My wonderful husband and I are very deliberate in some of the choices we make. One of them was purchasing a large dinning table. While I would have settled for something much less ornate than the one we eventually chose, we were very careful in our selection. We wanted a table that would accommodate a large family. The largest table we could find was the one we ended up with. It seats ten people. It only seats ten people because the chairs that go with it are very wide (and very comfortable) so that fully extended the table will take four of these chairs down each side and another each at the top and bottom. If we swap a few of the matching chairs for ordinary kitchen chairs we can increase the capacity to twelve, or even fourteen. In our current home we have removed one of the extending leaves so that we have only eight chairs around it. However it currently can operate this way as a nine person table as we have a high chair for Aiden on the corner between where Rob and I usually sit.
For us we knew that once children came along it would not always be possible to have everyone together for breakfast and lunch every single day. The morning person that Rob is, along with semi-flexible work hours, would often mean Rob had already left for work before the rest of the family is awake. He also works too far away to be able to come home for lunch. Those meals would be reserved for the weekends. The one meal we knew would always work, no matter what, is dinner. Our evening meal could always be the whole family together around the table with no need to rush away in various different directions.
Now that Aiden has a more predictable routine, and is staying up later than 5pm, he sits with us at the table for his evening meal. For Aiden this has become the start of his bedtime routine. He eats alongside us, then he gets some milk to drink before getting ready for bed and going down for the night. Like both his parents Aiden is a creature of habit. He likes the routine, and knowing what comes next. Now that he is eating real food, and having three meals a day, sitting at the table to eat helps to punctuate his day, and let him know what comes next. After every meal there is sleep and rest for him. He loves being able to sit with us and listen to us talk while we share our meal. At breakfast and lunch it may just be two of us sitting together, but it is still an enjoyable time of interaction.
This brings me to why we feel that having the whole family together around the table for meals is important. It is a time not just to fill our stomachs with food, but a time to fill our minds and hearts too. While we try to make all our meals as nutritionally full of goodness as we possibly can, we want mealtimes to be more than just physical nourishment. The interaction that happens around the table is just as important. It is time to remove from all the other distractions around us and focus on each other. When we do on the rare occasion eat somewhere else like the sofa, our attention is drawn away from each other to the DVD we are planning to watch, or the TV show that just can't be missed, even for food. When we sit at the table we are not just in a better position for eating, we are also in a better position for interacting with each other. Sitting around the table enables easy eye contact. We can look at our plates, or we can look at each other. The eye contact makes conversation much easier.
In eating together around the table we nourish each other relationally as well as nutritionally. We bind ourselves together as a family by spending that time together. It doesn't take much to make it happen. You don't need an expensive table either. One of my favourite Christmas memories from my childhood demonstrates this.
One year my grandparents decided to host Christmas dinner. Their house wasn't really furnished for a large dinner to happen, but with some imagination they made it happen. They emptied out one of their spare bedrooms upstairs. Then they set up two wallpapering tables, long ends together, covered them with a bed sheet, and instantly a large dinning table to accommodate everyone. Chairs were borrowed to make sure there were enough. My other grandparents were invited to join my Mum's family for dinner that year. In total there were at least eight adults, two children and two toddlers around that table. It was a wonderful meal, not because of the food (I can't remember what we even had to eat that day) but rather because the family, my grandparents family, were together around one table, sharing a meal, and lots of laughter.
Making the family meal table work is about making time for the whole family to be together, in one place, at the same time and interacting with one another. The physical process of sitting around a table facing each other makes it easier to remove other distractions, and facilitate better communication. It doesn't have to be a long drawn out process either. Half an hour a day, once a day, isn't a whole lot of time.
We know that those with teenagers may find this more of a challenge. For the eight months we were the host parents of two teenage boys. We understand the challenge of getting them to the table, and keeping their attention at the table. We had to make a few rules to work around the distractions those teenagers brought with them. In our situation we tried to keep the rules minimal, but some were necessary. For the table our rules were that everything electronic was switched off. There was no TV playing, no video games, and most importantly no cell phones at the table. We also had an additional rule that nobody left the table without asking to be excused, and then being given permission. Meals often only took twenty minutes or less to eat, so there were not many reasons for which we allowed the boys to leave the table early, not even homework. It didn't take the boys long to adjust to eating at the table, and it became a time where we could all connect and find out what was going on in each others lives. We certainly learned a lot about the lives of teenagers by sitting at the table together.
With the busy schedules many people live today I know many wonder how they can possibly fit this into their family. Is half an hour really too much to ask? Is the busy scheduled activities really more important than spending time together in interaction? It may be that work schedules make it difficult for both parents to be around for meals every day, especially for those who work varying shift patterns. One parent and all the children is still better than no interaction at all, and then when the other parent can make it there is less change to the normal routine. Perhaps breakfast would be a better meal to focus on, rather than dinner. If there is currently no meals in the week that everyone shares regularly, perhaps chose to start with one particular meal, and make that your priority. In an entire week is half an hour for the whole family to eat together too much to ask? If you can't fit in just one meal a week I'd like to kindly suggest that perhaps you are too busy. Maybe one of those activities that draws the family apart needs to be stopped so that you can all come together for that one meal a week.
For us as a family, as our family grows, dinner is still going to be our priority every day. Even when Aiden reaches those busy teen years he will still be expected to sit down for dinner with us every night. For us no activity is going to be allowed to be more important than spending time together as a family around the dinner table. That time is part of the glue that will hold us together as a family. For us it is important. For us it is a priority.
Why don't you try it sometime this week, and see how well it can work for you.
The aged women likewise, that they be in behaviour as becometh holiness, not false accusers, not given to much wine, teachers of good things; that they may teach the young women to be sober, to love their husbands, to love their children, to be discreet, chaste, keepers at home, good, obedient to their own husbands, that the word of God be not blasphemed.