Growing up we almost always had dinner at the table as a family. It was what I knew; something I thought most families did. Heck, I guess I even thought most families ate the way we did, too (salad with each meal, fresh meats, veggies, etc.). I was unaware that my family was doing something different, something that I can look back on and say, “Wow, this really made a difference in my upbringing.” The time we spent together at the table built an integral foundation for my well being and proved to be a tradition that would be carried through adulthood and into my own family.
I recently asked my kids what they liked about having dinner together every night. My five-year-old replied that he liked being with our family, holding hands and most of all giving quizzes. Our table conversation very often goes something like this:
E1 (5 years old): Mom quiz?
E1: What’s five times five?
Me: Do you know this one?
E1: Let I think…no.
Me: It’s twenty-five.
E1: Okay, dad’s turn.
E2 (3 years old): Quiz dad??
It might not be the most intellectual conversation but we are all talking to each other. And, apparently the big guy enjoys it.
My three-year-old had a very different answer to the question. He responded, “Do you remember I have a mission for you? You have to find my Spiderman flashlight. And not let the puppy get my sword.” The puppy is his brother, by the way. I tried a redirect, but got nowhere. I then asked if, at the least he liked mommy’s cooking and I got a big nodding head and a solid “Uh-huh.” It was good enough for me. 🙂
It begs to reason that my five-year-old already grasps one of the biggest reasons we chose to sit down at the table and share a meal. It’s about communication. How are you? How was your day? What did you do? These are simple questions but we are teaching our children to think outside of themselves; asking questions is a huge tool for life-long success. Talking over dinner also helps me and my husband check in with the kids. Did they have a good day at school? Play with friends? Were they feeling off? We gain greater insight as to what’s going on during their day outside of the home; we are building their trust, and as they get older I’m sure having some idea about their day-to-day life will give us a sense of security. And hopefully, we will have set the precedent for honest two-way communication.
Not only are we working on communication but addressing manners, too. Please pass the carrots? May I have something to drink? May I be excused? Manners have been pounded into my children’s brains. I’m on them all the freaking time, and the dinner table provides a place to practice. You want the carrots but don’t ask nicely, well try again. Is everyone sitting and eating, sorry, you’ll have to wait for another drink. We aren’t mean about it, but manners are important. With repeated use they become habit.
So besides the talking part of the meal, having dinner at home at the table provides me the opportunity to expand my family’s tastes. We try new foods and new flavors. Here’s a funny aside: As a child, one Christmas my mom made the most delicious looking stuffed dried apricots. I clearly remember asking her what was in them, and I very clearly remember getting some sort of a vague answer. She said there were “pecans, a bit of honey, just try it.” So I did. And the deliciousness that I thought was maybe cream cheese was blue cheese. I spit that sucker out fast! I was seven, and had not acquired the taste buds essential to enjoy blue cheese, but you know what? I tired it. As the family’s head chef, I have the opportunity every night to put something in front of my family that they might not have ever encountered. My kids like their veggies. They like eating colors from the rainbow, things like red peppers, carrots, cauliflower, purple cabbage, spinach, cucumbers, tomatoes, sweet potatoes. Being willing to try what is placed in front of them is a lesson in manners, but also teaches the kids that it’s okay to try new things, and that veggies come in forms other than canned green beans and fried potatoes.
Specifically, eating at the table helps teach us the ability to listen to our body’s internal clues that we’ve had enough to eat. It sounds straight forward, right? But think about this: If you’re eating on the go, or in front of the TV what are you paying attention to, your show, the road or how much food you’ve consumed? Our family eats at the table distraction free, aside from quizzes or plans of future missions! We try to be flexible when it comes to cleaning the dinner plate. I try to portion out food that is an acceptable amount for each family member, but if it’s clear that I’ve given too much we don’t force the issue. Sometimes, especially if we’ve eaten out, when one of the kiddos eats too much and has a tummy ache, we talk about what they ate and how they feel. Teaching self-awareness at the table is a skill that will translate into other arenas in life. If you can tell your mom you are full and don’t want anymore food perhaps you can stand up for something that isn’t popular but that you believe in. Plus, knowing that overindulgence makes you feel crummy will hopefully help you avoid overindulging in the first place.
There are so many reasons why eating at the table is worth the effort. For our family it boils down to communication, manners, trying new foods and learning how to listen to your body.