the Bishop is, there let the multitude of believers be;
even as where Jesus is, there is the Catholic Church'' Ignatius of
Antioch, 1st c. A.D
The Family Dinner Table
While the family
dinner table isn't a "sacred space" strictly speaking, it is in that
family life is ordained by God, should be directed to God, and the
rituals that families engage in that keep them strong, together, and
ordered to God should be reverenced. There's also the fact that the
Sacrifice at the Mass is followed by a communal meal, a
recalling of the Last Supper (Matthew 26:17–30; Mark 14:12–26; Luke
22:7–39; and John 13:1–17:26). There is something so profound about
eating together as a single community that it is reflected in --
exalted by-- the greatest act of the Church.
The importance of family dinners really can't be overstated. They're
correlated with fewer behavioral problems in children;1
children spending more time on homework and reading for pleasure;2
decreased risk for eating disorders, substance use, sexual intercourse,
and suicidal involvement among the young;3 "opportunities to
acquire vocabulary, practice producing and understanding stories and
explanations, acquire general knowledge, and learn how to talk in
culturally appropriate ways";4 higher intake of vegetables
and fruits, and lower intake of soft drinks;5 decreased risk
of obesity,6 and other desirable things. Please, have dinner
as a family. At the very, very
least, make a practice of it on the Lord's Day,
and if you do have daily family dinners, make Sunday dinner
Now, perfectly healthy families can be very different from each other.
Some people are more quiet while others are more excitable, and the
dinner tables of Italian Americans and Jews, for ex., can look very
different from those of the descendants of people who came to the
United States on the Mayflower. This scene from "Annie Hall" is as good
a demonstration as
there is of such differences:
But no matter what your family is like, there are things you can do to
make family dinners events that everyone looks forward to. Some basics:
Phones are turned o-f-f unless one's in a parent's hand and he's using
it to lead a game or otherwise interact with those at the table.
Televisions are turned o-f-f except for rare events like coronations
and moon landings.
Set the scene. Light a candle, even if it's just a single tall glass
votive one finds in grocery stores (they're very inexpensive and last a
long, long time!). Even a single candle flame at the center of a table
can change the ambience of the entire room. It warms the place up,
animates it, and provides a focal point.
Start with prayer. The traditional Catholic pre-meal prayer is (broken
up into lines that indicate the typical rhythm with which the prayer is
Bless us, O
and these Thy gifts
which we are about to receive
from Thy bounty,
through Christ, Our Lord.
Play some music -- not so loudly that converstation can't be easily
had, but to provide a background that makes everyone feel more relaxed
and creates a tone. No one wants to sit in silence and hear themselves
-- or others -- chewing, and be aurally assaulted by the clinking of
cutlery against the dishes. Dinner time is an opportunity to expose
your children to music they're not likely to hear at most other times
of the day! Let them hear Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, Schubert, et al.,
Big Band groups like the Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey orchestras, the
great crooners like Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, et
al., doo-wop groups from the 1950s, old country, like Hank Williams,
Sr. and Patsy Cline, etc. If you're too young to know these types of
music yourself, expand your horizons and learn with your children! Your
kids' knowing the music their ancestors, especially their grandparents
and great-grandparents listened to, is a good way to connect them to
their roots and get them to think in bigger terms than just the
present. It also will help them understand the mores of the past and
more easily resist the too-often thrown-together and highly immoral
pop-culture offerings of today. Consider, too, matching the music to
the meal: for ex., if you're eating Italian food, listen to Caruso; if
you're eating French food, listen to Edith Piaf, etc.
Talk to each other -- and know how to elicit information and get
conversations going. Instead of asking too general questions like
"how was your day?" or "what did you learn in school?", be more
specific. Try "anyone have anything funny happen to them today?" or
"what are you studying in historyclass,
John?" When asking questions, avoid those that can be answered
with a simple "yes" or "no" -- e.g., instead of asking "Did you like
that movie last night?" ask "Which movie did you like better, the one
from last night or the one from last week?" Then follow up with "why?"
Off the Gratitude page, I describe how to
make a "gratitude tree" meant to
inculcate an "attitude of gratitude" by getting people to really count
their blessings -- and then turn it into a family game. On that same
page, I also recommend teaching your children where food comes from --
the steps taken and labor involved in getting the food they're eating
from a farm to their table. It's crucial that they not have the idea
that food "magically appears" without human labor.
Something else to consider is keeping a large, old-school dictionary
next to the table and choosing a new vocabulary word each night. First
read the word and have everyone guess its meaning (that can get really
funny!). Then define the word and challenge each person at the table to
use it in a sentence. Choose a new word the next night -- but use the
word from the night before a few times again as well to better get it
into your children's long term memories. Throughout the week, try to
use the newly learned words once in a while.
Another thing that's important to do is to teach your children basic
table manners. It's important, too, that they know how to behave at
dinners eaten in restaurants and at other people's houses. You can
periodically pretend your dinner table is in a restauarant or someone
else's home and walk them through ordering food politely, dealing with
waiters so as to not make their jobs more difficult than they need to
be, etc. when at a restaurant, and waiting until the host begins
eating, offering to help, thanking the host, etc., when at someone
else's house. But otherwise, please, dispense with unnecessary folderol
at your own home. Basic manners should suffice, and everyone at the
table should feel relaxed and at home.
