We all know the importance of eating together as a family. Shared mealtimes give families occasions to reconnect and help inoculate our children from a variety of worldly woes.
The same can be said of regularly engaging in family traditions, those wonderful repeating events that make up “what we do.” Customs help families bond across generations and make our children feel special.
These traditions develop as we engage in the large rituals (e.g. reunions and holiday events) but also the numerous smaller daily rituals that make up family life in the day to day. Mealtimes provide a great setting for creating both large and small rituals.
Unfortunately, mealtimes are also a challenging time for many families. It often takes a lot of effort to simply get the meal prepared and the family members seated at the table. This leaves little time to think about mealtime rituals much less do any of them.
But keep in mind that meals aren’t just about shoveling food into the kids. We parents are responsible for instilling a sense of morality, communicating our values, and cultivating emotional intelligence in our children. If mealtimes offer a rare chance for us all to get together, then it makes sense to establish some rituals and traditions around meals.
Here are some ideas on how to encourage meaningful mealtime traditions.
First things first: Assess your family traditions »
Assess the traditions from your own families of origin
Which traditions worked in your family and which ones didn’t?
Make a list of the things you enjoyed doing with your family when you were growing up, particularly in relation to mealtimes. If you liked doing something as a kid, chances are your kids will like it, too.
Also think about traditions you might have seen other families honoring, or things you experienced in organizations outside the family (e.g. Girl Scouts), in high school/college or as a young adult.
Engage in a frank discussion about traditions and rituals with your co-parent so you can get on the same page. Many parents don’t discuss traditions and rituals until someone gets disappointed or there’s some kind of conflict.
Even if you have the exact same socio-cultural background, you and your partner might find that your ideas about traditions are quite different. It’s also illuminating to talk to your own parents and grandparents about family traditions. They might have expectations that you need to address or have mixed feelings about a particular tradition. For example, you might have enjoyed the weekly pie and cookie night you went to as a little kid, but it might have constituted a real drag for the grandmother who did all the baking.
Make a firm commitment to eat together regularly
Get the calendar out and make sure regular meals together are on the schedule and that everyone knows when they are. Modern life is busy, but if you can’t find regular time to eat together, you might need to adjust your priorities.
Look for breakfast/brunch/lunch times if dinners are too hard to schedule. If family members are resistant, here are some ideas for making family meals more engaging.
Clear the decks of interruptions
Turn off the TV and all other electronic devices (including toys) while you are eating. Don’t answer any of the phones or send/read text messages. And, for crying out loud, don’t work in any way during the meal. Don’t do anything other than eat together. This means the kids AND the adults.
Get right with food
What does food mean to you and your family? Does your “foodie” family regularly savor truffle salt and pork belly? Do your meals reflect a commitment to a simple, vegan lifestyle? Do you rely on Trader Joe’s latest packaged solutions to get calories into the kids until the next meal?
Whatever your family’s style, it’s important to keep meals positive and food-friendly. If parents have negative associations with food/eating then the kids will pick up on them.
This is important: Mealtime is not an appropriate time to talk about diets or body image or calories — it is a time to celebrate the enjoyment that comes from breaking bread together. If you are having a hard time getting “right ” with food, it can affect your whole family’s enjoyment of meals.
Add religious, spiritual or moral rituals
Regardless of your personal beliefs, saying something meaningful prior to eating is a great mealtime ritual. If your family is religious, you are probably already blessing the meal or saying grace before you eat.
Consider giving each child a chance to say the mealtime prayer, either a memorized standard prayer or an extemporaneous one. (Our daughter delivers jazzy impromptu prayers every night after we say grace.)
If your family isn’t part of an organized religion, but you still want to bless the meal, you can give thanks or hold hands around the table or create some kind of gesture that represents your thankfulness.
Some families light candles and sit together in silence for a minute while others link hands and cheer, “Go team Smith!” before eating. If you are adverse to anything spiritual, you can still add a moral touch to the meal by thanking the farmers who grew the food or remembering people around the world who don’t have enough to eat. You could also do something symbolic like letting the kids add money to a jar for a different charity each week.
