A recent trip to visit our daughter convinced me the European habit of eating extremely long (to us) family dinners, has a lot of value for Christian families. Yet, I am realistic enough to know our lives aren’t really set up to do that every evening. So I am challenging your family to commit to trying it once a month (if you really want a serious challenge – try it once a week!).
You may agree with my thoughts in the last post and want to give it a try. You may even have a lot of questions. What if your family never sits down to a meal together? What if your kids have never sat at a dinner table for more than five minutes without a device? What if you don’t have anything to talk about? It may sound impossible, but these tips can help you successfully meet my Christian Family Dinner Challenge.
- Do it in steps. If your family never has dinner at a table together. Just try to have a “regular” dinner at the table the first month. Notice how much time you spend talking at the table. The next month try and double that amount of time. If your family dinners normally last 20 minutes, try to stretch it to 40 minutes the first month. The ultimate goal is for your family to be relaxed and enjoying sitting at the table for about 2 hours (which is still less time than European restaurants allow!).
- Plan conversation starters at first. If your family isn’t used to having long conversations, you may get a lot of “fine” and “I dunno” answers to “normal” conversation starters. Instead of asking “How was your day”, try questions like “What was the silliest thing that happened to everyone today?” or “What was one new thing you learned today?”. The internet is full of free conversation starter cards with all sorts of hypothetical questions like “If we could invite anyone to join us for dinner living or dead, who should it be and why?” Avoid topics you know are hot buttons for family members. This is not the time to ask why laundry was left on the floor or how someone plans to get their grades up this term. Remember, fun and light at first. More serious and eternal topics will begin to work into your conversations over time. You want to avoid everyone thinking of this dinner as punishment. (Note: All devices must be banned and ignored – preferably turned off entirely during the meal.)
- Be prepared to have fun. Have some silly stories to tell about growing up in the “olden days”. Tell funny family stories about grandma riding the camel. Tell jokes. Some families even play word or trivia games from memory at long dinners. Allow for some silliness. This is not the dinner to work on table manners unless they are just deplorable and even then keep it to a minimum. (You can have etiquette meals at another time!) You want everyone to think of these dinners as fun family time.
- Consider allowing others to plan the menu. Kids love to have input and “power” since it’s often denied them during the day. Having the power to plan the menu and even help prepare it, will make them more invested in the meal and excited about attending.
- Prep time counts. If the entire family participates in making their own pizzas for example AND there is a lot of interacting happening while you cook, go ahead and add this time to your total for the first month or so. After that, it’s just extra bonus time with your family.
- Try multiple courses. It sounds way too fancy for most of us, but it’s really easy to do. Serve a salad or a soup. Linger over it. Wait until everyone has finished. Slowly remove those dishes and bring the main meal. Repeat as before, then follow with dessert. It forces everyone to slow down a bit as they wait for the next course.
- Be prepared for everyone to be antsy the first couple of times. Every time I travel to a “slow meal” culture, I feel like I will lose my mind the first meal or two. By the end of my trip though, I look forward to them and even miss them when I’m gone.
- Consider theme nights. A way to add conversation topics is to have the meal revolve around a theme. We did International Food Nights once a week for quite awhile when our daughter was in elementary school. It helped her learn about other cultures, geography, mission work and most importantly it encouraged her to try new foods. (The internet has tons of free recipes and it’s usually easy to find some that will appeal to your children’s palates.)
- Don’t forget to invite God. I’m not suggesting you put an empty chair for Him at the table (although I know some do), but rather, don’t forget to have a heartfelt prayer or even two during your meal. Insert godly wisdom and scripture when it is appropriate or needed. Tell faith building stories of how God has worked or is working in your lives. Be as natural as you can. If your family doesn’t normally talk about God a lot, it may feel a little forced at first. Over time though God will become part of your daily conversations as well.
- Don’t try this at an American restaurant! Most restaurants in the U.S. count on turning over tables to make money. If you have older, well-behaved children and want to do this at a restaurant, try to choose one known for leisurely dining. If you notice the tables around you have turned over multiple times in a full restaurant while you are eating, consider ordering dessert and definitely leave a larger tip than normal. Or if you ever take your family on an international vacation, make a reservation at a local restaurant and take your time enjoying each other and the great local cuisine!
Long family meals can make a huge difference in the lives of your family and particularly the lives of your kids. Secular studies have discovered over and over, kids who have family dinners are much less likely to exhibit all those concerning negative behaviors of the teen years. They even tend to get better grades. Personally, I think the emotional and spiritual benefits are even greater. So pull out your cookbooks or your take-out menus and your calendar and map out those long family dinners for 2016!