What Ever Happened To Family Dinners?

These words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. (Deuteronomy 6:6-7)

Recently my wife told me about a conversation she had with a male friend of ours whose wife was expecting a baby. The due date was imminent and my wife, being the caring and thoughtful woman that she is, asked this friend if she could make them some meals to help with the transition of bringing a new baby into the house. It’s a fairly common practice these days, friends and loved ones chipping in to help provide meals to a family with a new baby. It’s just one less thing for sleep deprived parents to have to worry about. Some people did that for us when both of our boys were born and it helped tremendously. I think there are even web sites designed especially for people to sign up to provide meals in this way in an organized fashion.

So my wife was a bit taken aback when this friend seemed perplexed by this offer. At first my wife simply thought that maybe he had never heard of this particular practice, but she became even more surprised when she realized that his confusion was not over the gesture she was making, but was confused about the concept of a home cooked meal to begin with.

“Oh, that’s not necessary,” He said, politely declining the offer, “We don’t even usually cook dinner anyway; we usually just make ourselves sandwiches or stop for fast food.”

What? Don’t cook dinner? Sure, my wife and I will occasionally forego the home cooked dinner in favor for the convenience of a frozen pizza or a few McDonald’s value meals, but to actually do that to such an extent that a home cooked meal seems foreign and confusing? Who actually lives like that?

And if there is never any real “dinner” to speak of, then what happens to “dinner time”. Does everyone in the family just grab whatever food they can scrounge whenever their appetite strikes them? Health concerns aside, what does that say about family life? Sure, you might grab this convenience food “together” but really how good is the quality of your time together?

I would perhaps shake off this story, and tell myself that this is surely an isolated phenomenon, but the more I look around, the more I realize, that this is actually becoming a cultural phenomenon. I hear parents talking about how it’s just too difficult to get their toddlers to sit still for dinner, so they are usually fed while running about the house. I hear stories of families where kids eat dinner while mom tries to catch up with cleaning the kitchen and Dad is staying late at the office again. I hear about couples with conflicting work schedules that rarely overlap to the point of being able to share a meal together. I hear working moms lamenting how they just don’t have the time to prepare a real home cooked meal for their family, and so everyone simply fends for themselves with whatever is in the fridge.

And with all that I hear the sound of a family ripping apart at the seams.

Dinner is so much more than just food, and the dinner table is so much more than just a place to sit and eat. The dinner table is where family happens.

Where else are you supposed to hear about what your daughter learned at school today? Where else are you supposed to hear about how your son is being bullied on the playground during recess? Where else are you supposed to figure out that Johnny is really into sci-fi movies, but Tommy is more interested in playing baseball? Where else are you supposed to find out that Julie has a new boyfriend?

Sure, you could talk to your children any time and probably learn this information (if they’ll talk to you), but is that really going to happen? Think about your typical day. How much of that day are you around your children? Most of your time is probably spent at work, and when you get home you have a few short hours in which you are trimming the bushes, mowing the lawn, fixing that running toilet, yelling at the kids to do their homework, brush their teeth, say their prayers and go to bed. And at the end of all if it you collapse and pass out from exhaustion. You get your 4 to 6 hours of sleep and then start it all over again. Where in there did you really have quality time with your family?

I know that my words here might be misconstrued as judgment upon the working mom who just can’t find the time to prepare the dinner while juggling the hectic demands of work and other household responsibilities. Please know that I am not trying to talk you down or make you feel bad. I sympathize with you, and with my own wife also being a working mother, I totally understand. I know it can be difficult.

But I would also implore you to figure out how to make dinner time happen. It doesn’t matter so much exactly what you eat. Being completely honest there has been many a meal in our household that consisted of microwaved chicken nuggets, a handful of grapes and a bowl of cottage cheese. While a family obviously couldn’t sustain itself on that all the time, and for health reasons you probably wouldn’t want to make a habit of it, but if that’s what it takes to get the family to sit down together, it’s worth it. There’s a lot of other things you can do as well. Try preparing meals ahead of time, make crock-pot dinners, have your husband help (your welcome guys), and have your children help if they are old enough to wield a spatula. Do whatever it takes, because dinner time is so crucial.

Dinner time is the one time you can make sure that everyone stops and sits down in one room. It’s the one place where the hustle and bustle of life can be put on pause and you can actually be together as a family. Without dinner time a family is likely little more than a group of people who share genetics and sleep under the same roof. Each one has their own activities, thoughts, hopes, fears and dreams, but sitting them all together in one place lets them share these facets of their lives with each other. When this happens a family becomes so much more than just shared blood and close proximity. A family can become connected in a deep and powerful way that makes life as a whole that much more meaningful.

The family can become a fortress of refuge and comfort from a world that is often cruel and terrifying. The family can become a stronghold of support and encouragement to give one the strength to persevere in the face of adversity. The family can become a place of celebration when victories are won. The family can become a place of solidarity when grief and tragedy strikes.

Dinner time is where you can talk about the seemingly mundane things, so that you have the relationship to talk about the really important things. If you don’t ever talk about your child’s favorite food, what makes you think they’ll listen when you try to talk to them about sex? If you don’t ever talk about your daughter’s class pet, what makes you think she’ll listen when you talk to her about the importance of marrying a Godly man? If you don’t ever talk to your son about how his basketball team is doing, what makes you think he’ll listen to you when you warn him about the dangers of drugs and alcohol? You have to make time to talk about the little things so that they will be ready to talk about the big things.

In addition to the little things, dinner time can also be a place you can teach your children the most important things in life.

The Bible tells us that we are to have the Words of God on our hearts and to, “teach them diligently to our children, and talk of them when we sit in our houses, and when we walk by the way, and when we lie down, and when we rise.” Of course that instruction says nothing about the dinner table, but the key point is that we are to be telling our children about the word of God at all times, and not only dinner time certainly falls into that category, but it might be the most effect time. What better time is there to breathe the Word of God into their hearts then during the 20 or 30 minutes of the day when the chaos of daily life stops and the noise of the world is not screaming in their ears?

Of course if you were to witness dinner time in my household you would probably call me a hypocrite. There is no preaching of deep theological truths going on at our dinner table. But then again, I have a not-quite-three year old and a one-and-a-half year old. Most of our dinner times are spent trying to cram a spoon into the tightly shut lips of one child, while threatening disciplinary action on the other if he continues roaring like a lion instead of eating his food. Usually we simply declare victory over dinner time if we can get to the end of it without the need to immediately bathe both of the children afterwards.

Not exactly the perfect portrait of the family togetherness.

But I take solace in the fact that we are at least trying. As stressful as it can sometimes be, our children are at least learning one important message, “Dinner time is family time.” And as much as my one son might prefer to watch Mickey Mouse, or that my other son might prefer to run circles around the kitchen pushing his big green toy truck, they know that when Mommy or Daddy says, “Dinner time!” there is no negotiation. They know they will be forcibly strapped into their high chair or booster seat and forced to partake in a “pleasant” family dinner. And while it may not always be easy right now, it will get easier. And by the time they are 4 and 5 years old there will be no confusion about what is happening, no temper tantrums (well, there might be, but probably for other reasons) and their little hearts will be open to hear what we have to tell them.

Our country is rapidly becoming one that has little-to-no respect for the family. Children are growing up with little to no respect for their parents. The concept of personal responsibility is quickly becoming extinct. We need family units that are solid and strong. We need children who learn to listen to and respect their parents. We need parents who hold their children accountable.

It won’t happen overnight, but it will happen over 6,000 nights. And it all starts with a family sitting around the dinner table.

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