We all need order in our lives and the ritual of the family meal is a cornerstone of this. For children, the need to be in tune with the natural rhythm of the day, is even greater. Children crave order and predictability in the home and the daily ritual of the family meal is one of the best ways you can provide this for them.
The family that eats together, stays together!
Create a shape and a rhythm to your day by eating with your family around the same time each day. You will then begin to plan your other activities around this and it will give a focus to your home life.
When you are catering for a family, it is important not to think of children’s food as separate, somehow different to your normal meals. This is what has you thinking you need to pick up ready-made products in the supermarket.
These gimmicky products are not real food, and many of us would find them pretty disgusting if we tried to eat them. Children’s food, including lunchbox food, should be the same food we ourselves eat. Preparing one meal takes enough time, without having to prepare separate child and adult editions.
Separate ‘kiddie meals’?
If you have gotten into the habit of cooking separate ‘kiddie meals’ for the children, so they can have an early dinner in front of the TV, then stop! At the Smell and Taste Research Centre in Chicago, (yes, there is such a place!) a recent experiment found that people ate 44% more crisps while watching the Letterman show on TV than when they watched no TV.
This proves the point that paying attention to the food we eat is important. When we don’t pay attention to the food as we eat it, we are not as alert to its taste and smells and we don’t notice when we have had enough to eat. Eating is an activity which deserves to be done well and given due time and attention. It has worth in its own right.
So, ditch the ‘kiddie-meals’ at the television and start eating together as a family. Eating as a family is the only way your children will acquire the habits of eating well. Once you start to feed everyone in the family the same food, things get easier. Good eating habits start at home. Not just the children, but you too! You have to lead by example. How children eat is a product of their family’s lifestyle.
Have a Really Special Family Meal
At least once a week, make a really special meal when no one in the family has to rush anywhere. In winter, light a fire, put candles on the table if you can do this safely, and turn down the lights, play some Bach, or Chopin, open a bottle of wine and have a lovely meal with your children. In summer, feast outdoors like the Italians do.
Dinner parties should be for families, not just relatives and friends! If you start to do this when your children are very young, it will become a habit that will probably last for decades. If you wait until your children ‘are old enough to appreciate it’, it may be too late to introduce new family traditions.
How to Have a Pleasant Family Meal
When your family are seated for the daily meal, all facing towards each other, for whatever length of time the meal takes place, you set the stage for communication, conversation and togetherness. You don’t have to force it—–just create the theatre-of-dining and let the dialogue happen spontaneously. Children hate forced conversations with their parents, especially as teenagers.
However, when you have the habit of sitting down together to eat everyday, you at least create the possibility that some conversation can take place. As chef Gino D’Acampo says, “Eating a meal with your family is a moment, probably the only moment you have during the day, to have a conversation.”
It’s the Family Union That is Important
Even when there isn’t much talk, there is still unspoken communication and togetherness, the communion of eating together. But don’t abuse the occasion by using it to force unwanted, or contentious conversations on your children. Keep the table sweet! Where you eat, should be a nice place to come to, not a battleground of familial tension and dread. Let teenagers be teenagers. The fact that they are sitting with you to eat, is itself a good thing. Don’t expect them to talk if they don’t want to. Let young children be young children. Don’t scold them about using cutlery, or about not eating their vegetables! Keep it sweet for them too.
They will learn table manners from you, by osmosis and will want to imitate you when they are good and ready. And when you put good food in front of them and don’t provide them with junk alternatives, they will eat what they need to eat, without your haranguing them.
Have a Happy Family Meal
Resolve to make your table a happy one and you will be creating something rich and profound and lasting in the life of your children. They will appreciate family meals, as a beautiful tradition that they in turn will recreate for their own children. And so it goes………
Not exactly the Waltons? Who is? If there are tensions and fractures in your family life, don’t think that you can’t eat together. It is remarkable how healing a ritual the family meal can be. Even when chaos and dysfunctionality abound, the very act of instigating the ritual of the family meal, can itself start to heal the problems.
It is as if the magic created around the table can work backwards, feeding into the other areas of family life that are damaged. It is as if acting civilised and functional can sometimes be enough to kick-start a civilised and functional dynamic within the home.
You Just Need to Start Eating Together
When you create one part of family life, where there is balance, wholeness and order, this seeps into the consciousness of the home, mending other areas also. Everything doesn’t have to be rosy in the garden for families to start eating together.
In fact, not having proper family meals, causes dysfunctional families. Children need the order, regularity and ritual of family meals. When they don’t have this, they feel ungrounded and that manifests through their behaviour. If you begin the daily ritual of sitting down together everyday, to eat good, nourishing food, in a non-contentious atmosphere, you might find that this alone helps solve some behavioural problems.
When you don’t have the daily ritual of the family meal, you don’t know what you are missing by giving your children the chance, in an everyday, ordinary way, to be together with you for the duration of the meal.
Alcohol with Meals?
I think it is appropriate to mention alcohol with meals when discussing family eating habits. After all, civilised eating, in most parts of the world, is accompanied by civilised drinking.
The countries where these two things are separate in the culture, have the worst problems of addiction, under-age drinking, binge-drinking and general drunkenness.
I believe the remedy to these societal problems is to be found at the family table. It is where we teach our children to eat in a civilised, sociable way. Why do we not also teach them how to drink in a civilised, sociable way, as the parents of Mediterranean countries do?
Surely teenagers need to learn from their parents’ example, that food and drink belong together, that drink is best enjoyed in good company, in moderation and not by anyone who has to drive home. They also need to learn that it is important, for their personal safety, to know when they have had enough to drink.
They need to be introduced to alcohol in a safe setting, so they can gradually learn what it does to them and how much they can drink, without compromising their personal safety. They should learn these things in the safety of the home, not in a field with a six-pack, or in a nightclub with alco-pops and Red Bull.
If parents do not teach their sons and daughters how to drink, as part of civilised behaviour, teenagers will learn about it through what is predominant in the culture—-the binge-drinking and public drunkenness which puts our young people in situations of extreme danger, not to mention the long-term effects on their physical and mental health. Positive example from their parents would be much more effective than prohibition in changing this cultural phenomenon.
The family meal would be a good place to start showing them good example. I believe it is a sign of our immaturity that we view this approach as something radical, or something ‘liberal parents’ do.
In many cultures, it is normal for parents to introduce their children to alcohol with meals. It has been tried and tested over many generations on Continental Europe. It is a custom we would do well to adopt in the English-speaking world.