Family life is complicated, demanding, frustrating, and stressful. It is also wonderful when it soothes, replenishes, and nourishes. Parents with infants know the anxious intensity of their hungry child’s anticipation of the next spoonful of apple sauce, the warm embrace of their baby’s eye contact as it briefly looks up from sucking from the breast or bottle, and the joyous smile of their three year old blowing out the candles on his or her birthday cake. Food and needs celebrate our lives. All occasions and milestones include food because of food’s ability to bind us together in a shared experience. The shared meal helps us open doors to each other in ways that are primitive and precious. As parents you will want to take full advantage of food’s potential to connect and even define your family.
The time to start is at the beginning. Your baby needs to experience hunger and then satisfaction. That basic dynamic is the source for all our developmental challenges. We must have a need, we must be able to experience an appropriate amount of frustration in relationship to that need or want, and we must then be able to experience some satisfaction in relation to it. You need to feed your baby when he or she is clearly hungry and you want to evolve your baby’s eating to be meal-like. The capacity of your baby to recognize the hunger of and to then anticipate the satisfaction of the meal gives rise to the psychosocial space needed to fully enjoy meals with you. Not all meals need to be eaten together; however, it is optimal if one predictable meal per day can be shared by family members. Work schedules, school demands, sports demands, social desires, and electronics can all serve to interfere with the family meal. If mealtime has been established as a basic structure in the family during the first three years of your child’s life, then it is likely to endure the stresses of later developmental demands. The importance of parents sharing meals as both parents and as marital/life partners should also be highlighted. The demands of parenthood are considerable and as a couple you deserve and need to share predictable satisfaction together. The family meal provides you with that. Your children benefit when they can sit back and listen to the music of your voices and the substance of your living. You are giving them an invaluable insight into the experience of living and the joys and challenges of adulthood. But most of all, they are seeing how the people that care for them the most, care for each other. You are teaching them about life. As a couple you are responsible for helping your children see that as two people you are committed to the happiness and well being of yourself and your partner. The family is not exclusively for the welfare of children; it also is responsible for serving the needs of the adults as a couple and each adult as an individual.
Meals start with planning, then preparation, then serving, then eating, then ending, and finally cleanup. As parents you need to consider each step and how you want the tasks associated to be accomplished. As much as possible, children should be included in all phases from as young as possible. The ability to feel engaged in the process, increases the experience of meaning and connection. Thinking about what foods need to be put on the shopping list, assisting at the grocery store, helping to put food away after purchase—those tasks help give children an appreciation for what goes into preparing for a meal. Assisting with food preparation—dumping cut up carrots or peppers in a pot, punching bread dough, shaping cookies, stirring soup, “playing with food” can be a real job for children especially when they do it with you. The smells of your food cooking become the soothing anticipation for your upcoming meal. You are teaching your children how to work and postpone gratification until the time is right. You are teaching them to resist temptation and to manage their hunger for the greater good of a shared meal with people they love and who love them.
Your children should help you set the table. By age three or four, they will be able to help, even though it will be more work for you when they do. However, the work you do with them now, when for them it is like play, helps to prepare them to accept their responsibility for helping the family to function. Your children are not there for you to serve them or for them to serve you. You share your lives together and you need to teach them what it means to be a useful part of the family and how they are to become useful members of society.
Serving the meal is best done with everyone either at the table or helping with the serving itself. Once the food is completely served, then the meal can commence. If prayers are employed, then the need is ushered in by that process. The meal itself is a time for general checking in with the mood and daily life of each member. It happens informally, but a rhythm will develop and over time each person develops a good measure of his or her family members. Parents can easily assess the attitudes of children and potential conflicts. Children can listen in on the tales of the adult lives of their parents. Manners are taught and values are imparted. Family members share a common space and time that becomes the family heartbeat. Comments and compliments about the food selection, preparation, and presentation help everyone feel good. As hungry bellies are filled, there is a sense of warmth and quiet joy. It is now time to clean up. Children should be expected to help as much as possible while parents should supervise and support; try to have fun. Postpone dessert until after cleanup—it helps get the work done. Be generous with compliments as you all work together. A successful meal with your family is the single most influential tool in the construction of a family that can nurture and guide each of its members in an atmosphere of warmth and shared responsibility.