Ok, I’m not going to lie to you. My daughter and I didn’t always sit at the table to have dinner. You see, after we were in the car accident, sitting at the table became so painful that it could keep us from being able to move for days afterward. Still, I think that sitting at the table to have dinner together is a wonderful thing if at all possible; the most important thing, though, is for dinner to be something that’s done as a family. I know even that isn’t always possible what with work schedules and so on, so maybe dinner isn’t the right word to be using. I believe, that if you can, it’s important to share a meal (or even a snack) as a family once a day.
Think about the parties you’ve been to and how often people end up hanging out in the kitchen together; think about what an incredible bonding experience it can be to break bread together – it’s almost a universal language, taking nourishment and enjoying a meal with someone else. For me, it even takes on a spiritual nature to it, remembering the Last Supper and the observance of this every time we celebrate the Eucharist during Mass.
So beyond simply eating as a family, what other easy things can be done to make this meal an even richer experience? Well, I think the first thing is to approach the meal with every bit of your attention. Turn off the phones, banish the cell phones from the table (unless you enjoy staring at the top of your teenager’s head while they text through the whole thing), ignore any knocks at the door. Look at your family members….look them in the eye when they’re talking and really really listen to what is being said. Now is not the time to be thinking about all the things you need to get done after dinner or about the lousy day you had at work or about the big presentation you need to give the next day. Give over this brief moment in time to making an authentic connection with your family.
Flickr, Dan Harrelson
The experience of “family dinner” (I’ll call it dinner but like I said previously, it could be any meal or snack) can begin even before you sit down to eat together. Involve your kids in the meal preparation. Put them on a stool beside you and let them help you – with age appropriate tasks of course. I have the most adorable pictures of my daughter helping to “string beans” when she was not even 2 years old yet. Ok, so a lot of them were eaten instead of getting them snapped and ready to cook, but still, it was fun for both of us.
Take turns setting the table. When it was my daughter’s turn, I had a set of plastic dishes, cups, and flatware that I kept in a lower cabinet that was just at her level. Even at 2 and 3 years old she was able to go to that cabinet, get those dishes and set the table. To help her out, we made placemats that had a simple table setting on each – it showed an outline of the plate, the cup, and the flatware (in its proper places). I’d put those on the table for her and she’d match up the actual dishes to what was on the placemats. She thought it was great fun and it was educational too, teaching not only how to set the table properly but also one to one correspondence, an important math skill. And when she was a bit older, she found it fun to be allowed to pick out exactly which set of dishes, pretty placemats and cloth napkins she wanted to use that night. Most times when it was her turn to set the table, we ended up drinking our milk out of the “fancy” wine glasses.
When my daughter was younger, we also had a calendar that we would use to keep track of whose turn it was to create a centerpiece for the dinner table. No, I’m not suggesting you try to find time in your busy schedule to make an intricate flower arrangement and I’m not suggesting that you go out and spend a lot of money on something either. We had centerpieces comprised of many things over the years – fall leaves and pinecones picked up on the walk home from school, my daughter’s favourite Barbies of the moment, a collection of candles, the report card filled with A’s – you name it and it was probably a centerpiece at one point or another. It was fun trying to come up with a new idea and took only a minute or two to put together. While we ate, we would talk about the centerpiece and why those particular items were chosen – it was a good conversation starter!
Flickr, Robert S. Donovan
Sometimes we did theme dinners. It could be a spontaneous surprise theme (pulled from a jar of paper slips with ideas written on them) or one chosen ahead of time. None of them required a lot of work – we wanted to keep them simple to fit into our day; adding fun but no stress.
Sometimes it was music day and we each had to share a song or part of a song that we liked. Sometimes we listened to music while we ate and talked about it – what instruments we heard, what we liked and didn’t like about it and so on. Sometimes, when we had had a really long day and were really tired, we would listen to books on tape while we ate – even a novel, just one chapter per night! (Maybe that’s why my daughter is a Music and English major now!)
Other times it was current events day. All we had to do was listen to the news on the radio or check a newspaper or something at some point during the day – my daughter’s teachers often had current events time at school so this was an easy way for her to learn something to bring to the table. We could even just share news of something that had happened specifically to us that day.
Some nights, when we had more time to prep and these were usually done on a weekend when we didn’t have other obligations to get in the way, we would have a “talent show night” where each of us had to share a special talent during dinner (it could be as simple as the fact that my daughter had just learned to whistle that week or I could show her the silly faces I used to make as a kid). Or we’d have an international night – we’d pick a country and each of us would learn a couple of facts that we wanted to share with each other about that country. If we were able to, we’d even have foods and listen to music from that country that night – or make a craft common to their culture. Those were the nights when dinner became an evening long event!
Flickr, Mar Viniz
On Sunday nights, we lit candles for peace and shared prayers for a better world. My daughter has always eaten verrrrrrrrrrrry slowly, so when I finished my meal, I would bring out the Bible or a kids’ devotional book and read to her while she finished hers. As she grew older, this often became a time where we would get into deep discussions about our beliefs, our outrage at an unjust world, and our plans to make it a better place.
Now, I’m not suggesting that you run out and try to implement ALL of these ideas at once. Some of these might not even be a good fit for your family. You could choose one that does or come up with your own. When I introduced these activities to our family dinner time traditions, I started with just one at a time and didn’t bring in a new one until that was a well-established habit.
So what about you? What family dinner traditions do you have? What were your favourites when you were a kid? Do you have any more ideas to add to these?
This post is part of a month long series 31 Days of Family Fun. Follow the link to the beginning of the series to get caught up: http://cynchronicity.wordpress.com/2011/10/01/31-days-of-family-fun-the-basics/
Check out the hundreds of other 31 Days participants blogging on a wide variety of topics here: http://www.thenester.com/2011/09/31-days-participants.html/