“I have to go!” I exclaimed to my neighborhood friends at the sound of a bell piercing through the hot summer air.
In haste, I pivoted and ran toward home as quickly as my legs could carry me. The bell meant one thing: dinner time. I would rinse off my bare feet in the spigot and push my way through the back door into the kitchen. Instantly, my eye would be drawn to the set table, adorned with flickering candles dancing to the soft, classical music playing. It was at this simple table where most of the learning of my childhood took place.
Childhood memories of dinnertime differ from person to person, yet one commonality remains: There is a comfort to be found in the constancy of the family meal. Comfort and self-assuredness because of the recognition, though maybe subconscious, that we will be fed — yes, physically, but also spiritually and emotionally — as we take our seat at the table.
The table is the altar at which we sacrifice the tyranny of the urgent for the better “good” of spending time together. As we sit side by side, we permit our lives to intersect, unifying our days and taking an interest in one another. We unpack and process the day’s happenings without distraction, both giving and receiving encouragement. It is the place of the sounding board and affirmation or direction, a safe refuge and harbor.
Plainly stated, it is where love grows.
There is a popular adage that the kitchen is the heart of the home. While the kitchen may be the heart, the table is its lifeblood. The tablescape and prepared food are tangible displays of love as those involved pour themselves out for the good of the other.
The shared meal is a pillar of humanity that transcends both place and time. Meal sharing has played a central role in uniting families and communities in every culture in human history. Although dwellings and menus have differed throughout the ages, the necessity for communion remains.
The modern pace of life many of us have fallen into regrettably inhibits the quenching of this deep-seated thirst for togetherness, reducing the family meal to a thing of utility. We weigh the value of our daily activities on a scale of efficiency and consequently fill our stomachs while moving on to the next thing, unwittingly becoming cogs in a harried wheel spinning from one place to another. But this diminished view of a meal prohibits the establishment of a home culture and overlooks a natural way of forming a family bond.
The ability to savor the breaking of bread and appreciate the company and surrounding beauty is what separates man from beast.
When I toss food to my chickens, within a blink of an eye, their pecking order reveals a survival-of-the-fittest approach to eating. Fortunately, human beings have the capacity to shed a utilitarian approach toward dinner and replace it with a posture of gratitude and delight, unlike animals.
To reclaim the life-giving benefits of the family meal, it is essential to make the effort to sit down together, even if busy schedules make it difficult. Moving the dinner time up or back to ensure we maintain the practice amid busy schedules surprisingly makes things feel less rushed.
Statistics overwhelmingly speak to the necessity of family dinners in the formation of children, something no extra-curricular activity could replace. Children who are raised with a regular dinner routine are well-adjusted and less likely to engage in a myriad of risky, harmful behaviors. It is heartening that simple rituals have the potential to change the trajectory of our children. It seems as if much of what plagues the world — souls lacking in foundation or belonging — could be remedied by reprioritizing the family meal, as the studies indicate.
The spoken and unspoken lessons learned at the table are invaluable. There are countless opportunities ripe with teaching moments that a life on the go cannot provide. We are seldom presented with undistracted moments to instruct our children. It is in this setting that the virtue of self-control is passed on: Take a sensible portion and pass on the food; do not interrupt the person speaking; do not exhibit rude behaviors; and many other antidotes to selfish tendencies.
Girding our desires as we break bread helps set the framework for building other virtues. Growth is not exclusive to children, as this time is simultaneously beneficial to adults; the concrete reality of our example is evident, and we must exhibit those same virtues we are looking to impart. Tradition and culture from the past are shared while paving the way for the future.
Extending beyond the learning of social cues, we learn about the days — or lives — of our family members as we converse.
Forcing ourselves to be fully present is an immense act of love, and, because of this, technology cannot be permitted. Preparing the table and meal are manifestations of love, notwithstanding. Still, the most meaningful is the gift of attentiveness. Teaching children the generosity of giving another one’s undivided attention is a lesson too precious to neglect.
As we have ridden along the slippery slope into a utilitarian worldview, we have forgotten that we are experiential beings and that beauty matters. Artists throughout the centuries have captured the ordinary beauty of sharing a meal.
When we reduce life to degrees of utility, we become no different than the chickens furiously and mindlessly pecking at the feed.
However, at the sight of beauty, we are captivated, forced to pause and reflect in the moment and find joy. The rough edges formed throughout the day are softened as we permit beauty to take a foothold.
As summertime is upon us, it is a wonderful time to create a new family dinner habit as schedules are lax. Routines can be established now and maintained when life resumes its busy pace. Very likely, the stillness found in the summer will enable the taking of inventory of what pulls us away from the table, so that the culture of the home may be rightly reordered.
The home is enriched when we begin this time in prayer, reorienting the family back to God. Saying grace before the meal reminds us of the source of all we have. We implore God’s aid in gratitude for the food and people in front of us, while leading in prayerful example.
The greatest value of the dinner table lies in the people gathered around. For one hour each day, we slow down to savor both meal and company. With subtle intentionality the meal can be accentuated with beauty.
A centerpiece communicates that those around the table are worth the effort and signals an invitation to linger, a polarity to utility. These tasks involved in setting a tablescape (as well as tidying up) can be divided among children, making it an event the family works in union to create. Bud vases filled with the little flowers your children picked on a walk are a lovely accent. For a more permanent fixture, a hurricane globe enclosing a pillar candle with dried flowers tucked around the outside is a beautiful decoration.
We all have a desire for a place at the table alongside those with whom we share our lives. Within us is a deep longing for the change of pace and moments of built-in leisure to savor beauty and relationships. As philosopher John Cuddeback wisely wrote on his “LifeCraft” blog, “eating together is the cradle of civilization. But more to the point for us, it can be the cradle in which our relationship with our children — not to mention our spouse — takes root and flourishes.” It is at the table that we witness the impact of small gestures and the simple beauty found in a set table with a place awaiting each person.