May the favor of the Lord our God be ours. Prosper the work of our hands! Prosper the work of our hands! Psalms 90:17
At the Knights of Columbus’ Fathers for Good site, Kate Wicker has a terrific article entitled The Home-Cooked Advantage which everyone should read in my opinion. I take Kate’s recommendation of family mealtime very seriously, even though her piece triggered the immediate and severe indigestion I suffer thinking about my own childhood experience. The best memory I have of eating together with the other five kids in my family of origin is that Maalox comes in a soothing cherry flavor. My mother, like Kate’s, enforced a nightly family mealtime but our daily breaking of bread was often more like a police action than leisurely dining. With my own family, I’ve crafted adaptations to the concept in hopes of capturing a non-disciplinarian approach to family eating and I was pleased as punch to learn from Kate’s piece that our “Mass & Mexican” Sunday ritual might qualify as quality family time.
So for those of you who are trying to develop a family meal time that breaks the grip of dysfunction and that will, in practice, have a net positive “major impact on a family’s unity and happiness,” I’ve put together a few rules that might give you a mealy advantage in your worthy efforts.
1. Make sure all forks, spoons and (blunt) knives match. By the time our family of six children and parents dined regularly together every night, our drawer of tableware contained several mismatched pieces and, in particular, one spoon with a longer, nickel polished handle that one of us must have lifted from a rare restaurant adventure. This utensil became the highly coveted “Special Spoon” – a source of battle for possession between the older siblings every evening. Setting the table had no relation to getting the Special Spoon due to the silent switching-spoons strategies we developed. Eventually, my mother caught onto the hissing and glaring and grabbing and the Special Spoon disappeared. Personally, I hope she squirreled it away for her own personal use; it was a terrific spoon.
2. Teach table manners with professional materials. My father’s approach to teaching table manners was straight forward but tended to cause tension. If he spotted you, for example, using your teeth to clear the food from your fork, you got a warning. On good nights, you got two warnings. Then, you were banished from the dining room to the kitchen table around the corner, where you ate alone so that the solitude and shame might improve your manners the next night. To some extent, Dad’s tactics worked well because we all have pretty awesome table manners. Unfortunately, it was a real conversation spoiler.
I adapted his preference for precision to refer regularly to the professional wisdom and wit of Tiffany’s Table Manners for Teenagers. So far, humor has proved a worthy substitute for shame and solitude. Tiffany’s advice is very easy to follow. For example, I’ve stopped more than one meal, grabbed the book and read aloud: “Don’t let your elbows stick out like flying buttresses. Keep them close to your sides.” As the boys then exaggerate holding their elbows to their sides as if I had just applied Crazy Glue, my husband grabs the cue and turns the conversation to the building of cathedrals and what do the boys know about that, eh?
3. Do not chase your children who run from the table. As a teen, I occasionally felt a tad oppositional toward the family meal and family time. I still believe that I had to set and clear the table and do the dishes unjustly disproportionate to my other siblings. No one disputed that my baby sister oft times disappeared toward the end of dessert and, as I finished drying the last dish, danced into the kitchen, sweetly chirping, “How can I help?”
Anyway, during my teen years I developed some attitude of sorts and tested boundaries during dinner time. Once, when I continued to suck a dill pickle beyond my father’s patience, he grew noticeably jumpy. I ran from the table. He pursued me into the next room and, then, he had to give me a symbolic smack in order to justify the chase. That’s the way I see it. But our chase scene not only spoiled the conversation, it caused the rest of the family some anxiety about eating together. So Dad and I both would recommend against that sort of dinner drama.
4. Say Grace. Initially my boys responded to my insistence to say Grace before our meals in our home and at public places as you might expect. They were especially anxious to keep the mealtime display of piety short in our favorite Sunday Mexican places where someone might notice that we were eating and praying together as a family.
Mom: “No, don’t touch that food yet. Say Grace first.”
Boys (together, hands folded, heads bent): “Grace.”
At this point, I am proud that my husband did not jump up and chase our sons into the bar and out onto the street for a public bashing. He remained very calm and simply said,
Dad: “No, not that Grace boys. If you want, we can sing ‘Johnny Appleseed' right here in the middle of La Barca Mexican restaurant. Maybe everyone will join in?”
That worked and the boys crossed themselves, held our hands and prayed a quiet blessing more or less sincerely. Now they are accustomed to the ritual and, I’ve noticed, often take my hand and initiate the blessing themselves.
5. Force feed reasonably. Honestly, I did not like carrots of any kind. I also thought that eating mushy canned green peas was a torture technique my mother introduced at the dinner table so we could share the pain of imprisoned persons. Between the carrots and the peas – and an occasional sheer joke from the Great Depression my mother called “succotash” – there was always a bowl of something terrifying on the table. Like most parents, mine insisted that I try everything, even if I had literally gagged on it only two nights ago. Unlike most parents, mine considered something in excess of ¾ cup a “try”.
Me: “I did try it Dad. It tastes exactly like dog doodoo smells.”
Dad: “You have not given it a real try. Eat the rest of those lima beans right now or …. “ (I knew … I would have to go to the kitchen and eat the play dough, dog doodoo lima beans in solitude and shame.)
I developed the ability to hold large quantities of vegetable goo in my mouth and strategically spit it into my napkin while diving under the table to retrieve the Special Spoon I’d dropped there from my sister’s place setting. Since I always had to clean up, I was in charge of disposing of my napkin and those similarly filled with the organic debris of my siblings. I used this strategy several times a week. I think my siblings did the same.
Now, if all of the children are holding a mouth full of unwanted vegetable goo, the family discussion and bonding will be significantly stifled. Tiffany’s Table Manners is right on point here. “If you don’t like what is served, it is permissible to refuse it. But don’t find yourself with nothing on your plate. If you do, your [mother] may remark about it, which might be embarrassing for you.” This is sound advice. Children should be allowed to decline food, but not everything. That way, they will be able to talk too.
These are a few rules I’d like to add to Kate’s commendation of family dining, a worthy goal, which the right rules give the mealy advantage. It’s rarely a perfect, peaceful endeavor, if ever, but it’s well worth the effort. Indeed, perhaps it’s the effort that counts the most.