by Bob Doman
“All great change in America starts at the dinner table.”
— Ronald Reagan
If your children are infants, toddlers, of school age, or adults, or somewhere in between, family meals can be incredibly important. Whether our motivation is teaching a skill (such as eating or participating in meal preparation) or fostering family dynamics (such as communicating about the day, participating in discussions, building independent thinking), family meals may not just be the most important meals of the day, but the most important times of the day, or even their lives.
We are all aware that times have changed and that all the changes have not been for the better. Some of the more significant changes involve family, perception of family, and perhaps even the definition of family. There are many family traditions that are being lost in our fast-paced consumption-driven society. One very important piece that has been lost in many families is simply family meals. As a society and for the sake of our children, we need to revisit what has been the norm virtually throughout human history and has been lost to a great extent over just the last 50 years.
In many homes today, family meals are becoming more and more something that is part of family history or perhaps something reserved for special Sundays and holidays. For most families, breakfast is something you grab on the way out the door or something that gets shoved into children before they start the day. Today, rather than someone taking time to prepare a healthy breakfast meal for the family, most people grab the home equivalent of fast food. How about lunch? Lunch is rarely something that is done as a family. Everyone is off doing school, work, or whatever. In most families the best shot at getting the family together for a real meal is dinner. Let’s look at some of the problems being caused by the loss of family meals, as well as the benefits that we can derive from this old foundational family institution.
Over the past number of decades, I have observed an increase in several issues negatively affecting virtually all children that can be associated with missing family meals.
Just last night I had a family dinner with my son, Laird, his lovely wife Sadie, and my grandchildren, 5-year-old Arielle and just-turned-two Lachlan. Lachlan sat across the table and as he typically does, he kept an eye on me throughout the meal. The degree to which he observed me became obvious when he carefully nudged a piece of carrot to the edge of his plate, then onto the table with his fork. I had not had a chance to comment before he looked up at me and did an amazing job of imitating my head tilt and disapproving expression, which resulted in my smiling at him in spite of the fact that I knew I shouldn’t do it. (Lachlan fits “too cute for his own good.”) This was followed by my tilting my head and making different expressions that Lachlan mimicked beautifully. This went on for about 90 seconds, following which he picked the piece of carrot up and put it back on his plate. The degree to which children observe us and learn from us when we are in close proximity is greatly underestimated. Rarely throughout a typical day do these opportunities present themselves as they do during a family meal.
Although at two Lachlan has yet to learn that experimentation has its limits at the dinner table, there are many things he has learned from eating meals with his family and observing, things that many children who are fed by themselves or eat by themselves often do not learn until much later, and some of which are sadly never learned.
Optimally a family meal entails having the whole family together—Mom, Dad and all the kids. The only thing that generally beats this is when the extended family is included, as this grandfather can attest. Although we realistically can’t always, or even often, create the ideal, the closer we can come to it, the better. A parent, or a parent and a sibling, having a meal with a child is preferable to the child just eating alone or being fed, while the parent or caregiver simply attends to getting the food into the child. Part of this equation is delineating between eating as in consuming food vs. sharing a meal together, a learning experience. Eating is a process by which you get food from your hand, a utensil, or some container to your stomach, generally as quickly and as unceremoniously as possible. Having a meal together, sharing a meal, is often the most educational part of the day for children and parents alike. I grew up in the ’50s outside of Philadelphia. In the ’50s most mothers’ job was the family—period. Moms had time to cook and to sit down and share good meals with their family. Sunday dinners and extended family dinners often meant coats and ties for the guys and dresses for the girls. These meals were treated as significant events, even if they were frequent. I recall as a child learning early on that at a meal you talked. There was no TV, you didn’t read at the table, and an effort was made to include everyone in some form or level of discussion. Everyone participated or received some attention. I was in a restaurant recently and was shocked by a large family that was seated near us. You might not define eating at home as “dining,” although one would hope to approximate that as often as possible; but if a family goes to a restaurant and makes that financial and time investment, you might hope that the experience would approximate “dining.” On this particular evening while I was dining with my family, I noticed the large family next to us that consisted of both parents and six children who ranged from about six to sixteen. All sat the entire time staring at their phones. It would have been bad enough if they had answered calls, but not a word was spoken. Throughout the entire time they were in the restaurant, the only words spoken were to the waitress who took their orders. This was not a family sharing a meal together; it was an opportunity missed and lost, and sadly a statement about this family and many others.
