The Simplest Way to Change Your Family

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This ought to bring a crowd.

In high school I remember Mom making a big deal about us turning off the TV at dinner time. I couldn’t believe she wanted to take such a step – how dare she take away constant entertainment! Why did my parents care so much about our family meal times? Because they were important. In fact, meal times as a family are far more important than I could have imagined.

How important? Adding just one more meal together as a family a week can have a measurable improvement in the lives of your children.

Physician, psychologist, and author Leonard Sax, in his best-selling The Collapse of Parenting explains:

Kids who had more meals with parents were less likely to have “internalizing problems” such as feeling sad, anxious, or lonely. They were less likely to have “externalizing problems” such as fighting, skipping school, stealing, etc. The difference wasn’t just between kids who had seven evening meals a week with a parent compared with kids who had none. At almost every step from zero up to seven evening meals a week, each extra dinner a child had with a parent decreased the risk of both internalizing problems and externalizing problems and increased both prosocial behavior and the child’s general satisfaction with life. The change was statistically significant at almost every step. For example, when you compare kids we have six dinners per week with a parent to kids who have five dinners per week with a parent, you find that kids who have six dinners a week enjoy significantly better well-being, demonstrate significantly more prosocial behavior, and have significantly fewer internalizing problems and significantly fewer externalizing problems compared with kids who have five dinners a week with a parent. That one extra meal with a parent, the difference between five evening meals a week together and six evening meals a week together makes a difference.

Who hasn’t heard a preacher or politician proclaim the importance of family meals – yet it is fascinating that this one simple thing can have such a huge influence. Why is this the case? Sax gives his bottom line analysis:

A family in which kids often have meals with parents is likely to be a family in which parents still have authority; a family in which parents and family interaction still matter.

The converse is true as well. If the family can’t come together around the table, the parents likely have lost that level of authority, and frankly, no one really cares to spend time with people they live with but barely know or like.

THE TABLE

One of our passions is helping families connect and we’ve come to believe that one of the main places to do so is at the dinner table. It is one of the few remaining places where people continue to gather on a regular basis. And, as the opening quote highlights, it’s a mystical place – where things happen that can’t be fully explained and don’t seem to occur in the same way elsewhere. It’s like Narnia inside your house. Without unicorns and centaurs.

So why the Table? What’s so special about a slab of wood and some chairs?

Chuck Swindoll said, “Home is where life makes up it’s mind.” How does that happen?

Because you spend time together. You share a slice of life together. You learn to love people even when they do things you don’t like. You learn to love for the long haul. You learn to “bear with one another.” You learn to appreciate things in someone even when they do things that annoy you. You learn to look past the trivial to appreciate the more important. You learn that sometimes though, you do have to mention the seemingly trivial because it just won’t go away. And that takes wisdom.

Much of this is learned at the Table – because that’s where the whole family gathers together – almost the only time the entire family is together in one place. It’s the perfect intersection of food, family, and faith – where your shape and live out your values together.

THIS BLOG THIS YEAR

This year we’re going to focus much of the writing on this blog around the Table: the intersection of Food, Family, and Faith. We’ll be writing about all three, but especially about how they overlap, relate, and feed each other. Because each is an integral piece to the overall result.

FOOD

Food is listed first because it is the most important. It’s the lynchpin to this entire endeavor. It seems too obvious to mention, but here it is anyways: no one gathers at the table without food. If you desire to have more family meals together, start with the food. You can’t look past this – because it is central to the whole effort.

We’ve had friends who ate out every night. Same restaurant, same time, every day. It was shrinking their wallets and expanding their waistlines. They wanted to eat at home, but they were too overwhelmed to know where to begin.

Julie is the expert cook in our home, and she is passionate about cooking and teaching others. She will share much about food – about how to cook, what to cook, and why – because that is the first step to this whole thing. And she’ll help you know where to start if you’re like the above family. They were able to turn the corner with some simple tools and you can too.

FAMILY

Yet the dinner table isn’t only about food. The goal isn’t just to shuffle everyone through the lunch line and back to their cell. The food, as important as it is, is not the end but the means to connection.

Most of the time spent at the table is just with your family. Others come and go, but it’s mainly family time. Thus it’s also the main place where family culture is shaped. It’s where you tell stories, where you laugh, where you complain about your day to the only people who are likely to care (no guarantees). It’s where memories are shaped and legends are built. We know ‘eat the edges first’ refers to an undercooked meal served 15+ years ago. Or when someone comments with a smile that what you’re eating “sure sounds good,” what they really mean is “please chew with your mouth closed.” Or “that’s different” was my grandma’s way of saying “not my favorite.” And that “R.O.C.K in the USA” is a great song for cleaning up the dishes. It’s where exciting things are announced (I got an A in Math! We’re moving to Fiji!) and where some hard things are pondered (Why did God allow Great-Grandma to die? ) It’s where dreams are shared and where we can cheer for one another.

Just as cooking requires a vast array of skills and tools: fresh food, spices, ovens, knives, pots and pans, recipes, blenders, cutting boards and on and on, so does learning to connect as a family around The Table.

Connecting as a family requires good conversation skills, good question asking skills, and learning to listen. Also learning not to be in a hurry, learning to serve one another and clean up together afterwards, learning to be interested in the lives of others even when I’m most interested in myself, learning to laugh with and not at each other. All of these skills take time to develop and are not always intuitive.

We plan to share tips and ideas on how to connect as a family on this blog as well.

FAITH

The grandest outcome of the table is to intentionally pass on our values to our family as well. This usually takes another level of intentionality. But the dinner table is the perfect place for this to happen – because everyone is already gathered. Passing on faith and values doesn’t have to be perfect. You don’t have to prepare a sermon (in fact, PLEASE do not!) But there are simple, intentional things you can do at the dinner table to facilitate this.

A CAUTIONARY CAVEAT

No one does family dinner perfectly. Even in the best families, few moments look like a Norman Rockwell painting. Sometimes you barely make it through without profanity laced death threats to the existence of un-lidded cups of milk. But the more meals you have together, the more likely you are to see some great ones appear. Keep the long view in mind.

If your family never eats together, then this whole post probably feels like one swift kick to a tender area. It definitely can be a big mountain to climb. Start by keeping the bar low. I once read a story of a couple who had not spoken a word to each other for three years. Not a word. When she finally broke the silence, it was a single, short, sentence and his response was one word. But they were talking again.

Figuring out how to get one meal together at home around the table with everyone there is no small challenge. More than likely it will take many tries to hit the mark. But start with a low expectation: one meal with everyone around the table for five minutes by the end of the month (or spring… or year… or whatever feels doable). One of our upcoming posts will share some ideas for how to gather the family around the table when it’s not been a habit.

Here’s the exciting part of all this – doing your part to get everyone around the table really is significant and really can make a difference. It may not seem like it in the moment, but there’s no doubt that it is important and likely one of the most important things you do as a family.

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