By Stephanie Thompson, Crosswalk.com
Lauren Winner writes about the spiritual practice of hospitality in her book Mudhouse Sabbath: "God's creation gives us a model for making and sharing homes with people, but the reality of God's Trinitarian life suggests that Christian hospitality goes further than that. We are not meant simply to invite people into our homes, but also to invite them into our lives."
Within a fast-paced culture accustomed to a diet of fast food on the run, sharing a meal around the table becomes challenging. Yet, as Winner points out, the practice has sacred implications.
When we eat together with family and friends, we acknowledge the ways God provides nourishment for the body and soul.
Sharing Meals in Biblical Times
Hospitality played a core value in ancient Jewish culture. Offering food to others, whether family or strangers, demonstrated hospitality that went beyond purely cultural expectations. It is no surprise that Jesus' ministry often involved feasting with others.
He shared a meal and connection with sisters Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38-42). Jesus multiplied a small ration of fishes and bread to feed all in his presence (Matthew 14:13-21). His first miracle took place at a wedding feast (John 2:1-11).
Some of the parables use a feast as a setting for the story (such as Luke 14:7-14). And two of the most prophetic moments with his disciples occur around the table: first, at the Last Supper (Luke 22:7-23) and second, breakfast on the beach after his resurrection (John 21:12).
Family dinners around the table often gets sidelined to individual preparation and consumption or take-out on the road. In recent years, much has been written about the need to restore the regular practice of family mealtimes.
Research shows multiple benefits. Anne Fishel, Ph.D., a family therapist and co-founder of The Family Dinner Project, describes the kinds of gains that can come from family mealtime: “The benefits range from the cognitive ones (young kids having bigger vocabularies and older kids doing better in school) to the physical ones (better cardiovascular health, lower obesity rates and eating more vegetables and fruits) to psychological ones (lower rates of depression, anxiety, eating disorders, substance abuse and fewer behavioral problems in school).”
Here are 5 practical reasons why eating dinner together is so important.
1. It Creates Uninterrupted Interaction
Our fingertips tend to connect more frequently with a keyboard than human hands. Eating dinner together, allows us to unplug and strengthen relationships with those most important to us.
Learning to be present with others and listen is a necessary skill. One question that I learned to ask at our table was, “What was the best part and the worst part of your day?” Not only does this exercise promote listening skills but it also allows cathartic expression to occur in a safe and supportive environment.
It presents the opportunity for parents to gauge what’s going on in the lives of their kids. In addition, kids hear their parents share their own vulnerability as they share their joys and struggles.
Sometimes, sharing openly doesn’t come easily. Personalities and family dynamics may affect the willingness of kids to open up their hearts. Therefore, adding a twist to the dinner routine brings a fresh tone to the table. What are some options?
- Devotions. The dinner table may be the easiest place to converse about scripture. Plenty of great family devotional books can be found through Christian bookstores or on Amazon. Try taking turns leading the discussion.
- Games. How about a pizza and game night? Games allow conversation to take place in a less intimidating environment.
- Conversation starters. There are several sites which offer questions to fuel conversation. Here’s a great one: 30 Awesome Questions Your Kids Will Love to Answer.
- Stories. Sometimes, my kids would listen to an inspiring story from Chicken Soup for the Soul (kids or teen version) or solve detective brainteasers. Learn what excites your kids and make it an activity for the whole family to engage in.
2. It Provides Routine
We all find comfort in rituals. They allow us to identify those places of refuge which bring a sense of stability when our circumstances may feel unpredictable or out of control.
As a college student, I studied in Sweden for three months. Through my experiences living on the college campus and interacting with its citizens, I became aware how much Sweden valued connection around the table. Businesses closed by 5:00pm in order to prioritize family dinner time. In addition, I became familiar with a delightful cultural routine called Fika.
In most businesses and colleges, Fika is implemented twice daily: once in the morning and once in the afternoon. Each 15-minute interval required all to pause and connect around the table while feasting on cookies and tea or juice. Who can resist that opportunity?
The habit allows needed time to disengage from “work” and benefit from connecting with others with no other agenda than to be present. Routines which allow us connections which nurture the body and soul recharge us in the midst of our often-unpredictable days.
3. It Teaches Life Skills
Amy Osmond Cook writes about the benefit of incorporating kids into meal preparation: “You can encourage your kids, big and little, to eat more healthy foods by getting them involved in meal prep. When your kids help you shop for and prepare the food, you can let them pick which healthy food they want to make and teach them ways to make delicious, healthy meals. Cooking together is also a great opportunity to talk with your kids about nutrition and making good food choices.”
How many times have parents felt the frustration of hearing “There is nothing good to eat”? Or dealing with a picky eater. Planning meals with your kids may take more time but the benefit of less wasted food and the interaction in the kitchen will be worth it.
Furthermore, kids learn other life skills such as math, reading and science as they explore cooking.
4. It Cultivates Opportunities to Practice Hospitality
One of the key components of Biblical hospitality involves inviting others to your table and sharing your resources. I remember the fun of being invited to a friend’s home for a meal.
Once in a while, I tagged along to a restaurant. My kids have fond memories of eating at our neighbor’s home. Many times, we swapped kids at dinner and often spontaneously. Those times together allow the host the joy of providing for the physical needs of others as well as building relationships in a welcoming environment. The guest experiences new tastes and routines. It’s a safe way for kids to get out of their comfort zones and practice meal etiquette in new environments.
There is movement toward creating weekly opportunities to strengthen relationships with neighbors over food. One such example is Friday Night Meatballs, which you can read more about here.
Other families I know gather for a simple soup and bread dinner during the chilly winter months. My own family is planning to host a potluck style summer barbeque with our neighbors once a month. How could you invite others to your table?
Gathering around the table invites us to connect with others as well as teaches kids why conversation is the most important course. Mealtime is frequently reduced to a quick consumption of food while preparing to get on to the next task.
Human interaction is often reduced to brief exchanges in the drive-through lane or pick-up area. Yet, God gifts us with relationship. We learn more about God’s character when we spend time with each other.
We are reminded of the ways God provides when we share in food that has arrived at our mouths after recognizing the many hands involved in the process.
5. Remember That Conversation is the Main Course
It is important to remember why we are gathering, not when or what we are eating.
For some families, dinner may not be the optimal time. Perhaps breakfast together works better. Maybe it means eating together a few times a week instead of every day. Or, taking time to prepare homemade food is a challenge right now.
Consider eating out or ordering in, which still allows your family to share in uninterrupted interaction, routine, and practice hospitality. If your children are grown, find friends with whom you can eat. Just find what best works for you!
In our feasting communities, whether large or small, may we embrace the Psalmist’s words to “Taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8).
Stephanie Thompson is an ordained pastor, speaker, writer and mental health advocate. Her writing can be found on various sites around the web. She lives in the suburbs of Chicago with her husband and three children. You can learn more about her at www.stephaniejthompson.com and follow her Facebook.
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