My column recently published in The Catholic Weekly
I like cooking for my family. I sometimes grab the free supermarket magazines for recipe ideas, get my kids involved in our family dinner, and we have lots of fun, and the whole thing is very fine.
What turns up on our dinner plates each night is mostly based on Indian, Italian or Aussie ‘meat and three veg’ influences, and anything approaching its expiry date at the supermarket that day.
But sometimes having to think about what will be for dinner each night is an irritating, even angst-ridden process. Because it is every. Single. Night.
Sometimes it feels almost an herculean effort to summon up the interest in delivering the children an interesting, nutritious meal every night. And when is the one who will only eat fish fingers, sausages, or jam sandwiches going to try anything different?
I don’t yet have that virtue GK Chesterton described, of being “strong enough to exult in monotony”.
Earlier this year the Masterfoods company came out with an advertisement as part of a social media campaign it called Make Dinnertime Matter. In case you haven’t seen it, briefly, it sent a crew around the country to ask parents and their children who, out of anyone in the world, they would most like to have dinner with.
The couples, sitting apart from their children, respond with the names of celebrities: Kylie Minogue, Marilyn Monroe, Paul Hogan, Nelson Mandela.
Then the interviewer plays for them a video of their children, primary school aged and young teenagers who have been asked the same question. The children respond with, “My whole extended family”, “My family”, “My mum and dad”.
We see their parents’ reactions of surprise, then tears, and pride. “Well, I guess I learnt a lesson,” says one father, clearly surprised.
It’s a pretty inspiring little video. Masterfoods have made an important point, even if the company’s driving purpose may have been less about bringing families together and more about selling their packaged spices to a prime target market.
It is really important for families to eat together, if possible, every day. At least as part of giving our families the best chance of being close, connected, and reasonably happy.
Steve Biddulph, a psychologist (now retired) and parenting educator, believes very strongly that it’s not quality time that matters when it comes to raising children well, but quantity time.
It is not the occasional peak experiences but lots and lots of time doing regular, everyday things with our children – like making and eating dinner and cleaning up afterwards – that enriches their relationships with us and extends their life skills.
During his Wednesday audiences last year focusing on the family, Pope Francis also exhorted parents to eat with their family, pointing out the connection between the relationships fostered at each family meal with the celebration of the Eucharist with the family of faith.
“Sitting at table for the family dinner, sharing our meal and the experiences of our day, is a fundamental image of togetherness and solidarity,” he said.
Researchers have documented a host of benefits that come with regular family meals, including increased vocabulary in younger children, lower rates of childhood obesity and lower teenage risk behaviours.
Of course, sitting down at 6.30pm with your family at the dinner table every night isn’t a guarantee of a happy family life and well-adjusted children.
It’s just that dinner is the most reasonable time to get everyone together at least a few nights a week and get a snapshot of how everyone is going. Most of us with young children and teenagers are home most evenings and we all need to eat dinner.
When work, study and extra-curricular commitments clash, and especially for families with older teenagers or young adults, some families make a rule to set aside at least one day a week when everyone commits to being home for a meal – such as Sunday.
As for anyone like me, with young children and convinced of the value of a regular family meal, but who can find making it happen a source of stress – not to mention the actual less-than-delightful variety of dinner time dramas that can occur, this is for you (and me):
“Let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up.” (Galatians 6:9)
We just need to get together, as much as possible, provide good food, as much as possible, thank God, in whatever way is comfortable and meaningful for our family, and, as the Italians would say, “Buon Appetito” or “Mangia”!