By Melissa Lawrence
Last summer, I embarked on a 10 week long European adventure with my five kids. We planned to visit Spain and France, where we have friends and family, to learn as much as we could about the languages and cultures there. Our trip was filled with adventures and we are having fun telling stories about them still.
But the biggest thing we learned this summer was to how to eat. Of course, we knew how to eat as a practical matter. But we had forgotten how to eat together as a family.
Caught on the busy treadmill of modern family life, we had stopped sitting down together for meals more than once or twice a week. On weekdays, my kids would sit and eat as they came home. First, the younger girls. Then, my older boys, each taking off when finished to launch into his homework. With the kids in bed, I would then eat with my husband Marc – sometimes as late as 9 o’clock.
Although I loved the couples dinners with the hubs, this system didn’t work so well for the kids, nor for me actually. Since breakfast is such a quick enterprise, it meant that there was no time during a given day – or during the entire school week – that we all sat down together. We didn’t talk about their days, nor mine. And the 9 o’clock dinner time was hurting my sleep. I often couldn’t get to sleep until 11 or 12pm, and the following morning I was drained and tired.
I noticed in the French families that we visited that meals are sacred. Weekend lunch is not an individual affair; it’s a collective, shared experience and the cornerstone of the day. Weekday dinners for my European friends are as challenging as they are for American parents of young kids, yet those I witnessed make an effort to make sure meals coexist with togetherness and conversation.
I also noticed this summer what kids learn when they eat with their families. They learn how to sit nicely at the table. They learn how to converse. They learn how to contribute by doing small things like passing the bread and serving the plates. They learn that meals aren’t just about food, they are about being together and looking after each other. Plus, they learn that meals can be really, really fun. Through shared meals, kids develop a sense of a shared experience and of family. This wasn’t something I wanted my kids to miss out on.
So we made some changes. Now, on most weekdays, I sit down and eat with all 5 kids at around 5:30. We don’t have a ton of time, sometimes just 30 minutes, but we manage to eat and chat during that time. I sneak a little side platter of salad onto the table for each of them, and we each eat the same meal. I notice the kids eating more and complaining less about the food. Doesn’t always happen, but on a recent day one child even asked me “and how was your day Mom?” Wow. Our family is Catholic, and we sometimes say grace, or we try to each say something we are grateful for, or something we did for someone else that day.
So that my husband is not left entirely out of the picture – the poor man was already abandoned for most of the summer while we were away for Pete’s sake – I wait to eat dessert with him, which is usually fruit salad with a few oatmeal cookies. That way, we are sitting too and talking, which is kind of the point anyway. (He’s less affected by the late meals, and doesn’t get home in time to see the kids during the week unfortunately.)
On weekends, I look at the family calendar and try to come up with an exact time when we can sit down together as a family for lunch. Our lunches are nothing fancy: salad, rotisserie chicken and vegetables, or whole wheat bagels, lox and eggs. Fruit salad for dessert is a staple. The meals are not without controversy and who sits next to whom is always an issue. But I invariably look around the table and think: here we all are, we are a family, and we are all together. And my kids look happy.
For weekend dinners, we’ve been going through our list of the people we don’t feel we see enough and inviting them over for dinner with their kids. This has been the most fun of all. And even though I’m embarrassed to be serving the same dishes like lasagna and porc chops with baked potatoes, I’m so happy for my kids to sit down at a big table with the kids of my friends, all feeling very big and important, and all realizing, again, that meals are as much about people as they are about food.
The kids have grown to really enjoy the family meals, and have come to take ownership over things like making the eggs, and serving the bread.
Now if I can only get them to enjoy the dishes!
– A Mom of five children under 10, Melissa Lawrence is the founder of how to video site CloudMom.com. Cloudmom offers a library of informative, practical videos and blog content for parents of babies, toddlers and kids. Come visit!