When I was a kid we had a traditional dinnertime. To be clear, my parents were divorced and family meals usually consisted of Hamburger Helper and Tang or Whole Milk shared around a dilapidated breakfast nook that was older than me after a minimum of two afterschool activities each night. For all his iconoclastic and liberal musician tendencies, my Dad held fast to a handful of traditional values, including holding family meals sacred. What do I mean by sacred? I mean that we all sat down at the same time and no one got up until everyone was done eating. I mean that you finished everything on your plate, no questions asked. I mean that if someone called, Dad usually ignored the phone, and on the rare occasion that he actually answered, he politely told the caller, "We are eating dinner right now. We'll have to call you back."
And I loved it. I loved our family dinners. I really appreciated a quiet space, away from the chaos and busyness and distraction of everyday life. I liked that we gathered together as a family, shared the trials and triumphs of our day, and smiled and laughed--a lot.
Numerous studies have shown just how important shared family meals are. This simple activity improves communication, good manners, healthy eating habits, and a whole host of wonderful things, from teaching toddlers about using utensils to reducing suicidal tendencies in teens. The studies show how important it is, and my own personal experience validated this. Accordingly, I very deliberately instituted mealtime when my daughter was old enough for a high chair. I noticed several things about creating a sacred space for mealtimes. First, Zen is utterly captivated by the seemingly mundane items and tasks involved in cooking and eating. It started when she wanted to use my fork to feed herself. Then she started grabbing food off of my plate. My cousin was dumbfounded when she joined us for dinner one night and watched Zen grab a piece of spinach covered in caeser dressing of off my plate and happily munch on it. She also loves the cooking part of it. When she was smaller I would stick her in my Moby Wrap so she could watch me chop veggies and saute them in a skillet. On a whim I let her munch on a piece of red bell pepper once, and she gnawed on it for several minutes. Now that she is older I have begun cooking in full view (and reach!) of her high chair. The other day I gave her her own chopped veggies, a mixing bowl and spoon, and a couple of spice containers to shake into her bowl. She was just in heaven.
One of the unplanned results of this activity is that I am eating healthier. I have always been one who hates cooking, loves the social aspect of going out to eat, and always picks fried and cheese-covered options when given the choice. This is pretty much the trifecta of unhealthy eating. But when Zen was starting on solid food, I patiently slaved away every weekend, buying locally-grown organic produce, running steamed veggies through the food processor, and packaging homemade baby food in individual containers for the week. The process became a labor of love, and I found myself loving the (forgive the pun) Zen-like process of it. I also unexpectedly found myself developing healthy habits against my better judgment. I got more active in backyard gardening and became something of a local-food foodie. While I cooked for my dear daughter, I would sometimes snack on the slices of fresh white peaches from the Farmers Market near my office, steamed squash from our backyard, and roasted sweet potatoes from the Urban Farm Stand I volunteered at. As she got older, I would notice a disconnect between the take-and-back pizza on my plate and the assortment of chopped produce on her tray. When she grabbed things off of my plate, I would cringe as she grabbed fried whatchamacallit and shoveled it in her mouth. If it wasn't good enough for my daughter, why was it good enough for me? I was already deliberately trying to set a good example for her by bringing her to the library for story hour every week and bringing her along with me on runs in the jog stroller and bike rides in the trailer. Shouldn't I also teach her healthy eating habits through my own example?
A third result is that I am setting better lifestyle habits for our family. Before I instituted family meal time, I wolfed down a donut or muffin at my desk at 9 am and Mike would grab a Venti Nonfat Chai and a Pumpkin Scone on his way to work. In fact, when we got back from our honeymoon the girl at our local Starbuck's affectionately started referring to me as "Mrs. Venti Nonfat Chai." I loved the result of our family dinners so much I started enjoying breakfast with my daughter. I like having gibberish conversations with her while I eat an unhurried meal. I get to savor both the food and the quality time. I think her nanny subconsciously started coming in 10 minutes earlier to join us at the breakfast table to tell us about the funny comment her husband made the night before or the celebrity trash news du jour. Even Michael--who is consistently running late--enjoys coffee from a French press now and snacks and snuggles with Zen at the table before he leaves for the office. And like dinner, I am eating much, much healthier. I make pumpkin pancakes with flaxseed and whole-wheat blueberry or zucchini nut muffins on the weekends, freeze them, and enjoy yummy, healthy, satisfying breakfasts with a side of fresh fruit during the weekdays.
Surely, it is too early to tell whether any of this will have an effect on my daughter's relationship with food or her connection with family as she progresses into her school-age and teen years. I do know that the sacred space my Dad created for our family is something I treasure to this day, and I suspect that it will be the same for my own daughter.