A one page pdf file of the Very
Basic Table Manners.
It's easy to talk about the importance of family dinners, but a lot of
work is involved in making them happen. There are things you can do,
though, to make everything a lot easier:
Plan menus in
advance: try making a schedule of four month-long menus, one for each
with pre-made shopping lists for items that have to be bought fresh
weekly (in other words, a month-long schedule of meals that is used
three times during Spring, another month-long schedule used three times
during Summer, etc.). Gather all the schedules' called-for recipes,
print and bind them, and keep them together with the relevant schedule.
Then just note variations for feast day foods (which you can
learn about throughout the Seasonal Customs
area of the site).
A seasonal cycle of four menus that each covers four
weeks should be
plenty large enough to get around food ennui and will obviate having to
think about what to cook, what side dishes need to be made for each
entree, which dessert to serve, having to gather recipes and make
shopping lists, etc., all of which constitute half of the struggle of
cooking. (When planning, don't forget to make Fridays meat-free, and Ember Days at least partially meat-free, if
you plan on honoring the traditional calendar.)
Cook ahead: if
you're going to recycle a monthly menu, consider cooking double batches
of some of those meals, freezing them, and then reheating them the next
month. Theoretically, aside from feast day foods, you could cook one
month, take a month off, etc.
if you prepare menus that can be frozen.
meals: ex., chop onions and peppers and such and freeze them in one cup
batches (1 medium onion = 1 cup chopped; 1 bell pepper = 1 cup
chopped); if you often use a bread machine, pre-measure the dry
ingredients (flour, sugar, salt, dry milk, etc.), storing the necessary
yeast packaged separately on top, in bags, etc.
Find cheats and
hacks: e.g., use premade pie crust instead of making your own; cook
bacon and Italian sausage in the oven instead of frying them, and roast
vegetables alongside, etc.
To save time,
focus on crockpot/slow cooker-based meals, casseroles, "one pot meals,"
and roasted meats rather than meals that require lots of stove top
Clean as you go!
This is so incredibly important to keep motivated in the kitchen. It
really can't be stressed enough. Nothing's worse than spending hours
cooking -- and then facing a heap of pots, pans, and dishes afterward. As soon as you're done with the
measuring cup, wash it then and there (or put it in the dishwasher if
you have one).
children to cook while still very young and get them to help with it
and with setting the table.
Most definitely teach your children
to clean up after themselves and to do their own dishes as soon as they're able to complete
such tasks. Children should be made to be responsible for their own
messes as early as possible.
Don't be one of those parents who runs after his children and cleans up
after them; teach your children to put their own things away, where
they belong, as soon as they're done using them, playing with them,
eating off of them, drinking out of them, etc. If they spill something,
should clean it up immediately, and if they're too little to do an
adeqate job, they can help you do it -- rather, they can do it while you help them.
Get a large cast
iron dinner bell (a real bell, not a triangle) that you hang on your
wall and use to summon everyone to dinner. It's much less stressful
than repeatedly yelling across the house. The goal is a nice, peaceful
family dinner, and yelling at the top of your lungs for ten minutes,
hoping someone hears you and getting angry when they don't (or pretend
not to!), isn't a good way to begin. The act of yelling alone gets
adrenaline -- and frustration -- levels up. Avoid it.
Hang an icon of St. Marta, patron saint of
cooks and homemakers, to bless your kitchen. Consider praying novenas to her for help in your work
(since her novena involves candle-lighting, maybe you can incorporate
it into the lighting of the candle at the center of the family dinner
table each night, or at least on Tuesdays, the traditional day of the
week her novena is prayed for nine consecutive weeks).
non-cooks reading this: teach children to be grateful to the cook,
sensitive to the cook's feelings, helpful, and to show their
appreciation. You, yourself, do likewise.
1 Hofferth, S.L. and Sandberg, J.F.
(2001), How American Children Spend Their Time. Journal of Marriage and
Family, 63: 295-308. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1741-3737.2001.00295.x
2 Eisenberg ME, Olson RE, Neumark-Sztainer D, Story M, Bearinger
LH. Correlations Between Family Meals and Psychosocial Well-being Among
Adolescents. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 2004;158(8):792–796.
4 Snow, C.E. and Beals, D.E. (2006),
Mealtime talk that supports literacy development. New Directions for
Child and Adolescent Development, 2006: 51-66.
5 Nicole I. Larson, MPH, RD, Dianne
Neumark-Sztainer, PhD, MPH, RD, Peter J. Hannan, MStat, Mary Story,
PhD, RD Family Meals during Adolescence Are Associated with Higher Diet
Quality and Healthful Meal Patterns during Young Adulthood, DOI:
6 Jennifer Martin-Biggers, Kim
Spaccarotella, Amanda Berhaupt-Glickstein, Nobuko Hongu, John Worobey,
Carol Byrd-Bredbenner, Come and Get It! A Discussion of Family Mealtime
Literature and Factors Affecting Obesity Risk–, Advances in Nutrition,
Volume 5, Issue 3, May 2014, Pages 235–247,