Let’s look at our children of various ages and families at different stages and explore the significance of the family meal.
- Part 1 Infants and Toddlers
- Part 2 Three to Five Years
- Part 3 Five to Eighteen +
Infants and Toddlers
Learning to chew, self-feeding, eating a variety of nutritional foods, auditory processing and language development
Learning to chew
As part of our program at NACD, which entails working with the whole child, we have families post many videos of their children on our NACD Portal. These videos provide our staff with vital information and insights that help us educate the family and assist in the child’s development. Observing many parents spoon feeding their little ones is often a bit of a painful experience. In these instances, it is very apparent that the obvious goal is to get the food from the bowl to the child’s stomach as quickly as possible. To accomplish this goal, the parent is often using an amazingly large spoon. Not only do we observe food being shoveled into the child’s mouth, but the rate at which the food is shoved in is such that the child has no opportunity to learn how to use their tongue to manipulate the food in the mouth. Learning how to use the tongue is a significant component of a child learning to chew and to speak. In order for the child to progress from purees, to chewable foods, to self-feeding, they need to learn how to chew. Chewing is a very important part of digestion, and children who do not chew well often have digestive issues and constipation. In addition, chewing is the first big piece of oral motor development that establishes the foundation for good articulation. If Johnny was being fed while some of the family was eating, it would be a much slower process with a significantly different goal. The goal would be to assist the child in eating, teaching them how to eat, and interacting, not simply filling their stomach. The children who are fed as previously described often are very slow to learn how to chew because they are not only being deprived of the opportunity to learn how, but deprived of the opportunity to observe Mom, Dad, and big sister chew.
Expanding taste, accepting a variety of foods
A side effect of delayed chewing is the slow introduction of a variety of identifiable foods. Pureed foods all tend to look and feel the same in the mouth and are often all mixed so that the child cannot differentiate between specific flavors and odors. It’s experiencing a wide variety of food, textures, tastes, and smells that develops the acceptance of a wide range of food and teaches the child not only to eat, but enjoy a variety of nutritional foods. Guess what else the child who is fed alone misses? The opportunity to observe what other people eat and enjoy. The nature of the beast is to want what others have; and observing what other family members have and then being offered the same thing contributes to the child’s trying and enjoying different foods and textures. The child who is fed and eats alone is deprived of these very important opportunities that can lead to picky eaters and lifelong rejection of many nutritious foods. The first tastes that a child perceives are sweet and salty. Delaying the introduction of other tastes often leads to the child rejecting the more nutritious foods and craving sweet and salty food.
As we move from baby to infant to toddler, we want to be teaching the child how to feed themselves, moving from finger foods to utensils. Self-feeding is a very important step toward independence. The more independent a child becomes, the more the child initiates doing more things on their own; and nothing is perhaps more significant to independence than feeding oneself. The longer a child (or adult for that matter) is dependent, the harder it is to foster independence, initiation, change, and progress. The more the child initiates, the faster their global development. There are many other pieces to this, including the child who eats alone and is trained to need a distraction for meals, such as a screen or toys.
Moving along in the child’s development, eating with the family teaches many important things, from how to eat appropriately with utensils, to table manners, to simply sitting at the table until the meal is finished. Children learn how to be civilized from adults who are and who model appropriate behaviors. Eating with your child is an important modeling and teaching opportunity.
Family meals often present one of the most important opportunities for the child to observe and learn. Young children learn visually, by observing. If a child is eating alone and not sitting next to family members who are feeding themselves, they do not even have a mental picture of someone feeding themselves. As a result, they are slow to initiate self-feeding and are content to continue being fed. Conversely, the child who closely observes people eating with utensils learns how to eat with utensils.
One disturbing thing that children who are learning to self-feed, but who are eating by themselves, commonly learn is to throw food or drinks and plates and whatever is within reach. Why not, if they do not have sufficient modeling to show them how to eat and act appropriately or do not have the opportunity to simply observe and interact with other members of the family during a meal? If they are eating with someone else and happen to throw something, someone is there to give them immediate feedback.
