It makes me happy to know that there are researchers working in the fields of nutrition, child psychology and sociology who are willing and able to do design studies that confirm what many parents have suspected all along: that meals do not just fuel a child’s body, but sustains their minds and souls as well. This is also true for adults, of course, not just kids; food has never just been about calories and nutrients, but has always been part of the social fabric that holds people together in good times and in bad.
It pleases me to see that there are those who feel that research in this area is important enough to pursue and publish; and I am given heart every time I see mention of these studies in major media outlets.
I am amused, of course, because when I read these news snippets, I always say to myself, “Well, gee, duh–I could have -told- you that.”
Partly this comes about because the idea of eating together is one of those elusive “traditional family values” which supposedly Americans have left behind in a rush toward individual personal satisfaction, longer workdays and decadent lifestyles. It know there are some Americans who are so selfish that they pursue their own desires to the detriment of their children, just as there are workaholics out there who would rather work overtime than spend time with their families. As for those decadent lifestyles: the most dedicated partiers I have known have not had children because thankfully, they have known that it would really put a damper on thier chosen way of interacting with the world.
There are exceptions, of course, but I think that nearly everyone in the United States holds the ideal in their hearts that families should sit down and eat at least one meal a day together. And why not–we have been essentially programmed to see family meals as a social norm. Television sitcoms and series films alike show families around the table; it is a situation that is rich with both comedic and emotionally tense possibilities. (This isn’t just an American phenomina; one of my favorite films of all time is Ang Lee’s “Eat, Drink, Man, Woman–” a film which focuses on the interactions of one Taiwanese family around the Sunday family feast.) Our holidays, particularly Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter, center around large family dinners, and everywhere in our culture, from holiday cards to advertisements, we see images of happy families sitting around the table sharing copious amounts of food.
But when I read these news stories on the benefits of family meals, I am also saddened by the statistics that show how many families are not eating together. Depending on which set of numbers one choses to believe, roughly half (48%) or two-thirds (66.6%) of American families do not partake in regular family meals. That is a lot of people who do not have the time or do not take it, to eat together as a family.
I am not going to start on a rant here about how the United States is going to go to hell in a handbasket because low income families with two parents working twelve hours a day in order to afford to buy thier kids shoes and food don’t take the time to eat with their kids. In fact, I cut a lot of lower income families a lot more slack than I do those who are solidly middle class to upper class. Is that classist of me? I suppose an argument could be made that it is, however, I prefer to see it as me having a realistic idea of what it means to be poor.
I am not going to berate people who are doing their best to make ends meet and try to guilt them into eating with thier kids. Most of them would like to eat together as a family, but because Mom and/or Dad (many of these households involve a single parent) are working their butts off most of the time, they can’t, and they probably feel pretty guilty about it already.
As for those households where there is plenty of money and the reason that the family seldom get together to eat is that the kids all have a bazillion extracurricular activities and Mom and Dad have their own activities: I am not going to guilt them, either.
I just have this to say: slow down. Let your kids be kids and stop micromanaging every second of their lives. Let them have some free time to just lay around dreaming or run around like little screaming maniacs in the yard in unconstructed play. Please? I am not against soccer or ballet lessons or horseback riding or art classes; on the contrary–I’d have liked to have had some or all of those when I was a kid, too. (I did have the horseback riding, and it was great fun.) But does one kid have to do all of them to be a good, well-rounded kid? And if you multiply those lessons, sports and activities by several kids–it is no wonder Mom and Dad don’t think that there is time to sit down and have dinner more than once a week.
Again–slow down. Spend time with the kids: parents are more than shuttle services to and from activities. They are the primary role models kids have for acceptable adult behavior, and that is more important than cramming a kid’s life with every educational opportunity that money can buy.
Educational opportunities bloom around children and in a household, and kids learn by watching and doing what their parents do. If they see parents primarily as a means to an end–that is how they will treat them (and that’s how they will treat others, as well.) If they see parents as involved, caring and fully present in the moment–they will learn to be that way, too. Eating with kids gives them a chance to learn table manners, how to converse on matters great and small, how to interact with peers and non-peers, how to laugh and how to enjoy food. Parents can become great arbiters of taste; what parents eat, kids are likely to eat as well, though with some children, it may take exposure to a strange food ten or fifteen times before they try it.
