Summer at my place was a time of long, lingering meals. School was out; nobody was in a rush; and it was so relaxing to stick around on a warm evening at the patio table and chat. Come September, the rhythms of life and nature will inevitably change: the colder weather brings my family indoors and life becomes a whirlwind of work, study and social activities.
But I want to hold onto the ritual of family dinners and checking in with everyone about their day… their weekend plans… their feelings on some breaking news story. It’s easy to grab a bite and go, or to curl up in front of the TV, plates on laps, but it’s far more nourishing to our souls if we make sitting down together at the table a sacred ritual.
In certain Eastern beliefs, the dining table is considered a grounding element; its legs firmly on the floor, it becomes an anchor for family members, bringing them together to pause from their busy lives and share dinner with a side of stories, opinions and dreams. The ideal tabletop for family dining is wood: an inherently warm material from nature that sets the tone perfectly for together time. Think about the type of wood that best reflects your family’s idiosyncratic personality, tastes and interests: swirling grain, live edge, past life as a railway track? Whatever you choose, just be sure to get everybody around that table regularly!
With teens in the house, I’ve found I have to work harder for this to happen. But it’s so worth it. Therapist and author of Home for Dinner, Annie K Fishel, points to studies that show sitting down to family meals is linked to lower rates of depression and substance abuse in teens and to higher grade point averages and self-esteem. She also highlights research that says younger children, from all different backgrounds, who sit down to family dinners regularly have been found to have higher literacy rates. Here are some suggestions for making family dinner a high point of everybody’s day.
Eliminate electronics. Nobody can be fully present at the table if they’re texting with friends or surfing the Internet. Most phone calls can wait for thirty minutes or so—that’s what voicemail is for. Once the habit of being present is formed, everyone will appreciate the release from virtual demands and the simplicity of chatting with their loved ones, just across the table.
All hands on board! Giving age-appropriate tasks to every family member, both to prepare for and clean up after a meal, makes everybody feel more involved and valued. Even little children can do simple things, like fold napkins or pick fresh flowers from the garden to put in a jar of fresh water as a centrepiece. Bonus: Picky eaters are more likely to eat a dish that they helped to cook.
Stay seated. If everything is at hand from the start—table settings, water jug, full meal, the whole family can relax and sit down for the full dinner. If you have little kids, one trick to keeping them from getting antsy is to offer them healthy frozen fruit popsicles for dessert, which take at least five minutes to eat.
Eat family style. Rather than serve plated meals, bring all the elements of dinner to the table in serving bowls or pots and on platters to be placed in the middle for self service or passed around. This creates a more convivial atmosphere and means that every family member can tailor what they eat to their own appetite and taste. It teaches good manners and sharing too.
Get thematic. You can mark the passing of the seasons by serving up fresh produce that grows locally at that time: squash and apples in fall… asparagus and fiddleheads in spring. Or tie in with a child’s school project, for example look up centuries-old recipes or dishes from other parts of the world on the Internet to bring to life what they’re learning in history or geography class.
Play games. Sometimes it helps to get the conversation flowing by engaging in a little fun at the table. Between courses you could try word games, charades or going round the table naming a pet peeve, a favourite family memory or playing 20 questions to guess the identity of a famous person.
Adapt to different situations. If your child has soccer practise, don’t give up on family dinners! Just pack a picnic to share at the bleachers before or after training. Long day at work? Order in pizza and serve it on nice plates with real cutlery and a homemade green salad that took minutes to whip up. Family dinner doesn’t have to be a lavish three-course affair—it’s all about strengthening bonds and making memories every day with the people you love.