Engage in meaningful conversation
Meaningful conversation adds glue to the family bonds. Asking the same question of each person, and ensuring responses are listened to, constitutes the heart of a conversational ritual. Any question that seeks to uncover how someone is doing or what he/she is thinking about is appropriate.
A good example is the Rose, Thorn, and Bud: The Rose is the high point of your day and the Thorn is the low point; the Bud is what you are looking forward to the next day. At our house, we go around the table and talk about something we’re thankful for that day. These kinds of rituals help establish calm connection during the meal. They also give parents another view into what makes their children happy and how their children deal with the challenges in their lives.
Another form of conversational ritual is to pose a moral/political/topical/historical question and listen to what each family member thinks about the topic. This approach works great for older children and is only appropriate if the family members can maintain respect for each other’s viewpoints.
Mealtime is not the right time to grill family members over various transgressions (more on that later). In fact, you can get important information out of the kids during a mealtime if you make it safe for them to talk. Most kids will mumble “Fine” when asked directly about school or an activity, but if the whole family engages in a conversational ritual, all family members are given the space to share with each other.
Set the ground rules for interaction
When introducing conversational rituals, make sure you also establish the ground rules for interaction. The primary rule is that the person who is speaking deserves everyone’s attention. If the family is particularly unruly, use a “talking stick” to make it clear who has the floor. Encourage positive and affirming comments. Bickering, calling out, judgments and negativity are forbidden. This is not the time to interrogate children about their report cards or fight about the taxes (or anything else) with your spouse. Try to keep issues from surfacing during mealtimes, but make it clear that these issues will get addressed in a future family meeting. If your family has a laundry list of ongoing conflicts, consider seeking the help of a licensed family therapist to work out the kinks in your family’s communication.
The dinner table should be a trusted oasis, not a war zone. Along the same lines, decide which manners you are going to instill. Are you going to wait until the cook sits down to start eating? Do the children have to ask to be excused? Does each person clear his or her own plate or is one person the designated table-clearer? Pick your battles when children are small. Too much emphasis on manners can result in nitpicking, which doesn’t help the kids enjoy the meal or develop manners.
Make special occasions special.
Discuss how your immediate family wants to celebrate mealtimes during holidays, birthdays and other special occasions. Include the kids in the discussion. Here again your family of origin might have food-related traditions you’d like to carry on in your own family, or you can create some of your own. Decide together what kinds of foods you want to serve for different holidays.
For example, my husband’s family makes Sephardic eggs and a grilled salmon for Passover. A friend’s family makes sure every single person gets a sliver from five different pies at Thanksgiving; and some Danish friends celebrate New Year’s with fondue. In my family, nearly every holiday includes bagels and lox and all the trimmings, a tradition we intend to continue.
Birthdays are a great occasion to forge food traditions. Give the birthday boy/girl breakfast in bed or free reign on junk food for a day. Serve a lot of a deeply loved food (bacon at every meal!). Let the birthday celebrant to pick the dinner menu, which is more fun than you might expect. Bake a favorite cake or cookies. If you’re artistic and determined, try your hand at making something elaborate, like my friend who made a cake in the shape of a Trojan horse for her daughter.
If anyone in the family has a birthday marred by a holiday, find ways to make it special. I was born on Christmas, which was awful on many levels, so my parents wisely let me pick the Christmas dinner and demarcated my birthday by serving cheesecake and presents after dinner.
Look for ways to celebrate other special occasions in the lives of your family members, like winning an award, graduating from a school or getting a new job. In our family, any celebration usually involves going out for sushi. If you have young children, it may take a few years for you to build your own traditions around mealtimes and special occasions, so keep an eye out for the kinds of foods and rituals that your family members enjoy.
