Constantine at our table
Constantine at our table

I’ve had it on my heart to blog about this, and this past Saturday it came up from two separate sources: once at an appointment I was at that morning, and once in the Willow Creek sermon by Steve Carter that evening. So I guess that means I need to blog about it!

As a child, I always wanted my family to sit around a table for family dinners, to spend time together for at least one meal a day. Who knows why; perhaps I’d seen a few too many 80s family sitcoms. Sadly for my child self, my family was not particularly interested in such a practice. Our table was always cluttered with mail and whatever other miscellaneous items happened to have wandered onto it so that meals were normally eaten in front of the television or taken back into our bedrooms.

Fast forward to my marriage, where I continued to fail at implementing a family meal policy. As with my parents’ table before mine, the table (or coffee table, as it was the only table we had room for during a lot of the marriage) suffered from a steady accumulation of junk that I didn’t feel like clearing off, and my then-husband typically worked evenings so that the family was rarely together.  Sitting down for a meal with just myself and my disabled daughter felt awfully rinky-dink, so I seldom did it.

As my separation and divorce got underway, I realized that if I ever wanted to have the kind of family that ate meals around the table, I needed to accept that I was the one who had the power to make it happen and stop making excuses. And I remember having a conversation (of sorts) with my brain, a conversation that went something like this:

Brain: Oh, NOW you’re going to try and have family meals? NOW you’re going to try for that picturesque family time?
Me: Sure, why the hell not, Brain?
Brain: You’re a single mom! To a DISABLED KID and a BABY! You leave for your commute to your job in uptown Chicago at 6:30 AM and don’t get home until around 6:30 PM! When are you going to have time to play Martha Stewart? How many 80s sitcoms about single moms with disabled kids and babies who still made time for quality family time around the table do you remember watching?
Me: Nobody liked the 80s anyways, and I do own a slow cooker, and even if it’s only a $5 Little Caesar’s Pizza that I grabbed on my way home from work, at least a little bit of time around the table is important. So go away, Brain.

(Don’t think too hard about what I just typed, I certainly didn’t.)

In March 2014, as I began my new job with its ridiculously long commute, I implemented evening table time. At first it did seem a little rinky-dink, doing things with just me and my daughter and my little son (who was 5 months old when we started), but I soon found the time spent with the kids very rewarding. At one of our earliest meals together, I remember having this conversation with my daughter:

Me: Harley, what did you do in school today?
Harley: I twerked.
Me: (*almost choking on my food*) You what?!
Harley: I twerked in math. Then I twerked at recess.
Me: You twerked?!
Harley: Sure. Like this! (*Harley jumps up and stands on her chair to demonstrate twerking*)
Me: Hey, I know what twerking is, and… and… no twerking at the dinner table!

Pic related.

Without creating that space for family time together, I never would have experienced that amusing episode that I will surely bring up again at an opportune time. Like on Harley’s wedding day.

When my brother moved in with me in April 2014, I expected he would have no interest in table time, that he would rather continue our parents’ practice of food eaten on-the-go or alone in bedrooms. Instead, he said he would love to participate, and has regularly joined me and helped me get the kids ready for table time ever since.

How do I do it with my work/commute schedule consuming so much of my days? I use my slow cooker. I don’t own a smart pot (the kind that cooks your meal and then automatically switches to “warm” until you get home), so I prepare the pot, set it in the refrigerator, then text my brother from work to say, “It’s noon, set slow cooker to ‘LOW’ for 6 hours.” Or I just make something fast and easy when I get home (think meals that take less than 30 minutes to prepare). When I’m really exhausted or in a hurry, it’s that Caesar’s Pizza or maybe McDonald’s.

The Thanksgiving meal that I prepared for just me and my brother. Ex-husband had the kids. 2014.
The Thanksgiving meal that I prepared for just me and my brother. Ex-husband had the kids. 2014.

How successful am I? I would say we have family meals, on average, 3-5 times per week. Nights without table time are usually for good reason. For example, my ex-husband has visitation with the children every other Saturday night from 4:00 PM to 9:00 PM, and I usually make it a point to be out and about while he has the kids, so those are bad nights for family meals. This Thursday night I have a book club discussion, so no family meal then. Wednesday nights we are often rushing to get to Midweek classes at Willow Creek by around 7:00 PM, so no table time then. And so forth.

These are my tips for successful family meal times:

(1) No portable electronic devices at the table. No tablets. No smartphones. No laptops. Similarly, the television is not allowed to be on while we eat. The texting, the surfing the Web, the Facebooking, the viral videos, the Plants v. Zombies, it can all go on hold for 30-60 minutes while the family spends some time together.

(2) Involve the children as much as possible. Get them to help you clear off and set the table. Have them take turns saying the prayer. Let them give input on the side dishes, the drink, or the dessert. Give them small tasks that will help you in the kitchen. Have them help with the clean-up.

(3) Talk to the children. Ask them about their day. If a child is too young to talk (like my son), still talk to them! Table time is often peek-a-boo time for my son. He’ll cover his eyes with his hands and we’ll all say, “Where did Costa go?” He’ll grin and remove his hands and we’ll say, “There he is!”

(4) Don’t keep score, don’t beat yourself up if you’re too tired for family meal time. If you’re a busy parent, it’s bound to happen. So long as you know that a family meal has happened recently, it’s okay to just let go sometimes and be too tired to wrangle everyone to the table.

(5) The slow cooker is your friend. Get a smart pot if needed. Cook long meals (8-12 hours) that are started when you leave for work and ready when you get home.

As if I didn’t just make family meal time sound like a barrel of fun, researchers say that there are benefits to regular family meal times, like less chance of children being overweight and less chance of children developing eating disorders. So give it a try.

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