The family meal is the altar of the family. It is the setting for the teaching of values, ethics, and a vision of self and the world. These meals eaten together need to occur at least three to four times a week (including perhaps a weekend brunch). Because they mostly occur at home, they don’t have to be expensive. Bad manners, television watching, and phone answering are all banned.
Only Mungo Eats at a Predictable Time
Maggie Hansen is an administrator in a busy metropolitan hospital. She’s up early every morning and when she gets home, around 5:00 p.m., she’s so hungry that she prepares dinner as soon as she walks through the door. Her husband Mark, a buyer in a major department store, is not home until at least 7:00 p.m., so she leaves some food for him in the oven while she eats alone. By the time Mark gets home, Maggie is relaxing in front of the TV, so he has dinner in the kitchen by himself, with his sales reports for company.
Their two kids, Gail, seventeen, and Thomas, fourteen, are both heavily involved in sports and often don’t show up for dinner at all. When they do, Gail likes to eat in her room while talking on the phone. Thomas doesn’t like what his mom watches on TV, so he puts on his headphones and blasts rap music while he eats.
The only member of the Hansen family who has an assigned time and place to eat is their dog Mungo, who always eats on the back porch after Jeopardy.
The scenario is all too familiar. All over the country, family members are eating at fast-food restaurants or at home alone using the TV, headphones, or newspapers as a substitute for family communication and emotional interaction. The Hansens are missing the chance to make their dinner table a family forum where they can discuss their day’s problems and triumphs, give each other support and advice, plan a family vacation, or propose something new:
• “Would you pretend I wasn’t your daughter if I got a nose ring?”
• “I really tried this semester but I still got a C in math. Do you think I can get a tutor?”
• “Your mom just got a great job offer in Virginia. How do you feel about moving?”
The dinner table becomes a place where everyone is free to voice opinions about family issues and where family decisions can be made. Moreover, the dinner hour doesn’t have to be solely devoted to personal concerns. You and your kids can talk about what you’ve read in the paper or seen on television. Literature, new movies, politics—all these things can and should be talked about at your family altar—the dinner table.
It’s not simply a matter of sharing opinions about the world, though that certainly is important. Conversations like this—and the context out of which they arise—are the crucible for a family’s identity and philosophy. What you believe—about the president, taxes, the environment, art, music, literature—will shape what and how your children think forever. And if they don’t have a chance to talk with you—free from the competing noise of the television set and the interruptions of the telephone—you are putting your most vital parental legacy at risk: the sharing of your own values and worldview. These are intangibles that only you can communicate to them and the family meal is the ideal setting.
Dinner: Reclaiming the Family Focal Point
The Seating Arrangement
Establish a seating arrangement and stick to it. Having a regular, established seating order at the table is predictable and reassuring for children. If everyone has his or her place, it banishes the emotional chaos that occurs when family members sit in different places every night.
One big mistake that many families make—especially when there is a second marriage—is that the couple sits next to each other in what we call “the honeymoon position.” This arrangement, with the couple alongside each other and the kids sitting opposite, looks like a face-off. It immediately sets up a polarization of “us” and “them.” Instead, the male and female heads of the household should sit at either end of the table. Usually it is the female at the food, closest to the kitchen, and the male at the head. This holds true even if you eat in the kitchen.
Remember those experiments you did in sophomore science with the metal shavings and the magnet’s north and south poles? The shavings immediately formed a force field around the two poles. So it is at the table. The male and female heads of household create a strong force field of unity that includes the children. The table is not dominated by children, but, as it needs to be, by adult leaders and teachers—two parents or parent and partner.
When it is just the family at dinner, children should sit according to age and gender. The oldest girl sits to the right of the male head of household, and the oldest boy on the female head’s right—unless there are babies or little ones who need help, in which case they sit on their biological parent’s right.
Should this be a dating situation, the female remains at the foot of the table and puts her male guest to her right. Or if it is his table, he sits at the head and puts her to his right—both sit as guest of honor. This does not hold true when they are a couple.
There must be a consistent place where children sit when they come to the table—even when they come on visitation. Places must remain the same. We find this order enormously important at meals, no matter what.
Here are a few “rules” that will make those ritual meals work better:
• Make the table look attractive.
• Light candles; Candlelight makes dinner feel important and focuses attention toward the center, drawing the family together.
• Encourage kids to make inexpensive seasonal center pieces—like autumn leaves, flowers from the garden, or a bowl of fruit.
• Establish a “dress code” including: clean hands, faces, and shirts; shoes on feet, hair combed, and heads without baseball caps.
• Serve dinner at a regular time; parents need to get home from work on those designated special days.
Use the dinner preparation as part of the ritual. Often, today’s mom or dad has to come home from work and begin playing chef. This not only creates resentment occasionally, but also leaves the children untaught, learning nothing about preparing a meal.