Dress up the table
The way your table looks reflects how you feel about meals. You don’t need to pull a full Martha Stewart to dress up the table, but a few well-chosen decorations can make everyday meals more festive. The easiest thing to do is to make a centerpiece featuring seasonal décor or kid art. Add fresh flowers to the centerpiece to mark special occasions. We now have a lifetime supply of cute seasonal centerpieces made by my daughter in preschool. She loves when we add each new objet d’art to the table. This practice shows her we value her art and lets her participate in the ritualistic dressing of the table.
Try using tablecloths, cloth napkins and napkin rings on a regular basis. They add color and a bit of formality to the table. Add things from your family’s past to the table, such as cutlery, salt and pepper shakers or vases handed down. These treasured items are great conversation pieces and link meals in the present to meals from the past (and to the relatives who enjoyed them). For example, I found a funky violin-shaped wooden platter from the ’50s in my great aunt’s kitchen after she died. It now holds our condiments. I love using it because it reminds me of her and how much she loved to entertain.
Dressing up your table doesn’t require a big investment or special artistic skills or even forbears with good taste. Take a trip to Goodwill, Ikea or a flea market and stock up on some inexpensive and fun items to dress up your dinner table.
Invite people over
I’m a big proponent of inviting other people over for meals and I encourage you to do the same. Yes, it’s messy and chaotic (especially with small children), but I believe hospitality is one of the cornerstones of community and friendship. Having people over exposes your kids to different experiences and teaches them how important guests are. Take a close look at how your family treats guests. Do your guests feel welcome? Do they want to linger and talk? How open is your home to drop-ins? If your schedule is too rigid, it’s hard to enjoy regular casual meals with other people.
Breaking bread with other people is one of my family’s most important mealtime traditions. Our home is always open to friends who want to eat with us. (My friend’s young son paid me a great compliment recently when he told his mom, “Call Elise. She won’t mind if we come over for dinner!”) In the interest of full disclosure, I do love to cook. But try not to worry too much about what you cook. Try to keep the focus on spending easeful time with family and friends.
Keep family recipes alive
If your family has a strong food tradition (e.g. making tamales or gyoza) or specific recipes that you like, then by all means learn how to make them and pridefully perpetuate them down the family line. Likewise, teach your kids how to make your family’s favorite dishes. When I was a kid my father taught me how to make omelets. This was not a family tradition per se, but I have fond memories of watching him slide them out of the pan, perfect every time. In turn, I taught my husband and daughter how to make them. It’s a simple food, but so versatile and pleasing to eat. I have a list of recipes that I’m going to teach my daughter to make before she goes off to college.
Most families prize special recipes for the holidays. Ask older relations for your favorite recipes while they are still able to make them, and get them to teach you all the tips and tricks for getting them right. A great example is the Finnish coffee bread that my friend makes every Christmas. She learned how to make it from her mother based on a family recipe that has been handed down for many generations. She told me, “I’ll stay up all night if it means getting this bread right. The holidays are not complete without it.”
Set aside time to linger over a meal
There’s a good reason why “Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy” is a commandment. We are supposed to rest and spend time with our families after a week of labor. Observant Jews keep the Sabbath holy by not doing any work between sundown on Friday and sundown on Saturday. This means they don’t cook, drive or use any kind of mechanical device. It’s a radical concept for the modern age, but what a wonderful practice!
Your family can do something like this by setting aside one day of the week or month for an intentionally long brunch or dinner with friends or family. This means letting go of overscheduling and filling the calendar to bursting with lots of activities. What you get in return is freedom from the tyranny of scheduling. Even if it’s just for a day this unscheduling gives your family the time and space to truly relax together.
In my experience, nothing’s more relaxing than going to someone’s house for brunch and then hanging out for so long that eventually it turns into dinner. That’s a tradition I can really get behind!
About the Author
Elise Gruber is a freelance writer and project manager who enjoys trying out new dishes on her friends when they show up unexpectedly for dinner. Her family’s latest tradition is to make a Dutch baby pancake every weekend.