Your family identity is enhanced the more you eat meals together. Civilization was built around the dinner table. Breaking bread together, a symbolic international peace-making gesture, has more than just a political meaning, it's a vital way of touching base as a family.
Mealtimes are an important part of sharing family time together, far too often dismissed in our rush, rush, rush culture. Our family tries (and usually succeeds) in eating dinner together at least three nights a week, plus breakfasts and weekend brunches. My friend Linda and her husband, Francesco, can't manage dinners together (he works as a chef in a restaurant—he's usually busy cooking dinner for other people), so the family gets up early and all has breakfast together. I'm impressed. (It would never work for us, but it shows you a bit about the different approaches different families can take.)
It's a Good Idea!
Warm soapy water feels good on tired, prearthritic hands, and the gentle white noise of running tap water soothes and relaxes. Yes, I'm talking about doing the dinner dishes!
Your family identity is also strengthened by the types of food you eat. Don't like your own “native” cuisine? So adopt another's. (We'll talk about celebrating your heritage, below.) Learn to cook (and cook together as part of your family time). Invite extended family, invite friends, and soon people for generations to come will be begging for the secret to your apple pie crust (lard!). Whether it's a cuisine that came with you from the “old country,” or you've developed on your own, your child's taste buds and brain cells will always remember Mom's paprika chicken, Bill's chicken curry, Aunt Taki's spinach lasagna, Grandma Karla's seven-cheese brown rice casserole, and the faces and monsters Dad constructs out of pancake batter.
Does this sound a little too “back-to-the-land” for your lifestyle? Are the speed dials on your phone all set to the local pizza, Japanese, and Mexican take-out and delivery spots? Perhaps you want to share dinner time, but you can't cook, you're working way too many hours, and the kids are used to catch-as-catch can. No matter where you're starting from, I've got a few suggestions for moving slowly toward a reemphasis on family mealtimes.
- First things first, gotta get motivated. Remember that a hot dinner cooked with love feeds more than the belly. Share the cooking tasks (you'll find no gender-related job suggestions here!) and share the cleanup, too.
- One meal at a time. Schedule a family dinner once a month. Once people get used to it, schedule another.
- If not you, who? If not now, when? Do you really want your kids to grow up without tasting Aunt Fanny's recipe for the fluffiest garlic mashed potatoes south of the cloud layer? If you have traditional family foods but your kids never have the opportunity to eat them, how will they know they're supposed to spend the rest of their life craving them?
- Assert yourself. Family meals are part of family time. They are mandatory. Many families choose one weekend day (often Friday, for Shabbat, or Sunday, after church) where all family members are expected to be there.
- When you introduce “family food,” or food from your heritage, make it clear that the kids are expected to try it. Tell them, “Sharing these foods with you is very important to me. It's your choice whether or not you like it, but I do expect you try.” Then, after they've had bites and the “Eeuuuus” have rung forth, let them break out a bowl of cold cereal.
- Invent your own food rituals and traditions. Since everybody loves “toad in the hole,” explain to the kids that “toad in the hole” is now an official “family food.”
- The television is banned from dinner time. Take those old TV trays you inherited from your parents, and turn them into junk sculpture or bury them deep in the shed until they are old enough to be considered quaint antiques.
- Okay, okay, even precooked food that's generated by that speed dial on your phone tastes better when it's eaten at the dinner table with everybody chatting, complaining, and socking each other in the arms.
- Even lousy cooks can learn to cook—get your kids a great cookbook for kids and learn together. And if little Jimmy's got the touch and you don't, that's superb, too. (Do I smell a new responsibility?)