Cooking with kids gives them a chance to learn not only a useful life skill (how to feed oneself and others is a skill which never becomes unstylish–a good cook always has many friends), but also to learn scientific and mathematical principles. A parent can make math real by teaching a kid how to scale a recipe up or down while keeping the ratio and proportions between the ingredients the same. Conductivity can be explained while setting a pot on the stove to boil. Showing how baking powder makes muffins rise gives a practical knowledge of chemistry. Cutting apart a chicken gives an anatomy lesson.
Even more important than manners, communication skills, science and math, however, are the spiritual lessons that the family table can give.
Eating together is a spiritual act: not only on holidays or feast days, but every day.
When we sit down together to break bread, to eat, we are sharing not only food, conversation and drink, but we are creating an emotional bond with those seated around the table. We are sharing love, peace, friendship and kinship. We are giving of each other, to each other. We are saying, “you are important,” to each other, and as we take in physical nourishment from the food, we also absorb emotional energy from each other.
I know this sounds mystical, and maybe a little “woo-woo-out-there.” But, it is true.
Think about the times people have eaten together and had an argument at the dinner table. Was the food enjoyable? Can you even remember what it tasted like? Did the flavor of the food change as the emotions churned around the diners? How did your stomach feel as you ate a meal while surrounded by discord, tension and anger?
You most likely didn’t feel very good, and if the food started out tasting good, it probably turned to ash in your mouth. I know the few times angry words flew around the dinner table when I was a kid, the food lost its savor, and I could no longer eat.
But when there is fellowship, love and laughter around the table, the food cannot help but taste divine, and when we gather as families in this way, we give gifts beyond words to our children.
I suppose that is why I am always feeding people. I grew up with lots of family meals; I ate at home every night with Mom and Dad, and if not at home, then generally with Gram and Pappa or Grandma and Grandpa. On the weekends, we often went to Aunt Nancy’s and there are many memorable meals that Aunt Judy or Aunt Sis cooked for us. In fact, one of the main things my family did when they got together numbers large or small, was eat, together, in a spirit of sharing and love.
Even when things were tense in my teen years, mealtimes were most often pleasant. I can only remember one or two meals where there was an argument; our family tended to make certain that disagreement stayed out of the kitchen and dining room at mealtimes. There was always time before and after a meal to squabble–the table was for eating and sharing.
I remember that my friends came over to eat a lot, but I never went to their houses to eat, because they didn’t have family meals. So, Mom and Dad had them over and we shared with them; in later years, as we grew up, my friends realized what had been shared with them, and they thanked Mom, because for some of them, those dinners were some of the only “normal” family interactions that they had.
Now my own daughter lives with me, and we eat together every night, and most often we have breakfast together, too, before she goes to school, even if it is only a bagel and cream cheese or toast and coffee. On weekends, she helps me cook more elaborate breakfasts: steel cut oats with fried apples, cranberries and raisins, blueberry pancakes with bacon, waffles scented with vanilla beans and fruit, or German pancakes drizzled with lemon juice and dusted with powdered sugar.
She revels in the weekend dinners when family and friends gather, and she takes great pride in helping me cook for them. As she has grown stronger and more confident in the kitchen, she has taken over more tasks; she can handle the large Cantonese iron wok now, without hurting her wrists, and she can cook a mean chicken with fermented black beans and bitter melon.
Food, cooking and sharing have become a thread that binds our family together. It is a tradition that I have taken from my own childhood and have gratefully passed it down to my daughter. When we cook together and share meals, I can tell her about her great grandmothers, one of whom she never met, and pass down their memory as we slice onions and string beans.
More than anything, these memories are sacred. They weave the past into the future in a way that is as real and tangible as the food we share.
I am proud to give them to my daughter, and hope that in other homes, in other kitchens, around other tables, similar threads are being spun and woven into the fabric of people’s lives.
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