The Lost Art of Family Dining

Sunday evening was our night off from it. Mom laid a blanket out on the living room floor. Dad turned the TV channel, manually, to the Sunday Night Disney Movie.  We were lucky it was one of the “Big 3” channels we got growing up. It was a super special family treat – family nacho tray! My mother laid out chips on a cookie sheet, mixed up and drizzled the liquid gold gooeyness of velveeta/ salsa/ browned hamburger, and baked for about 5 minutes. The tray was moved into the living room in the middle of the “picnic blanket” and we ate finger food style while watching the movie. I treasure the memories of that time together and aim to recreate it with my children.

Every other night of the week that we weren’t at volleyball/ basketball games or choir/band concerts, we gathered around the family dining table. It wasn’t fancy. That same table, 20 years later, has migrated down to the basement for games. It was a hand-me-down from my grandparents after being bolted back together in the middle. The table had collapsed during a previous family meal and required a permanent fix. I used to stare at those bolts while sitting solitary-style at the table hoping to wait out my parents resolve over consuming salmon patties. I clearly remember my mother vacuuming around my chair.

Our family dining experience wasn’t something we “drug” ourselves too, it just WAS. It was expected. It was something we looked forward to. Our dinners weren’t always fancy. They were solid meals – meat, veggies, potatoes or bread. Sometimes dessert, but that wasn’t something we needed. To this day, my sisters and I are meat, potato, bread, veggie women. We came to the table as we were when it was time for dinner. Dad in his chore clothes. Us in our clothes from sports practice. Mom in her clothes from teaching elementary students.

Throughout the meal, there was conversation. It was about our day, our week, our dates, being grounded, amount of time on the phone, clothes, etc. My younger sister is the creative type with words and photos. Funny thing though, she was never good with the MEANING of the the words. This led to the introduction of the dictionary into our post dinner conversation. What does that word actually mean? What does she think it means? Dad would go to the den and get the dictionary. It was like a game of Balderdash. I LOVE the game of Balderdash. It is analagous to the word version of Pictionary, but 100% doable with just a few people and a dictionary.

I asked my mother a few weeks ago how these meals came to be such an integral part of the story of Us. She has two theories. She grew up in a large Catholic Christian family. There were pre and post meal prayers. Every family member sat at the table until the meal was done and the post-meal prayer was finished. Although we were raised Protestant Christian, sitting as a family together was also a part of our family routine.  Like my mom’s side of the family, we gather for all events on my dad’s side. We stand and sing the doxology (with harmony – we are singing folks) before every meal. Marrying into my family means we gather together. We sit and eat. We may have to rent out the community center to fit all 40+ of us, but we dine together! I dare say it is part of my family identity to gather, sit, eat, and conversate. 

We are working to instill the family dinner as part of my husband and my family’s identity as well. Sitting together at the table, we see each other’s faces. We communicate PERSONALLY with emotions and expressions, not emoticons via text messages. My children enjoy it. They ask to be excused, just like I did 25 years ago. It teaches respect and manners. My little guy likes to help set the table.  It isn’t 4-H Camp, we don’t get the forks and spoons on the right side of the plate every time.  We dance, laugh, and talk in the kitchen while we do it.

Dinner as a family benefits everyone. It shouldn’t be stressful. Don’t let it be. Turn on some music. Laugh. Don’t over-analyze. At our house, the sauces and gravies aren’t always perfect. The potatoes are sometimes lumpy and my son picks all the bean seeds out of his green beans. The back of my daughter’s chair has to be de-peanut buttered after each meal with pancakes. I’m usually running circles trying to get everything to the table, just to realize that no one has water glasses or sippy cups. Chalk it up to burning a few more calories. Live it up! You only get these moments once.


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