In our culture, we are raised with an ideal that I strongly suspect most cannot truly attain. Picture this: a large family dinner table, complete with Mom, Dad and three kids of various ages present, along with steaming bowls of vegetables, a meatloaf, and warm, lively conversation. Ahh, such a nice vision, and one that I would love to say is representative of the family dinners I have now, and remember as a youngster growing up in Northern Alberta.
However, the reality has been much different for me, and I’ll bet the same is true for most of you. Yes, we have dinners together, but with two parents working, seldom is there a steaming pot of anything on our table. Much more common are hot dogs from the barbecue, a pot of soup that has been quickly heated up, and if we’re lucky, all four of us at the table at the same time! Times never stop changing, and I would welcome any insights from readers that remember typical family dinners from that apparent heyday of family dinners in the 1950’s and 60’s. However, it would be a mistake in 2013 to wait for the elements of that perfect dinner to all materialize before we are truly open to connecting as a family around dinner time.
As a result, we have to rely on whatever dinner time looks like in our families as an opportunity to connect. Strangely enough, our children, teens, and even adult children living at home (welcome back to the formerly empty nest!) are not looking to be fed in some sort of structured, traditional way that is very difficult to actually pull off for most of us. They are looking to connect in an authentic way, as well as have some nourishment. But make no mistake, dinner time can be about so much more than an opportunity to refuel before the evening’s activities – families need to have their physical AND belonging needs met by this simple activity.
As a ten year old, I have vivid memories of living in a row of townhouses in an ordinary neighbourhood in Grande Prairie. For much of that time, we were a single-parent family, and my mother worked very hard to support my two younger sisters and I. We were fortunate and grateful to have always had enough to eat. Interestingly, I cannot remember any single meal we ate there, nor any specific rituals we observed at supper. I simply remember that it was often our only time to connect and be present with each other all day. Note the key words here: BE PRESENT. The beauty of supper together had little to do with the food, and everything to do with who was at the table.
Without a doubt, my sisters and I often argued and annoyed each other at the table, and I am sure I would have loved to eat in the living room in front of the television at times too. But even back in 1981 when we first lived in that home, we all knew we desired the connection time together. It was our way of feeding our need to belong; in a safe, caring family that unfortunately many did not have. My mother was always sure to engage us in conversation about the events of our day, and making plans to visit friends on the weekend, for example, and ensure that supper was never an event devoid of meaning and value for us.
Whatever supper time looks like for you, or your family, my hope is that its true value is embraced. Mealtimes together can be empty experiences of refueling, and they can be events which frustratingly never seem to live up to a preconceived ideal. However, they can also be simple, regular opportunities to connect, with or without all family members present. It is that connection and presence that our children are all seeking; as parents and as adults, we have a chance to share that simple but meaningful gift. The food itself matters little.