My son is now at Rice and the college system still thrives there. However, family style meals have given way to the food court style servery. There are lots of choices and the food is definitely tastier than when I was a student.There is no set dining time. Unfortunately, such a dining style is not a new experience for most of the students. They did not grow up in homes where you turn off the television and the computer, close the books, and gather at the table for a meal. Catching a meal on the run is the only way they know to eat. Perhaps this makes sense in the college setting. It makes no sense for families.
Study after study illustrate the benefits of family meals. There are fewer behavior problems, higher SAT scores, and better eating habits in children who have family meals at least three times per week. In many households, this can seem daunting. I promise you the benefits are worth the effort. Dinners do not have to be fancy. Grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup are a favorite around here.
You will have to look at your family and see what is flexible and what is not. During the early years of our family, both my husband and I worked full time as Air Force officers. We had three children under the age of four. There is no way I could have a set dinnertime. Meals consisted of a lot of convenience foods that could be served pretty quickly once we were all home. An early dinner was at 6 pm. It was not unusual for us to eat at 8pm or later. Our kids didn’t seem to mind since eating together was just what we did. I don’t think they ever realized there was an alternative. This flexible style continues to work well. I've cut back on my employment, but now the kids have activities. We structure our meals around soccer practices, Scouts, music lessons, etc. as much as possible. I do not get everyone’s knees under my dinner table at every meal, but even through the teenage years, I have gotten most knees there for most meals. Since I am home most of the time, I am cooking more and using less convenience foods. I love my crockpot! Cooking in big batches and freezing half also keeps me ready for harried schedules.
So you manage to get the family together around the table—then what? First you pray. The very basic act of saying grace before meals puts God in the center of your family. Use the meal time to teach good manners, but don’t make dinnertime conversation a steady stream of corrections. Work on behavior a little at a time. Waiting patiently as food is passed is the beginning of self-discipline and self-control. Teach by example and always say “please” and “thank-you”. Don’t forget to thank the cook. My husband has always been very good about telling me “thank you” for preparing the meals. The children have learned by his example. Now when they eat at someone else’s home they are always good about thanking the host or hostess for the meal. During mealtime conversations is also when children learn to listen. Once again, you must teach by example. My boys always wanted to describe their playground athletic exploits in excruciating detail. Listening patiently as they painted a verbal picture of their heroics keeps them talking at the dinner table. As they get older, the topics become far more interesting and relevant. What starts off as prattle about the most amazing touchdown pass may very well end up as an insightful conversation about teenage angst. Mealtime is the time for family members to share their priorities, schedules, plans, wants, and needs. We share the faith with discussions of what’s coming up on the liturgical calendar. We talk about what is doable and what is not. The children learn to share and compromise. Good manners learned in the family community will make them much better citizens in our larger communities. Without this training, children grow into adults who always expect to get what they want when they want it. As Bishop Loverde states in his essay on manners:
Manners inform and guide the way in which we encounter each other. Manners allow us to die to ourselves and place the needs of another before our own.
So once again I encourage you to peruse the web site of Grace Before Meals. Support this movement to re-establish the institution of family meals. We will strengthen our communities one Domestic Church at a time. Around the dinner table is a good place to start.