20 March 2008


We’re allowing a fast-food corporate mentality to shred and dissolve one of our strongest familial and cultural and social bonds – that of sitting down together and sharing a meal. We’re crazy to accept this and ought to assert the importance of sitting down to a homemade meal every evening. How can we not value time spent at the dinner table, eating food we’ve prepared and talking with each other about all things of the world? When we light candles and say grace, we acknowledge our needs and give our thanks, and we have a sense of how small and fragile we are, and how important the meal before us is. Who knows, maybe Christ’s message at the Last Supper was quite simple: maybe He was saying we should sit down together and share a meal because it’s such a basic part of life, and when we share it with others we create a bond that’s not easily broken. We expand our boundary of family when we include others at our table. Christ didn’t share a Last Breakfast or a Closing Lunch; He chose the Last Supper as His time to be with His disciples one final time and to share them with His final instructions and commandments.

We choose to eat dinner. Maybe I’m just stating the obvious, like saying we choose to sleep at night in beds. What choices are there, really, and does it matter if you’re conscious of your decision or not? Heck, we eat breakfast together, too, although our food choices are more limited and we never light candles. But when we’re all sitting with our bowls of shredded wheat or our stack of pancakes, we’re still just getting ready for the day. It’s hard to summarize or reflect when you’ve just woken up. I liked Thailand, where breakfast often consisted of the previous evening’s leftovers, whether it was a hot curry or a fried fish. Cook some rice, and a little nom prick, and you’re good to go. Here, we have pretty strict lines separating our meals, and while I’m happy to eat peanut butter sandwiches for lunch, I rebel vocally every time my wife tries to serve sandwiches for dinner. (The exception to that is the August BLT, a seasonal favorite that transcends meal categories when made with a thick slice of a still-warm Brandywine tomato.) And while a big bowl of oatmeal with raisins and cinnamon and maple syrup is a very satisfying breakfast, I don’t know if I’ve ever eaten it for dinner. But, if we sat around the dinner table with lit candles and bowls of oatmeal, would the mood change? I don’t think so. So what do commentators and writers mean when they use dinner and its falling prominence as a symbol of the American family’s disintegration? Maybe because if we don’t spend at least that hour together, talking about the day and whatever else happens to come up, then where and how are we defining the family? Can you be a good family if you all eat crappy food and never sit down together? Does the dinner table become a proxy for time spent together in general, and if we’re not spending time here then where are we? There are probably lots of families with kids in athletics or music that don’t eat dinner together yet function as healthy, communicative families. Am I just nostalgic? What is it that makes sharing a meal special? We’re grazing like cattle yet we imbue mealtime with the sentimental hope that we’ll end up with kids who can talk about politics and European history and know the difference between a fava bean and a runner bean and are ready to engage in serious debate or light banter.

But does it matter? With three children in a typically busy house, dinner is still part of every evening in our home. But what is dinner’s purpose? I’ve read that for many families it’s their one time each day to be together and communicate as a family. The lead-up to dinner is just as much part of the ritual as anything. While the kids are playing or fighting or reading or practicing clarinet, either my wife or I starts dinner. I’m home most days by five-fifteen, so unless one of the kids has a six o’clock practice, I can make dinner as easily as Meaghen. On quick nights, we sometimes pull out a bag of pasta sauce from the freezer and make an easy pasta dish and we’re good to go. When our sauce supply runs low I make a batch that’s big enough to store about ten bags worth of sauce – one bag per dinner, with maybe a little left over for the next day’s lunch. The kids all help with dinner. They set the table, bring out water for everyone, and light the candles. Candles are the quickest, easiest way to make dinner seem like dinner. As we approach summer we’ll stop eating dinner in the dining room and eat in the family room; it’s filled with light and has a big door that we keep open to let fresh air in, and it’s more informal. But, we still have lots of snow on the ground and hard frozen earth, so it’ll be awhile before we shift to the family room for dinner.

So why is dinner important? Sometimes we’re rushed, sometimes the kids are fighting or being rowdy, sometimes we all talk about interesting things. I don’t believe that quality time is an effective substitute for spending lots of time with your children -- I think quantity time is more important. We have to spend enough time together so that a single evening with a cranky kid doesn’t make dinner seem like a futile effort, which could happen if we did it only once a week and had it “spoiled” by a fight or argument. No, we’re in it for the long haul -- talking, hashing out problems and disagreements, talking about plans and the most recent day or upcoming weekend. There’s enough time for quiet dinners and raucous ones, simple ones and fancy ones. We all matter to each other, and at dinner we experiment with that. Kids learn to talk and listen, to wait their turn, to exhibit good manners, to express likes and dislikes. The dinner table in a miniature society, and kids learn how to interact in it. We have spelling bees before dessert and ‘fast math’ contests to see who empties the dishwasher. Burps and farts are part of the learning curve too – what’s acceptable and what isn’t? How far can I go before I’m reined in?

Or, you can look at a dinner interpreted by Will Ferrell:


1 comment:

  1. This is extremely well stated, Patrick-- especially the quality vs. quantity time stuff. How have you taught your kids to be good listeners and to wait their turn? What wisdom can you pass along to me, oh wise one?