by Emily Olson
You’ve seen a variation of this image in countless commercials: Warm lights illuminate tables where joyful people join together to share delicious food and each other’s company. While these staged scenes obviously lack the mess, chaos, and frustration that family meals can actually entail (anyone with a toddler is nodding right now), the images work because they play on our universal desire for togetherness and belonging. And what better place to enjoy this than over steaming hot, succulent fare?
Unfortunately, fewer and fewer families take time to sit together and eat. Incredibly, according to a 2014 report in The Atlantic, “the average American eats one in every five meals in her car, one in four Americans eats at least one fast food meal every single day, and the majority of American families report eating a single meal together less than five days a week.” Despite many, many proven reasons to join together at meals, from nutritional advantages to better educational outcomes to improved family relationships, we often fail to make it happen.
Sometimes the hurdles are practical. We have different work and school schedules that make joint mealtimes difficult to coordinate. But sometimes the obstacles are less tangible. It takes energy and effort, not to mention patience and persistence, to cook and sit down together, giving each other — rather than jobs, school work, social media or any number of individual activities — our attention and care. Ultimately, we simply don’t prioritize eating together. We’re busy, tired, sometimes lazy (let’s be honest) and habitually distracted. We neglect joining together due to our myopic focus not on the overflowing cup God provides for us but on our own pursuits. It’s exactly the wrong kind of bread, and a lonely, anxious toil, that we choose.
But the fact is that we have a deep need to eat together. Our marriages and families, and we ourselves, are better for shared mealtimes. They “may be the one time of the day when [family members] can share a positive experience — a well-cooked meal, a joke, or a story — and these small moments can gain momentum to create stronger connections away from the table,” Dr. Anne Fishel, director of the Family Dinner Project, reminds us. This is common sense. We all know that the best practices are those cultivated over time and sustained and often small efforts. And as Christians, we know that God blesses us with all good things, including food and family. So how do we cherish these gifts together on a regular basis?
Here are some ideas to help make eating together a regular reality.
- Make a plan. You have to schedule everything else in your life; you might as well schedule meals! This also means you can plan your menus, a practice that can save you both time and money. I love my narrow whiteboard with the days of the week printed on it that hangs in our kitchen. Once a week I write out breakfasts and suppers — the meals most of us share every day — on the board. It takes about ten minutes and leaves me relaxed about what we’ll be eating. The menu also informs my grocery list and fits our lives (slow cooker meals for busy days, for example). You can find countless other meal planning ideas here.
- Enlist help. Maybe your husband likes flipping pancakes. Maybe your wife loves roasting veggies. Maybe someone’s home early on Tuesday and can finish sides. Maybe your small fry like to sit on the counter and dump ingredients and your teens like eating (of course). Figure out some way to get everyone’s hands involved, even if that means mandatory setting the table, clearing up, or dish washing or drying. The time together that continues as you prep and clean means that everyone wins.
- Sit at a table. This might seem self-evident, but truly, being able to see the faces of your family as you pass bowls and listen to anecdotes from the day is a big deal. Counters and couches are fun, but face time — the old-fashioned kind — is priceless.
- Ditch the screens. Whether it’s the TV, tablet or phone, make screens off-limits at the table. If you wonder how you’ll manage conversations, check out dinner games for all ages at the Family Dinner Project, among other resources, to get some entertaining ideas. The time and conversation you enjoy together are important — and usually the most cherished part of shared meals — so make a point of paying attention to each other and not screen distractions.
- Get creative. Sometimes the plan, the help or the table just doesn’t work. That’s okay. The important thing is to keep trying. Sometimes my husband has to work late and miss supper with the rest of us, so he eats a plate of warmed-up food while I sit with him. Sometimes the kids have overlapping activities, so the only time we’re all together is snack time. Sometimes boxed macaroni and cheese and ten minutes of a little chat and joint chowing is all you get. The point is that you can find something that works so that eating together is possible.
- Receive Christ and join together at the Lord’s Table. God unites Himself with us at His own table. At the altar, we receive Jesus’ body and blood for the forgiveness of our sins. We are reconciled with God. At the same time, we are also united together at the rail with other believers as the Body of Christ. Sharing this holy meal together as God’s family at church helps us put our everyday mealtimes as members of our own families into a larger context.
We can’t replicate the slick hominess of the supper times we witness in advertisements (and really, who would want to?), but we can embrace what we’ve been given. By prioritizing eating together, we can cherish anew the common table prayer that invites our Lord to be with us and unites us around a shared table: “Come, Lord Jesus, be our Guest, and let these gifts to us be blessed.” Amen.
Emily Olson is a member of Trinity Lutheran Church, Casper, Wyoming.