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Topics: Cultural Engagement, Parenting, Spiritual Formation

Don’t Waste Your Family Meal (Part 2)

April 10, 2014

by Steve Watters

Considering part 1 of this article, how should we then eat?

“[M]any parents insist on maintaining regular family dinners and feel guilty when they fail, given the list of child-development benefits researchers say are associated with the ritual,” writes Diana Kapp, but then she asks “How long should dinner be? Is 20 minutes enough for children to get the intangible benefits? Is 10 minutes enough?” She asks because of the reality that families are increasingly eating and running. “Families are definitely eating faster,” she writes. “According to a 2011 survey of 1,000 teens by the National Center for Substance Abuse at Columbia University, 32% of families spend 20 minutes or less eating dinner. That compares with 26% eating dinner at this pace in 2009, the prior survey year.”

For many families, it seems, the desired benefits of family meals motivates retention of the ritual even if it’s compressed down to its minimal essence. Other families who recognize the benefits seek to maximize their investment in family meals and to help others do the same. The Family Dinner Project, for example, goes to great lengths to enhance the quality of the food, fun and conversations family meals can deliver. While some would find this kind of project to be a wealth of inspiration and ideas, others would likely find it to be one more Pinterest-y source of peer pressure to perform—especially those who already feel crunched for time and resources.

So what’s a reasonable approach? How can you not waste your family meal while also not wasting time and money on unnecessary frills to the family meal experience?

A few ideas

Keep it simple
None of the studies on family meals found the benefits they generated to be accelerated by the gourmet quality of the food, by the beauty of the dinnerware or from elaborate dinner programming. While Williams Sonoma, Pioneer Woman and other experience providers may imply that the right gear and recipes make all the difference; the primary ingredient in a meaningful family meal is love. King Solomon, who enjoyed many extravagant meals in his life, observed: “Better is a dinner of herbs where love is than a fattened ox and hatred with it” (Proverbs 15:17).

I don’t mean to say that gourmet meals with nice table settings are prone to hatred, but we should recognize that the pursuit of the ideal dinner experience can lead to strife when the menu and table settings are more valued than the people eating the food, especially when those around the table fail to show gratitude for your Boeuf Bourguignon or spill their milk on your hand-crafted placemats and napkin holders.

You can enjoy the good gift of a family meal without striving in your production. In the same breath that we pray that the Lord would give us our daily bread, we can pray that he would give us the means to have meaningful family meals for His glory.

Include your kids in the preparation and clean up
If you think about it, the time it takes to eat a meal is often less than half (or even a third) of the time it takes to prepare the food and clean up afterwards. Many of the benefits families have gained from meals together over the centuries occurred in the preparation and clean up alongside the time around the table. That time before and after the meal provides additional opportunities for conversation, but also for learning life skills and for cultivating gratitude for the sacrifices required for a family to enjoy a meal together.

We weigh the life skills we teach toward the primary responsibilities our sons and daughters will bear when they are fathers and a mother, but we coach them in all the work of putting a family meal together and cleaning up afterward because we know our sons will still need all of those skills in life and will need to be able to contribute well toward family meals in the future even as the bear other primary responsibilities as providers.

Of course, coaching kids in helping with meals, setting the table and cleaning up afterwards is not initially easy. You can find yourself wondering if it’s worth the trouble as you try to coach your kids to do things that you can do faster and better by yourself. But it’s ultimately worth the trouble for you and your kids. (For more on this, see “Mommy, let me help you.”)

Engage the senses
One of the reasons family meals are so formative is because of the way they can engage all of our senses. The relational experiences of regular family meals are reinforced by the pleasant tastes and smells of food, by the touch of holding hands to pray, by the sights of things like candles and flowers and by the sound of conversation and laughter (and maybe a little background dinner music thrown in). We shouldn’t take for granted how these routine elements work together to shape meaningful experiences and family structure.

Additionally, we shouldn’t let those sensory experiences be interrupted by the sights and sounds of televisions and mobile phones—devices that tend to shape the experience of many family meals. The table should instead be the antidote to the artificial sensory stimulation and isolating influences of those devices.

Cultivate other-centered manners
“Family and social meals are among the most powerful teachers of self-control in the human repertoire,” noted Timothy Dalrymple (seen in part 1 of this article). “They teach that the appetite of the moment is not, or rather ought not to be, the sole determinant of one’s behavior.” Teaching children table manners, therefore, is about much more than maintaining some kind of traditional notion of etiquette. Instead it’s a schoolmaster of sorts for cultivating self-control and love of neighbor.

And it starts early. lists the following expectations of table manners by age:

By age 2, many kids can:
sit quietly at the table for a few minutes
use a napkin to wipe their face with prompting
use a fork or spoon to eat their food, neatly or not

By age 4, many kids can:
refrain from splattering food or beverages while eating
chew with their mouth closed, with some prompting
refrain from talking while eating when prompted
use a napkin and eat from a spoon or fork correctly
drink from a cup neatly
ask to be excused from the table
tolerate having some of everything served on their plate (although they may not eat it all!)

