With everyone’s fragmented schedules, parents coming home late from work, and special diets, the enjoyment of family meals together is easily lost. And once at the table, some have a hard time being fully present (thanks to cell phones), as good table manners takes a second place to everything else. While we shouldn’t paint an idyllic picture of family meals — sometimes they can be a disaster — we all want that time to foster family togetherness.
The meal is the small daily feast where we gather around the same table to feed each other — with food and with love. It should therefore not be rushed out of the way as quickly as possible under the pretext of doing more important things. It is an important communal event that must be well prepared and fully lived.
The best memory of a family meal for 25-year-old Ethan is the dinner at his grandparents’ house after a day outdoors. “The never changing menu (soup, ham, salad, rice pudding, applesauce) was a real treat for me. We were hungry, we sat around the big table, an uncle would captivate us with his stories, and we were totally relaxed.”Food pleases the senses and contributes to happiness. It is the fuel of the body. But it is much more than that.
The meal, the foundation of family life
Behind the dishes served are the people who prepared them. For monks, cooking is even considered an act of fraternal charity: “All the monastic cooks I’ve met put a lot of love into their cooking,” notes François Lespes, director of the monthly program on KTO La Cuisine des monastères. “Over time, they get to know what their brothers’ and sisters’ like best. Goodwill comes through in the choice of recipes, seasoning, making sure that everyone has something they like, and also keeping in mind healthy foods.”
Despite the repetitive nature of their task, the family cooks are also called upon to use meals as an opportunity to show their love and spirit of giving. For their part, the guests should acknowledge it, give thanks for the cook and for the gifts of the Creator. A blessing, a compliment, a smile, a thank you, give a different tone to the daily meal. It is important to recognize these humble and real gifts of others, and to know how to thank them. “For a meal to be successful, food must be abundant and of good quality. It’s not a matter of filling the stomach, but of being full, not just from food. The food is there to make it possible to meet and commune,” explains Brother Patrick-Marie.
In fact, apart from vacations, the meal is often the only opportunity for the family to meet up, talk and spend time together. “It consolidates family life. It’s where siblings talk to each other and learn what the rest are doing. These moments are precious, we are happy to be together,” says Stéphanie Schwartzbrod, actress and author of La Cuisine de l’exil (Actes Sud). For David, father of four boys between 16 and 23, “meals are the place where we tell each other things, where we talk about what we’ve got going on as well as deeper issues. We even sometimes argue in a light-hearted way. We try to get our children to discuss what they really think about the world.”
A set of well-understood rules for a true family meal
Specifically, how do you make the meal truly family-friendly? First of all, by planning for a time when everyone will be home at the same time. “We have a monthly chart where everyone notes whether they’ll be at home or not,” explains David. Ritualizing the meal structures the family and the people: “The meal is that moment when we stop, we get back in touch with this reality that is the family gathering and which gives meaning to many of our activities,” notes Brother Patrick-Marie.
Then, by making sure that everyone finds his or her place. For Agnes, whose five children are still young, it’s a question of “making room for everyone, asking them about their day or their latest activities, but also making sure that those who talk the most don’t get too carried away. It is also an opportunity to pass on good manners and the ability to behave, to explain why one does this or that thing, at the table, and more broadly in society.” In hindsight, 23-year-old Francis notes that “meals can also be anxiety-provoking for those who do not have confidence in themselves: it is the moment when they may be compared with their brothers and sisters.” It is up to the adults to make sure that everyone has the opportunity to express themselves and to be listened to with kindness.
A well-understood set of rules also makes it easier to be together. “The thorny issue is the cell phone: at home, it has to be in silent mode during the entire meal. It’s as hard for the kids as it is for me,” says David. For the little ones, learning to stay at the table, to be patient, to listen to each other, prepares them to receive both food and conversation. It is important that during a meal, everyone greets the others, if only with a simple gesture. Opening the heart comes through paying attention to others. To develop this quality, Agnes has instituted “guardian angel” lunches: each person draws a paper with the first name of a person they must secretly take care of during the meal. At any age, sharing a meal is an opportunity for giving and therefore a source of joy. All that’s left to do is to sit down at the table and eat.
Bénédicte de Saint-Germain
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