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How to make the family meal the norm

This is the final post of two about how to combat electronic isolation and bring the family together by making the dinner table a priority. “Capturing the elusive family meal” made the case for how pivotal the meal can be in strengthening family relationships. This post gives you suggestions on how to ease into family meals without a lot of hassle.

Mind your manners

The social graces used to be a part of everyone’s education. Today many children have no clue about proper table etiquette or why it even matters. In our house the dinner table is Manners 101. Occasionally we get objections, especially from the older children, about how the rules are old fashioned or too restrictive. That’s often a great opportunity to remind them that manners are not so much about rules as they are about showing consideration for others.

From time to time, though, I’m the one who needs the reminder that manners aren’t just about rules. Sometimes in my desire to teach my children good behavior, I’ve found myself so overbearing in my correction that the atmosphere at the meal becomes unpleasant. What is supposed to be an enjoyable time can become anything but. These interactions at the dinner table give everyone, even us adults, a chance to grow and show grace.

The dinner table is an opportunity to remind each person that he or she is a valued member of the family, and that the actions of one person can affect everyone in the family. It assures children that they belong to a group of people who genuinely care for them.

Setting your family table
Recent family fun at our dinner table.

Recent family fun at our dinner table.

After nearly 30 years of gathering daily for meals, Ellie and I are convinced that we’ve truly benefited by making the family table a priority. Maybe you agree in principle, but you can’t see how you will ever get past all the obstacles to make the family meal a regular part of your schedule. Maybe you feel you don’t have time to do the cooking. Maybe dinner is the worst time of the day when it comes to family schedules. Maybe having meals together is such a foreign idea you don’t know where to start.

Here are a few tips that may set you on your way to making your dining room one of the most special rooms in the house.

Enlist the family’s help. Kids can help shop, prepare the food, set the table, serve the drinks and food, and clean up after the meal. In our home, we have assigned responsibilities that rotate every week. Dads, you need to make it a priority to come home from work on time.

Set reasonable goals. If you’re not eating together at all, start off with one or two simple meals, then gradually increase the number of meals and how elaborate they are. Set a goal for the number of meals you want to eat each week as a family and require everyone to be there. Children, especially the older ones, may resist at first. After a while, though, children actually become the greatest advocates for spending time around the dinner table.

Minimize your time in the kitchen. If you’re spending hours preparing and cleaning up for a 15-minute meal, chances are you’ll give up on family meals before very long. Enlist all your servants like the microwave, crock-pot, and pressure cooker. When you fix meals, prepare double or triple portions, then freeze or refrigerate for later meals.

To focus on each other, you need to ban the electronics. Turn off the television and computer, and don’t answer the phone.

Focus on being together rather than creating a full course meal. If you have to, serve heat-and-eat foods and just add a pre-mixed salad for health and to dress up the meal. You can bet that King Solomon saw his share of elaborate feasts, yet he declared, “Better a dish of vegetables where love is than a fattened ox served with hatred” (Proverbs 15:17).

Create some memorable meals. Every once in a while, you might want to make it really special. A fancy meal is a great way to focus on manners, and a special treat for the girls. It helps emphasize the holy nature of family gatherings. Candles, flowers, and the nice tableware add a special touch.

Make the family table an outreach for friends. If your children are of dating/courting age, it’s a good opportunity to get to know their special friends, a girlfriend or boyfriend. It also lets that person better understand your child within the context of his or her family, as they see the interaction with their siblings and parents.

Think of discussion topics ahead of time. A verse of Scripture, the latest news, a new joke. I recently got each family member to jot down their favorite color, flower, food, etc. on a piece of paper. I collected them and read them aloud while everyone tried to guess the family member.

Find ways to make it positive. Reward a child’s good behavior with an extra serving of dessert or the privilege of planning an upcoming menu.

However you choose to organize your family meals, make them a special part of who you are as a family. You can bet that in years to come, your children will look back at those daily times as some of the most influential moments in their lives. Who knows? In a generation, they may be sitting down with their children, creating special moments of their own.

© FamilyLife. All rights reserved.

STEPSeek - 10-point checklistYou just finished reading “How to make the family meal the norm” on the Stepping Up men’s blog. Don’t forget part 1.

STEPThink - 10-point checklistAs leader of your home, what will you do to help your family connect in this digital and individualistic age? 

STEPEmbrace - 10-point checklistJust Add Family is a fun resource from FamilyLife designed to connect family members and build memories.

STEPPass - 10-point checklistShare these articles with a friend. If you have encouraging insights on family meals, share them with us.

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