very busy families.

~ Julie A.P. Walton, Ph.D.

Are you NEW to Shared Table Blessings?  WELCOME!  I invite you to join a growing number of people interested in the importance of the shared meal amongst family, friends, and strangers. Each post is numbered that you may follow the book I have written about the Christian Practice of Shared Meals.  For the best understanding, start reading posts in order, and send comments or questions my way using the LEAVE A COMMENT box found at the bottom of every post.  ~JAPW

[1]Families with children with attention disorders may experience evening mealtime challenges related to both behavior and medication side effects like appetite suppression and insomnia. When the last dose occurs at noon, a behavioral rebound effect (in particular hyperactivity) around late afternoon is probable, and if a subsequent medication dose is taken, appetite for the evening meal will be blunted, and the child more likely to have trouble sleeping at bedtime. Sometimes, a lower dose at 4:00 p.m. is helpful. In these cases, it is often advisable to delay the evening meal so that appetite is less negatively affected. Working closely with a pediatrician is highly recommended.

42. The Dining Table: Food for Hungry Souls

The last post tried to demonstrate how a shared family meal is powerfully generative, with the power to produce, or generate a way of thinking, acting, and responding to circumstances. In particular, children learn from the adults at the table not only civilized table manners and social customs, but about life and death, good and evil, right and wrong. In short, the table is a place for a child to observe what it means to be an adult. For believers, this becomes even more significant, because this is our shared practice for learning what it means to be a man, woman, child, and family of God.

It is also deep mystery how shared table time as a routine practice helps children develop a healthy attitude toward ritual and tradition. It has a potent and lifelong carryover effect on their sense of family and belief, acting as a liturgy of sorts for creating that daily rhythm of how a flourishing family life should flow. And, in this day and age, when culture kidnaps our children at younger and younger ages, this table time protects them. The physical food they eat with us is a symbol of God’s ever-present provision, help and sustenance. This family table is the place we can teach our children what we know of God, and where they can watch us live that love out.

Over many years as a professor at a Christian college, I had students regularly tell me of their struggles to know God. They are so fraught with an urgency to seem grown up without really wanting just yet to actually grow up, that they tend to leave looking for God by the wayside as they try to find themselves. This is quite natural for that age, but they almost universally and wistfully wish they could balance school, work, friends, and faith better than they do. In nearly every situation, my best counsel to them was to become more familiar with who God is, and to study his attributes, his Word, his actions throughout the generations, his dying and undying love for them, and his unchangeable nature. For my students, so focused on mission, I point them toward God because they need a better-developed sense of co-mission as they train (this, too is practice) for a lifelong vocation.

What does that have to do with the family table? The table, with its rich undertones of grace, acceptance, sustenance and togetherness is where parents can use, no matter how brief, the stories of the day just ending to teach their children about God. Mary wasn’t much older than a child when Gabriel announced God’s favor upon her. In her song of response, Mary demonstrates a deep knowledge of and trust in God, exclaiming, “His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation. He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants forever, even as he said to our fathers.” (Luke 1:50-55)

Mary knows, fears, and reveres her God. It is nearly impossible to revere or fear a God you do not know well. When our knowledge and understanding of God is unformed, we are vulnerable to the human tendency to revere and fear the wrong things. When we revere money, we find ourselves fearing a fickle economy. If we revere health and youth, then illness, aging, even dying frighten us. Our reverence for providing for our own safety and security is born out of a fear of tragedy or calamity. But, at the table, we learn about a God who says throughout history, “Trust me, let peace rule in your heart. I care for you. I give you bread not stones. I love you so much and so completely that I died for you. I am here for you, present among you, and I will never leave you.”

The table truly does provide a powerful opportunity for testimony to our children. In our families, sharing our lives, our family history, our joys and our tears around the table, we also share in the love and knowledge of God. Our children not only learn the stories of our faith, they learn the stories of the family’s encounters with God through its history. We model for children what it means to trust God, to love him with a sincere and devoted heart out of fear and reverence for his holiness, his incarnation, his substitutionary death, and his promise to return. “Food is a direct route to the intimacies of life.”[1] This is food for hungry souls.

Think about planning some family meals this week-for everyone’s sake!

~Julie A.P. Walton, Ph.D.

[1] Weinstein, The Surprising Power of Family Meals, p. 69.

Featured image by J.Holberg, 2016

41. Be GENERATIVE. Sit. Eat. With. Your. Kids.

You must make it happen. There is NO OTHER WAY.  The evening family meal is restorative; it provides time, space, food, and companionship for soothing the rough patches created by the demands of both this day, and of the day anticipated tomorrow. It helps cement people together and organize the family as a team. Table time as a family is for discovery too. We share our experiences and the things we’ve learned, and can discuss whether our responses to particular situations were the right ones.

When our daughter began fourth grade at a new school she encountered her first bully. Week after week, we spent time as a family, almost always at the dinner table, discussing what the bully said today, how she acted on the bus, and what we, as a family should do about it. We prayed together. My husband and I advised our daughter to adopt a “kill the situation with kindness” attitude, but not because we wanted to teach her non-confrontation.[1] On the contrary, we felt that intentionally-responsive smiles and kind words on our daughter’s part comprised precisely the type of loving confrontation Jesus would have practiced. At first, our daughter’s responses only infuriated this bully to grander displays of meanness (all verbal), but, to give her credit, our daughter persevered and trusted that this decision, made as a family at the dinner table, was the right course of action. We also counseled our daughter to try her hardest to imagine what could make another little girl so angry and mean, and to pray for her to experience the joy of a changed heart. Was this bully unloved at home? Was she sad? Did she really just need a friend and not know, socially, how to make one? Our daughter prayed for this girl for many weeks. Eventually, the bullying stopped. Our daughter learned that responding in kind is never as good as responding with kindness. She learned that some people are unloved and unloving. She learned to pray for an enemy, and to ask for prayer. And, she learned that, as a family, we took her problem seriously and were concerned for the outcome. All in the intimacy of the family table.

This helps demonstrate how a shared family meal is powerfully generative, meaning that it has the power to produce, or generate a way of thinking, acting, and responding to circumstances. In particular, children learn from the adults at the table not only civilized table manners and social customs, but about life and death, good and evil, right and wrong. In short, the table is a place for a child to observe what it means to be an adult. For believers, this becomes even more significant, because this is our shared practice for learning what it means to be a man, woman, child, and family of God.

It is also deep mystery how shared table time as a routine practice helps children develop a healthy attitude toward ritual and tradition. It has a potent and lifelong carryover effect on their sense of family and belief, acting as a liturgy of sorts for creating that daily rhythm of how a flourishing family life should flow. And, in this day and age, when culture kidnaps our children at younger and younger ages, this table time protects them. The physical food they eat with us is a symbol of God’s ever-present provision, help and sustenance. This family table is the place we can teach our children what we know of God, and where they can watch us live that love out.

[1] This particular eight year-old girl was not a physical threat, nor did she act as part of a larger group of bullies picking on our daughter, and this happened before social networking made e-bullying a reality. This little girl was just miserably mean. One reason we monitored the situation so closely each night at the supper table was to discern if adult intervention was called for.  But, we also wanted our daughter to learn to positively handle life’s challenges on her own with God’s help and wisdom.

Until next time!

Julie A.P. Walton, Ph.D.