Processing, receptive and expressive language
Young children learn by being in close approximation to other people and observing. They also tend to observe some more than others. The family meal affords them the opportunity to focus and learn from specific family members. The family meal is an ideal time for the child to observe, listen, and begin to understand and process language and produce sounds and language themselves. Auditory processing (the ability to process a word, then phrases, then sentences) is of paramount importance to the development of cognitive function. The child at a family meal is a relatively captive audience who can observe and listen to what is being said and learn.
One of the keys to development is neuroplasticity. The child’s brain develops from specific input being provided with sufficient frequency, intensity, and duration. Children need consistent opportunities to observe, interact, and learn.
Three to Five Years
Table manners, expanding taste, attention, processing and language development, chores, responsibility and independence
We often think the goal of meals is simply to eat, to get nourishment; but as already discussed, there are many associated pieces that are extremely important. At each stage of the child’s development, there are important developmental pieces that relate to, and are aided by, family meals.
Table manners—taming the beast
It’s often easy to spot a child who typically eats alone: their table manners are horrific, and it takes longer to clean up the table and the floor after a meal than it was for the child to consume it. Teaching a child appropriate table manners requires first and foremost modeling appropriate table manners and then providing the child with appropriate instruction and feedback. The more often someone else is present and demonstrating appropriate table manners, the more quality input the child receives, and the faster they learn what they should do and how to do it.
Children who eat meals alone tend to learn to want the same things at every meal. Breakfast and even lunch is often the same every day. It is often easy for parents, once they discover what the child will eat for breakfast and lunch, to give the child the same thing every day; and unfortunately the child learns to want the same thing. So they both establish a pattern that neither is motivated to change. Eating the same thing daily is not nutritious, particularly if we look at what the children typically get for breakfast and lunch. Often the only opportunity the child has to learn about different foods is at dinner, assuming that the child is eating with the rest of the family. Healthy foods are rarely a child’s preferred foods, which again tend to be sweet and salty foods, which are often followed by grains. Gluten is becoming of greater concern in regard to allergies and intolerances. Children eating cereals, breads, and pastas often become addicted to these foods and reject what they should be eating. The taste for a variety of foods needs to be developed for the child to not only learn to eat, but enjoy the variety of meats, fruits, and vegetables that contribute to a healthy diet. The greater variety of foods we can introduce, and the earlier, often the better.
One good example of children learning to eat more sophisticated foods if exposed to them from an early age is what I observed in southern California in the ’80s. The first couple of times I saw this I was honestly a bit shocked; but it occurred so often that it became almost the norm in southern California. The snack food of choice of these families for their children under five and often as young as eighteen months was sushi. And the kids loved it! It was a great demonstration of how rapidly taste can be developed if given the opportunity.
Young children, when seated at a table with family members, attend to those family members. If they are not offered distractions like the TV, iPads, crayons and toys, they pay attention to what the other members of the family are doing and saying. Hopefully the family members try to engage these little ones during the meal. This process of attending without distractions helps build the child’s processing and attention span, which is a key to learning.
Perhaps the most important thing that drives the development of receptive and expressive language, cognition, and global development is the development of sequential processing. Building sequential processing develops short-term memory, then working memory and executive function, the pieces that determine our level of function even more so than innate intelligence. The primary thing that pushes processing is specific targeted auditory and visual input. One of the things that most children do well is let you know whether what you are saying to them, showing them, or doing with them is targeted to them or not. The test is their attention to it. If you are hitting the nail on the head, the child attends; if not, they don’t. Children sitting at a table with family members can be relied on to give the rest of the family feedback as to whether they are being included or not. The children tend to shape the family’s behavior. The more targeted the input, particularly from a family member, the faster the development of these vital processing abilities that will influence how the child ultimately learns, thinks, and functions.
