I’ve discussed eating before in a previous blog post. It was about changing my diet and experimenting with what made my body feel good. There are other important aspects of eating though. Food is not just physical nourishment, but psychologic nourishment as well. Eating a meal has a social, communal and deeply spiritual meaning. This post is about the meal, not the food.
Food is a basic need. The desire we have for and pleasure we get from food is deeply seated in our primitive reptilian brain. It is perhaps only second to sex as the most pleasurable activity we partake in. In fact, it stimulates many of the same pleasure centers in our brain.
Most of our social functions and activities are centered on food. The first thing we offer a guest is something to eat or drink. This seems to be near universal among vastly different societies.
Food is also a bonding activity. No matter our differences we set them aside when the chocolate torte and ice cream are served. I’ve noticed it is almost impossible to have an argument while eating dessert. Unfortunately I cannot say the same thing about broccoli.
Our patterns of eating are changing though, and by doing so we are changing the meaning of food. We consume more food alone, in our cars, on the couch in front of the television, in front of the computer while scanning our twitter feed.
This is not a great development, especially if you have a family. Food should bring people together, not isolate them. One ritual I have fought hard to hold onto and refuse to compromise on is the family dinner.
This may seem like a trivial thing, but I would say we eat dinner together, without television or other distractions 95% of the time. I make plenty of parenting mistakes, believe me, but this is not one of them.
The dinner table is the command center of our house. It is where important family matters get discussed and problems solved. It is where lessons (and lectures) are consumed along with the wonderful food Mrs. Happy Philosopher prepares for us (most nights). Often time major problems are not solved, but it doesn’t really matter, because in 24 hours we will have another shot at them.
It is a time for a little goofiness and mild teasing. Dinner is the reset button for the day and sets the stage for the evening rituals and going to sleep.
Now I’m not saying it’s always perfect. Sometimes we eat quickly because it is late. Most of the time there are no critical conversations, but it is sacred time that we can all count on.
Eating alone has been linked with all sorts of negative things like obesity, eating disorders, drug and alcohol use, poor school performance and depression. Cause and correlation are often somewhat nebulous, but it’s worth pondering.
Perhaps the most common excuse for not eating together is that there is just not enough time. This seems to be the excuse for anything, but 99% of the time it is just that, an excuse. We do have time. All of us have the same 24 hours in the day. When we say we don’t have time for something it means we have not made it a priority. When we don’t have time it is likely we forgot how to say no to the things in our lives that add no value. Many kids are probably overscheduled. We (the parents) are as well. We work too many hours to make money to buy crap we don’t need to impress people that don’t care anyway. It is likely we don’t understand the marginal utility of both time and money.
The good news is that it is never too late to change. We have more power than we think. Here is my simple plan for reclaiming dinner time, using it as a powerful tool for happiness and connection.
My 6 Step Method
Step 1: Tell the family about the new plan. People seldom like rapid change. Give everyone a warning that this is coming so there are no surprises.
Step 2: Eliminate distractions. Make it a hard rule that no screens will be on during dinner. No television. No computers. Consider turning off the router for a bit so no one will be tempted. No tablets or phones. We relaxed this last one so we could look up interesting things we are talking about. We also have the television on once a year at dinnertime to watch the super bowl. I don’t even know why we do this as watching football is one of the more boring activities I can think of. Some years we have a picnic on the family room floor and relentlessly mock the stupidity of commercials and vow not to buy any of the products we see. Often that is more fun than the actual game.
Step 3: Start cooking. This is where I’m going to lose a lot of people (assuming everyone didn’t stomp away after I banned TV and Facebook from the dinner table). When a bunch of easily prepared processed junk is available for people to eat, and everyone can just microwave what they want there is no barrier to fracturing the mealtime ritual. This has to stop. Start small with a couple of meals per week, but everyone should be eating the same food. This is part of the bonding experience. There are 6 gazillion websites dedicated to cooking fast, simple, healthy meals. Find one of them and get started.
Step 4: Have everyone help prepare the table. Optimally everyone should help prepare the food as well, but since most nights this does not happen in our house having people set the table is a good compromise. Everyone should be at least a tiny bit invested in dinner. It can even be as small of a thing as being the person that tells everyone dinner is served.
Step 5: Eat and talk. This is both the easy part and the hard part. If you are not used to eating together it might be a little awkward at first. Give it time. Conversation will eventually start flowing. Ask crazy questions like “What was the dumbest thing you saw someone do at school today?” or “Why don’t more people wear mismatched socks?” or “Who would win in a fight, a lion or grizzly bear?” *
Step 6: Clean-up. Everyone seems to evaporate when it is clean-up time and acts shocked when asked to help. This is universal and will be just as prevalent after 10 years of eating together so don’t expect it to go away.
You Can Do It
I can feel thousands** hundreds of excuses being simultaneously hurled through the internet at me. I get it. Life is busy. Routines are established. Change is hard. If you are satisfied with your life then maybe you shouldn’t change it. There are probably many families out there that never eat one meal together and are perfectly happy and well adjusted. But if not, I offer you this very high yield, low cost solution to try. If dinner it too hard, make it breakfast. This would not work well in my house because everyone is too tired and cranky to talk. In fact, just looking at someone at the breakfast table will set off an arms race of cereal box wall building so no one has to make eye contact with one another.
Eating is essential to our survival, but it is more than that. Eating is the framework of our society. We all have to do it. It brings us together. Food is life. When we eat, it makes us feel good, and if we are around the people we love, it reinforces these feelings. If you are feeling adrift with your family relationships, try reclaiming dinnertime to heal.
*If you are lazy and can’t think up questions you could check out The Key Jar (My wife found it on Momastery.com) which is a very Mom…ish site, not really my thing but I don’t think I’m their target demographic. Alternately have everyone make up different questions as a group to write down and pull out of a jar/box/hat when needed for conversation. Have everyone have to tell one positive and one negative they experienced/witnessed that day. Play 2 truths and a lie. By the way, my money is on the bear.
**Thousands would probably be an exaggeration of my blog readership.