Make your family an integral part of the food preparation, assigning everyone a specific task. Not only will you be making your own workload lighter, you will be establishing a predictable way of doing things that can be an ongoing part of family life.
Once you’ve established a general vision of what your family dinner should be, you’re ready to begin breaking it down to individual tasks. Think of old-fashioned chores like corn husking, sewing bees and cookie bakes that fostered closeness because of the repetitive nature of the tasks being performed. People would talk and joke while they peeled the corn or made the quilts. You can recreate this feeling by sharing the repetitive, labor-intensive ritual of preparing and cleaning up after dinner.
It’s very important to rotate tasks on a specific schedule. At my house we like a weekly chore schedule. This reduces boredom, cuts down on arguments about whose turn it is to do what, and allows everyone to gain ability in a variety of skills. Post the schedule for chores in the kitchen. (No excuses for not knowing what each person’s responsibilities are for that week.) If children have a commitment or an outing, they switch chores with other children. Adults keep out of the problem, teaching them to take responsibility, make trades, and get the job done.
Here is a step-by-step guide to assigning and delegating dinner-making tasks:
The Sixteen Steps of a Family Meal
1. Planning the meal and keeping a list. Make it clear that in your household, no one may eat the last of the peanut butter and simply put the empty jar back in the cabinet. He or she has to write “peanut butter” on the list in the kitchen and throw out the jar. The list may be kept on
a pad with an attached pencil in the kitchen, preferably near the refrigerator. Everyone’s responsibility for updating the list makes the family team more efficient and more effective. It saves time.
The cook decides on the week’s menu and is in charge of the final shopping list. Family members may express preferences, but the final choice is always left to the cook.
2. Shopping. When you involve children in the skills of shopping, it is a learning and productive ritual. All too many parents leave their children home when it comes to food shopping, thus depriving them of important lessons. Take at least one child with you when you do the weekly
Teach your kids what you know about choosing nutritious foods and selecting produce. Show them how to pick a ripe cantaloupe. Then give them the task offìnding one and bringing it back to the cart. Teach them how to comparison-shop and send them out to scout and tally. I like canned Del Monte tomatoes so I’ll send a youngster out to figure out the difference in price (often quite a math problem) between the generic, or house, brand and my favorite.
3. Putting away. Children help adults with the putting-away process. Children do not just go and watch TV after shopping. Putting away teaches kids how to sort and organize and allows them to know where things are so that they can find them for themselves, saving adults time down
the road. Unloading bags, organizing the contents, then putting things where they belong teach basic prioritizing skills.
4. Pickup shopping. When you run out of orange juice or milk, send the eleven-year-old on her bike to get these small items and bring back the change. This teaches responsibility, social skills, what things cost, and much more, early on.
5. Setting the table. Teach children the way you expect the table to be set for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and special occasions. If you are unsure about the proper way to do this, consult an etiquette book. To help young children, you can set one place and let them follow your example
with the other settings. Not only does this give children a reassuring sense of how things are supposed to be, it also accustoms them to following instructions.
Candles, flowers, and other embellishment adorn and sanctify the experience of eating, sharing, and being together. Encourage kids to make their own centerpieces.
This is the responsibility of the table setter. Communicate the sense of the table’s holiness: the dinner table is an altar of family life.
The table setter does his or her job at least fifteen minutes before the meal is scheduled to be served. If forks and knives are thrown down haphazardly when everyone is coming to the table, it undermines the sense of ritual and closeness you are trying to create. Instead, the process of setting the table must reflect the dinner that it is meant to serve: calm, ordered, and unhurried— something to enjoy and take pleasure in.
The table setter and the cook must see to it that all items for the meal are on the table and that water and milk glasses are filled. Once the female head of the household sits down, there should be no more getting up to get this or that. She and her partner see to it that all is ready.
Decide in advance if all the food will be served in bowls for passing, or whether plates will be laid with food away from the table. I think the latter procedure works best for under four people, whereas bowls or plates for passing are better when there are four or more.
6. Assisting the cook. This is an important teaching opportunity. Too many parents banish youngsters from the kitchen, forgetting that, as the cook, they have a wonderful power to share with their kids. The cook is the master of the meal, and all directives must emanate from him or her. The cook has knowledge, and knowledge is power: knowing when the steak is just right, or how to tell if the cake is done. Children fill the role of apprentices, or “under chefs” in this case, learning to take directions from the master—the cook. A good cook is a kind of magician, imparting wonderful skills and tricks to the audience. Teaching something concrete like cooking only enhances the ritual and bonding aspects of your family’s meals.
Explain to your assistant cook what you are doing every step of the way. First, have him watch you, then allow him to participate as much as possible, gradually turning over entire chores as he demonstrates competence. His increasing mastery will surprise you; so will his growing self-esteem, confidence, and sense of responsibility. Eventually he can take over the role of cook and you’ll be the assistant.
