The word liturgical has come to mean the order of the worship service. That worship routine creates a culture.
The word liturgy sticks in my mind when thinking about the power of family meals in creating family connectedness. In our casual child-centeredness, I fear we have lost something valuable – a theology of food and the impact of family meals.
As I travel about, I see too many good families who are not thoughtful in the area of family meals. And we are the poorer for it. In this article, I want to argue for why you should be intentional about your family meals, and offer practical tips for pulling it off.
Meals as a Sign and Seal
A quick survey of Scripture reveals the power of meals. God covenanted with Abraham and fellowshipped around a meal. In the Old Testament, God commanded feasts for his people. In fact, they were to spend a tithe on the celebration.
Jesus is often recorded eating with his disciples, religious leaders, and outcasts. The central regular event in the New Testament was both a real meal (the love feast) as well as the ceremonial meal of the Lord’s Supper. Eating with Gentiles prompted a controversy that needed to be resolved. And of course, the Scripture culminates with the Marriage Supper of the Lamb.
We also know the power of meals to bind hearts together. Dates often involve food. Weddings involve food. Funerals often have food. Eating together is both a sign and seal of a closer relationship.
Understanding this theology of food should affect our thoughts about the culture we want to create in our own families. How important is the family meal and what will it look like?
The Power of Family Meals
Eating a meal with someone is a powerful thing. From the unspoken security of a meal in peace, to the context for personal communication, eating with someone creates relationship as well as feeds from it. Researchers have long been showing us the power of a nightly family dinner.
So much so that Miriam Weinstein begins her 2005 book, The Surprising Power of Family Meals, with these words: “What if I told you that there was a magic bullet–something that would improve the quality of your daily life, your children’s chances of success in the world, your family’s health, our values as a society? Something that is inexpensive, simple to produce and within the reach of pretty much anyone?”
Harvard professor, author, and family therapist Anne Fishel has pointed to countless studies that have shown that young children gain a higher vocabulary at the dinner table than being read to nightly. In older children, family dinners are a predictor for higher test scores than time at school, playing sports, or doing art. In teens, many studies show that regular family dinners are linked with lowering the risk of smoking, binge drinking, marijuana use, violence, school problems, eating disorders, and sexual activity. Another study of 5000 Minnesota teens found regular family dinners associated with lower rates of depression and suicidal thoughts. Meals are powerful.
The Current State of Meals
For too many families the family meal has disappeared or is in tatters. One study found that 67% of families had the TV playing during dinner. In other families, children eat before the parents arrive and leave the table before the adults are finished. Individuals eat in shifts.
Having family meals together might be the most Christian countercultural thing you can do.
I want to plead with mom or dad to create a family culture where meals and mealtime conversation are treasured. Although not perfect by any means, Sharon and I tried to create a culture that valued the family meal.
When our children were young we made an effort to eat together. This meant training young children in table manners. Even when we started to be more involved in outside activities we still tried to have regular family meals together.
Some Practical Suggestions from Our Experience
One or more of the children would set the table. It was his or her chore. Perhaps that child would help Mom with cooking. This was a rotating chore and gave the child one on one time with mom. We were also trying to use this to cultivate a servant heart.
One child would help mom serve. With four children two years apart, we needed all hands on deck when the children were young and when they were older.
We also might set out The Red Plate for encouragement.
Actively train young children in table manners. They can be trained; they don’t have to throw food.
No one started eating until we all sat down. Here we were trying to teach self-control. The whole family sat down together to eat. Of course, there were exceptions such as feeding a baby in a high chair or giving carrots for snacks. But there was no sense of giving a child his dinner before the rest of us.
We expected proper manners (within their ability of course). This includes not talking with your mouth full.
We expected good and fun conversation. Dad or Mom took the lead in talking. Sometimes we would talk with each other while the children listened while other times each would report to Dad about the day’s activities. Sometimes devotions would start in the middle. If we had guest over, we expected them to listen to the guest or ask a question we had given them.
When the children were younger, we would work on the wiggles by putting chocolate chips in front of their plate as rewards. If they had some minor infraction, one would get taken away. The goal, of course, was to have all at the end of the night – which were then doubled.
Often we would have family devotions over dessert. But to have dessert, we had to do a tiny clean up and get a little dessert on the table. If we had dessert, we waited until the server joined us. That usually meant that we looked at our dessert for 30 seconds until Mom sat down. When she took “the official bite” the rest of us would eat. Again, we were trying to teach self-control and consideration. And the kids had fun waiting for Mom to take…drum roll…the official bite.
Do we need to say it- Put down the phone – Dad, Mom, children. Our rule, in the day of the answering machine, was that we never answered the phone. This dinner time was so small and so valuable, the other phone call could be returned.
In addition, dessert (or chocolate chips) were a reward for eating what was on your plate. If it wasn’t finished it came out for lunch the next day. There was also no extending dinner. If they were not done when the rest of us were done, then the food got put away.
For family devotions, the Bibles were nearby as were little hand toys if we were going to be sitting at the table awhile.
Finally, to get down, they had to ask if they could be excused. Again, we wanted to teach self-control and submission to our authority.
One or two were assigned to clean up. Often it was Dad and one of the children.
Do You Believe in the Power of Family Meals?
Can this be modified? Yes, of course. But as you can see, dinner was a priority and an event. It bound our hearts together, and allowed them to develop broad tastebuds and conversational skills.
Did we have some issues? Yes, of course. But overall, God honored this routine. But it starts with having a high view of the mealtime event. It continues with the idea that children can be trained in self-control (waiting on food, sitting at the dinner table, asking to get down). It resonates because we also want to teach skills like listening to each other and celebrating each other’s victories and consoling each other. We wanted to create an “All for one and one for all” attitude.
Family means are a sign and seal of our family unity. They powerfully bind hearts together. We underestimate them to our own detriment. Imagine the blessing on the relationships in your family as you eat thousands of meals together over the years.
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