By age 6, many kids can:
sit politely at the table when company comes to dinner

By age 8, many kids can:
help with clearing the table
compliment the cook if they liked the meal
refrain from criticizing what is served

We’d attest that children can develop these traits much earlier and to an even greater degree if you’re faithful in their training. To that list, we’d add from our experience that children as young as 3 or 4 can:

  • Help with basic elements of meal preparation such as getting things from the pantry
  • Help set the table
  • Wash their hands and sit at the table quietly until everyone is ready to eat
  • Sit quietly and reverently during prayer over the meal
  • Avoid complaining about food they don’t like
  • Honor the cook with a thank you gesture (in our family we do a “one clap” which is considered the highest honor and it’s typically our youngest who thinks to initiate it).
  • Participate in dinner conversation without interrupting
  • Help clear the table

You’ve likely seen or experienced other examples. The point here is not to fixate on a specific list of items by a specific age as much as it is to stress that table manners are a primary teaching aspect of family meals and can start early. Additionally, teaching these traits is not about getting your kids to achieve skills earlier than their peers, it’s not about keeping your kids from embarrassing you in front of other people, it’s not about demanding respect for all your hard work or about lightening your load by getting their help, instead it’s about lovingly disciplining your children to count others more significant and to look to the interests of others (Philippians 2:3-4).

Guide the conversation
In addition to the often-subtle affects of engaging the senses in a formative way and developing responsibility, gratitude and self-control, one of the primary drivers behind the benefits researchers discovered from family meals came from the conversation time. That’s where parents and kids were able to listen to each other, trade notes about their day and grow in relationship. On the protection side, those regular connections cultivate openness, accountability and early warning signs of concerns—and on the growth side, they can help develop family identity, the forming of a sense of humor and rich opportunities for discipleship along the lines of Ephesians 6:1-4 and Deuteronomy 6:6-7.

Fortunately, you don’t have to be a counselor, a trial lawyer or a talk show host in order to guide your family in this kind of life-shaping mealtime conversation. Much of the benefits accumulate over the course of routine engagement and the natural flow of life, but meaningful mealtime conversation does require a little parental guidance.

You don’t want to waste your mealtime by eating without some kind of relationship building conversation. To that end, you should discourage the extremes of sulking silence and dominating chatter and instead encourage everyone around the table to engage at some level in a way that’s considerate of others.

At times, we’ve done this by following the pattern we learned from others of asking everyone to share their highs and lows of the day. This routine has helped us give attention to each person around the table while also providing an opportunity to coach the other kids in developing the ability to wait and listen.

At other times, we’ve gone around the table and asked each person what they were thankful for or what they appreciated about the person to their right. At times when we’ve had guests, we’ve written out questions that we place under each plate for each person to go around and answer as a way to generate conversation.

These efforts can also blend into natural discipleship. At Sunday lunches, we’ll often ask our kids questions about the sermon or about things they learned in their Sunday School class, but we’ve also been able to flow into discipleship from our highs and lows conversations as we are able to talk about how we respond to both blessings and challenges. We’ve also found that the best way to make a routine out of family devotions is to just go ahead and add it on to our dinnertime while we’re already at the same place at the same time.

Show grace
At each meal, I have the opportunity to shape my children spiritually by not only saying grace, but by also showing it. As a family, we’ve enjoyed numerous meals with wonderful food, lively conversations, and deep-belly laughter, but we’ve also had numerous nights of everything you’d expect in a fallen world with hungry sinners sitting around a table. We’ve had our share of spilled drinks, broken dishes, interruptions, complaints, whining, raised voices and bad tempers.

These frustrations are humbling when you recognize how shaping mealtimes can be. To be honest, they’ve pushed our buttons as parents probably more than anything else. At times we’ve found ourselves bemoaning our kids’ lack of appreciation for our provision and sacrifice at dinnertime and then found ourselves lecturing them about their need to respect and obey us as parents.

While our children do need to give thanks and do need to respect and obey us, they also need to know their desperate need for God’s grace. They need to know that they can’t be good in their own strength and that they need a savior to transform their hearts. Instead of being surprised by the sin in our children and ourselves that surfaces during mealtime, we’ve come to appreciate the chance to deal with heart issues. After getting it wrong many times, we’re growing to see the Gospel opportunities God gives us in these moments.

We don’t always get it right in these moments, but we’re continually learning to see our family mealtime from a gospel perspective and learning to put that perspective into words and actions in the moment. We’re especially learning from theologically rich books such as the classic Shepherding a Child’s Heart by Tedd Tripp and the recent book by Gloria Furman Treasuring Christ When Your Hands are Full. We’ve also been shaped by pieces like “Parenting 001” by Kevin DeYoung and John Piper’s “Why Require Unregenerate Children to Act Like They’re Good?” and “Marriage is for Meant for Making Children…Disciples of Jesus” (part 1 and 2).

We commend these pieces to you as you seek to trust Christ and walk in the new life He’s given in all things including mealtime.

We pray you’ll see family meals as a provision of God’s grace for the nourishing and shaping of your family. And we pray you won’t see the significance of family meals as a source of guilt and pressure to perform but as a stewardship, as a regular opportunity to manage the gifts God has given you for the good of your family and ultimately for God’s glory.

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