Food together at the table

If you don’t share mealtime with your family, make sure you do. Here’s why


Envisage this scene. It is the family dining room and delightful aromas of a delicious dinner are wafting around. There is laughter, gaiety and a family looking forward to a shared meal. Isn’t it a pretty picture? Sadly this scene, quiet a common fixture about a decade back, of having food together is getting rare today. TV dinners, eating out, hectic lifestyles have elbowed this feature out of the family life. The disappearance of family meal has also rapidly lessened family conversations.

However, there are many reasons why this practice should be revived in earnest.

A shared meal would enable all the members to sit together and share their day with each other. Many issues between different members could be amicably resolved over a plate of dessert. This is the time when, through small anecdotes, the kin connect and a tenacious bond is developed.

When each of us relates our day every day, one gets a hang of the pattern. You are curious about the developments—the first date, the project proposal, the tiff. This is where the involvement starts. One just has to relate the problem to get a stream of suggestions from everyone. The conversation is not static. It jumps from topic to topic—related to school, office, food, the neighbourhood, headlines; the sky is the limit. These interactions go beyond mere exchange of memories. In fact they encourage perspective-taking, critical thinking, theory-building, and relationship roles within the family. When any member is showing a marked aberration from normal, the rest usually put him on track. A well-functioning family learns to accept that each person is different and yet be supportive. This can only be learnt if the differences are thrown regularly at each other, allowing everyone time to acclimatise to them.

Building language skills

Researches show that children belonging to a communicative family display well developed language skills. How can one expect children who do not hear any conversation to pick up the language? The to and fro tossing of conversation provides a live example to the young minds and also gives them something to think about thereby enhancing their linguistic skills.

Diane E. Beals, Ed.D., assistant professor of education University of Tulsa mentions in her Journal of Child Language that children of about 3 – 4 years who hear ‘rare’ words on the dinner table, score extremely well in the spelling bee competitions later in life. They also develop a better vocabulary. Vocabulary enhancement cannot be done through formal learning. The meaning of an unfamiliar word is better grasped during a casual family mealtime conversation. If the word is repeated often enough, you catch on to the meaning, the usage and the syntax better than any book.

Learning and polishing your table manners

Nothing is more obnoxious than a person with bad table manners. Many opportunities in life are lost due to sloppiness. It is said that the best way to teach something is to set a good example. Having a meal together is a good way to teach civilisation to children. If parents follow the rules of etiquette on the dining table, the children will automatically pick them up and develop good table manners. Garima Midha, a chartered accountant from Mumbai and a mother of a well-behaved 6-year-old expresses, “I dislike children with shoddy table manners. And they get away with it because parents give excuses that they are just kids. I for one make it a point to lay the table properly and teach my son proper table etiquette. With the TV switched off, of course!”

It’s not just kids, but at times as adults we too need to polish our eating etiquette. Being at the table with the family ensures that everyone present there sticks to the right table etiquette. That would not necessarily happen if we were to eat alone in our study or while watching the television.

Not just being together, but sharing life

The family can have dinner to be together or be together to have dinner. It is the perspective that matters.

It is no use to just be together at dinner for the sake of being there or, even worse, staring zombie-like at the TV all the time. Conversation is the key. An effort does have to be made initially to start the ball rolling. There after tossing and catching the ball of a spirited conversation becomes an eagerly awaited ritual.

For me, dinner was the most memorable time of my childhood. It was unanimously vibrant for everyone because we shared our experiences and pitched in. Most vividly I remember my brother; all of two then, would join in, shouting some gibberish and banging the spoons in excitement.

Everybody learns from the anecdotes related. The older generation gets to know the modern techno crazy world. The kids get a peek into what’s happening in the parents’ lives.

Encouraging each other to try new cuisines

The family as a unit serves as a role model for healthy eating. If eating healthy food is considered okay by most of the members, the others follow suit. It is not always parents who guide the children towards newer foods. Often it is the kids who introduce newer cuisine to the parents. So irrespective of the age and generation, openness towards accepting newer cuisines does develop slowly.

A dinner table is a good place to encourage new experiences. There are a lot of people who would reject a new dish outright. However, on a family table, a hesitant novice can be coaxed to try out a new cuisine. Sometimes it is tried just to avoid hurting the feelings of the person offering. This gentle push, breaking the barrier of the unknown, can translate into life lessons applicable to vistas more varied than mere food.

Also read » Cook food, serve love

Cooking and serving food together

Having a family dinner can be a collective affair. All family members pitch in the activity. Some lay the table, others clear it. If one is doing the primary cooking, others can help in the preparations or shopping for ingredients. This interdependence always increases the bonding between the family members. It also allows the development of life skills—the kind not taught in any school. People become master chefs by learning at mom’s kitchen—perhaps starting with tossing a salad and slowly moving up towards casseroles and desserts. Similarly, the intricate art of good table laying can be learnt only by practical application.

Girija Khanna, grandmother many times over shares, “We always wait for every family member to arrive at the table, before we begin eating. The fact that there is someone waiting for you at the dinner table speeds up even errant members. It is sad to see some households where each person eats separately and at different times.”

If each member eats dinner separately, the food needs to be reheated many times causing loss of nutrients. Also when the whole clan is eating together, there would be less food wasted as the members can share food according to their requirements.

A family that eats together stays together. So here’s to more cherished family meals.

This was first published in the February 2013 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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Sia Mitra is a New Delhi-based freelance science writer.