The best times my family and I spent together were during vacations. Not merely because we’d be excited to travel, but also because it was the only time we’d sit together at the table for every meal. We’d tease each other, steal food off one another’s plates and plan the day together. It was in these moments that my family seemed most happy. I wish we’d made eating together an everyday practice at home. After all, the dinner table had been our happy place during vacations.
Sadly, it’s not just my own family. In many homes, family breakfasts are difficult; everybody’s in a rush to get to work or school. Special Sunday lunches seldom work out; necessary shopping gets in the way. But what about family dinners? I’m sure not many of us have a genuine excuse to skip those. Unfortunately, many modern families still forego the practice, just so each member can separately watch their favourite shows on TV or laptops.
Traditionally, various cultures around the world are known to observe family mealtime as a treasured practice. While studying in London, I lived with a lovely French family. Every night, without fail, the couple and their two teens would cook and eat together at the table. They’d invite me to join them, whenever they had other guests coming over. They’d even cook vegetarian food just for me, each time–and I was told it’s quite a challenge for the French!
My landlady Annick Guichard would tell me, “We’re French. We love to cook. And we love to eat with friends and family.” Recently, her daughter Alix moved out for higher education. But she continues to follow this tradition with her new flatmates, Annick tells me. “My daughter sends me photos every day, to show the ethnic specialities her flatmates have cooked. Each one is from a different country, you see–Portugal, Algeria, Jamaica, and Spain,” she says.
Thanks to Annick’s dinner-table ritual, her daughter has made it an everyday practice to cook and eat with her flatmates, making a new family of sorts. Alix seldom orders in food. I’d say she’s a pretty good example of what family dining can do to your lifestyle. A study has shown that with regular family dining, children would be 35 percent less interested in unhealthy foods and 24 percent more likely to eat nutritious foods. What better way to watch your diet than to cook your own food?
Good food certainly entices everyone to the dinner table and keeps them healthy. But for some, it’s entirely about the family bonding that comes with eating together. Nikhil M M, an Indian IT professional, has enjoyed regular family meals since childhood. He says, “The dinner table has always been a place of family huddle to discuss our woes and joys. We find it so relaxing that we rarely bother about what’s on the table.”
Indeed, we all cherish the warmth that comes with such family dynamics. In fact, for one of her studies, child development expert Ellen Galinsky asked a thousand children, “If you were granted one wish about your parents, what would it be?” The parents thought their kids would say they wish to spend more time with them. They were wrong. Instead, the kids wished their parents were less stressed. What better way to unwind after a long day, than talking to your kids at the dinner table?
Family dining needn’t be long. It’s all about the quality of time you share with your loved ones. Bruce Feiler, the author of The Secrets of Happy Families, suggests in his Ted Talk Agile programming for your family that we consider a quick midnight snack with our families if we can’t make time otherwise. After all, psychologists have established that being flexible with family time can go a long way in supporting one another emotionally.
Technology consultant Emre Tuncoglu is a busy bee. Between keeping up with his stringent deadlines and meeting clients, he rarely finds time to sit at the dinner table and chat with his wife and kids. He shares, “Eating together with family is a very important Turkish tradition. I used to follow it as a child. I remember how reassuring it was to have the whole family at the table. So, I work extra hard to make sure my wife and kids see me at weekend breakfasts and dinners.”
Those who’ve been raised by families that eat together–like Emre, Nikhil, and Annick–truly understand the value of the practice. Most others are deterred by their own lack of cooking skills. But really, family meals needn’t be grand five-course spreads. American culinary professional Elizabeth David, in A Book of Mediterranean Food, writes that great food is simple. She maintains that food needn’t be fancy and that enjoying ordinary food with loved ones makes for a perfect meal. Her mantra for a balanced physical and emotional wellbeing is easy: Cook simple meals and eat together.
Furthermore, sociologists have found that some families that don’t find time to cook, order in a take-out, but eat together anyway. While the food may not be as healthy as a home-cooked meal, the very virtue of eating together still fosters a positive family environment, they note. So, what’s your reason for not making it to the table?
Some things hold a special place in my heart. This place of honour does not go to the luxury resorts I visited with my family or the exotic quotient of Annick’s French food. Instead, the moments I cherish are stealing food off my dad’s plate, pulling my mum’s leg, and partnering up with my sister in such crimes. What I fondly remember is sharing recipes with Annick, telling her about my country’s culture, listening to her views on French politics, and being a part of her family conversations.
Sweet memories don’t need big events; they’re made special by small, everyday moments like these. It’s what the dinner table has in store for any willing family member–laughter, warmth, oneness, and love. We need only make it to the table to create a lifetime’s worth of memories.