7. Starting the Meal and the Conversation. To begin the meal, try saying grace. It doesn’t matter whether or not you’re religious; saying grace together is a bonding experience. The content is less important than the form: the idea that everyone at the table is joining together and offering thanks for their family, friendships, and the food they are about to eat. Children may initially put it down, but in the long run, they respond well to forms of ritualized behavior.
The female head of the household starts the meal itself by taking the first bite. Only then should everyone else start to eat. If someone forgets, she can say, “Let me just take a bite, so we can all start,” as a reminder.
The adults begin the conversation and are in charge of the character of talk at the table. The male head of the household can begin with his good news and bad news stories, followed by his partner’s, followed by the next-ranked person’s (whether the oldest child or the older guest at the table). If you don’t want to follow this system, just make sure your dining is not child-dominated. Adults should lead the discussions and set the tone.
Banish all emotional disturbances and distractions from the dinner table. Nothing should be said during the meal that might disrupt the digestive process. Don’t use the dinner table to reprimand or belittle your kids or your partner. Fights and feuds will make your dinners ordeals rather than cherished rituals. “Why did you do so badly on your math test?” is not a good question to ask at the dinner table, although “How are things going in school?” might be.
8. Teaching table manners. This should be done away from the table. While manners are extremely important, the teaching of them should not be part of the family meal,
except for gentle reprimands and, of course, your good example. If the meal evolves into scolding a child for themess he has made or insisting that he eat a certain way, the whole point is lost. Teach away from the table. The biological parent should say, “I’ve noticed that I haven’t
gotten across to you how to use your napkin/when to eat with your fingers and when not to. Let’s go over it now so that I can feel okay about teaching you all that I should have.” It is our responsibility as parents to teach.
If we don’t get it across, we are responsible.
9. Ending the meal. The female head of the household also ends the dinner. Family members who must leave early ask to be excused. Kids must not expect to leave the instant they have finished their food. If someone does have to leave early—for band practice, a study date,
etc.—this should be discussed and agreed upon beforehand.
10. Clearing the table. One or two people are assigned to clear for the week. This means platters and serving bowls first and then dishes. Don’t stack. It makes more work for the dish washing crew, and it’s bad form.
It’s perfectly all right for the couple (unless they are part of the clearing crew) to linger at the table with their coffee or go to another room while the children begin the cleanup. It’s also okay for the family to sit and talk with the dirty dishes in front of them. Clearing plates away the moment everyone is done eating is a practice invented by restaurant owners trying to achieve high profits and table turnover rates. There is no need to interrupt good conversation to clear the table, unless of course a family member has to leave or a little one must prepare for bed.
11. Loading the dishwasher/doing the dishes. Washing the dishes should not be the responsibility of the cook. Let other members rotate this chore. If you don’t have a dishwasher, have kids work in pairs—one to wash, another to dry. Another person can do the pots and pans.
12. Scrubbing the pots and pans. For this grimy chore, adults set the quality control specifications. Reward good work with praise. If a pot is a mess after the washing, give the
child two more pots to clean as a consequence. Adults specify what is clean and what is not.
13· Putting away the leftovers. The cook comes back into play here. It is his or her responsibility to tell the others what is to be saved and what to throw away and how different things should be saved. People have all kinds of different systems for saving, from Tupperware to putting a plastic baggie over the original dish.
14. Wiping off counter tops. This is not about turning your kids into slaves. This is about teaching, so that the way you use materials sets a standard for the child in life.
15. Sweeping the floor. This task teaches the value of leaving one’s work space in order—a good lesson for school, work, and life.
16. Putting out the garbage. The last chore of the evening.
Today more and more people are working, and restaurants have become a big part of their families’ lives. I hear and see many children making demands, ordering the waitress around, talking too loudly, insisting on eating only certain foods. Single parents—especially dads with visiting kids—are reluctant to teach and discipline.
The regular suspects are to blame: guilt, the fear of saying “no,” parents trying to act like pals, and the parents’ need for love in the too-short time they have with their children. Again, we as parents must teach. We care when we love enough to discipline. Children must be prepared to handle the restaurant experience: what food they may or may not order; if they may get up from the table; how they will seat themselves. That is decided by the parent or the couple. A restaurant is not a place to reprimand a child. Parents must teach these behaviors before they go to a restaurant.
The partner who is not the parent often gets upset with kids’ eating habits and manners. The restaurant is not the time or place to inform the biological parent. This is best done when the children are away and the two of you are alone. It is vital to a relationship that you decide together what is appropriate behavior. We have all been raised differently—some with few manners, some who have forgotten their manners. To survive with kids, you need to establish mutually acceptable behaviors in restaurants and public places.