Teaching a foreign language is not an easy task. It’s important for parents to understand that any language is a foreign language to a child learning their first language. The best way to teach any language is through immersion. Immersion simply means that you are living with the language and learning from your observations and involvement and out of need. Throughout the course of the day, the child has an opportunity to observe and interact and start to learn the language; but throughout most of the day there are many things going on, and it’s difficult to isolate words and their meanings. The family meal gives the child an excellent opportunity to isolate, observe, model, and learn to understand and then use language. It’s not a shock that one of the first words that a child learns is “more” and that one of their first word combinations is “Mom more,” followed by the phrase “Mom more please,” to using full sentences. The family meal should be a focal time in the day for relevant talk that contributes to the child learning the structure of the language and developing their own receptive language abilities. The language function of most children in this age group is a direct reflection of the targeted interaction between the child, parents, and siblings who naturally expand their use of language to fit the child they are speaking to. No one is better suited to this job than the people who know the child best; and no time may be better suited to this development than the family meal.
Chores, responsibility, and independence
I have written several articles talking about the importance of teaching a child to do, be responsible for, and to own chores. Most parents grossly underestimate their child’s capabilities and the global importance of their children learning to be capable, contributing, and independent and “owning” chores. The best initial chores to teach a child to own are those that are associated with specific events that occur daily. The first such event is simply getting up in the morning, but following that are meals, and again, particularly family meals. It is important to separate “helping” from “owning” a chore or job. Many children learn to follow specific helping directions and prompts even before the age of three and can be helpers. This period between three and five years, however, is an ideal time to teach your child not only how to do chores, but to own them. In response to the questions asking what chores children have, I often hear such things as “Johnny takes his dish to the sink.” My response to that is often, “If Johnny is capable of taking his dish to the sink, why not everyone else’s, and how about him completely cleaning the table?” Sadly, the parents’ response to that is often that Johnny eats alone, and if not, the parents do not even perceive that Johnny could do it if taught. They totally miss the understanding of the huge benefits Johnny would derive from doing it.
Unless children learn otherwise, they are egocentric, believing that the world revolves around them. Unfortunately, egocentric children can become narcissist adults. At three or even before, most children are ready to learn and own jobs and to learn that they can contribute; and they will learn to welcome and seek other ways to serve and contribute.
Ownership of a chore or job means that the child owns a particular task and preferably that they alone do it, so if they don’t do it, it doesn’t get done, which creates a problem. One of the first meal-associated jobs is teaching the child how to put silverware away from the dishwasher. Most children enjoy doing this job and can see that they are contributing and like it. Other meal—associated jobs that children in the 3-5 year range can do includes setting the table, cleaning the table, cleaning the floor under the table (even three year olds can learn to use a dust buster well), moving into washing dishes, loading, and unloading a dishwasher and even initial food preparation. Family meals can provide consistent opportunities for children to learn that they can be capable, contributing, members of the family. The earlier our children learn to happily and competently contribute, the sooner they start on the path of learning to be responsible, altruistic and selfless, self-reliant, contributing members of the family and society. Learning to be responsible with definitive chores helps children understand intention, which generalizes to other things including academics.
The more our children learn to do independently, particularly things that go beyond their own needs, the more they perceive what they could do, and the more things they initiate doing on their own, creating attributes that will serve them well in everything they do.>
Five Years to Eighteen Years +
Language development and social skills, processing (short-term memory, working memory and executive function), communication between parents and children, education, learning family values and history, learning critical thought and expression, becoming highly capable.
Theoretically a child moving from five years through adolescence to eighteen year of age is taking a young child and creating an adult. Unfortunately, there are not many eighteen-year-olds who we can confidently consider adults today; and that number appears to be shrinking every year. If you have a child five years of age, it’s not too early to remind you that your job is to put together the pieces to turn that child into a functional adult, who is equipped to go off to college or trade school by themselves, seek full time employment, start a business, join the military, or explore other adult options. These years pass at an amazing speed, and the target needs to be kept within the sights. This job requires putting together a lot of pieces. At NACD we know the need to work with the whole individual and the need to have someone at the helm steering the ship. No one knows a child as well as the parent. Teachers, relatives, coaches, clergy, and friends do not know as many pieces of the child as do actively involved parents. I have built several houses which have all come out well. Each one required my vision and design, the help of an architect, an engineer, a head contractor, and sub-contractors. The vision for the houses were mine, and I needed and used the various folks to help put the projects/visions together; but the houses were my babies and from concept to completion they were my responsibility. If they had not turned out as I envisioned, it was my fault and no one else’s. Building a house, even a large, complex house, is nothing compared to helping to assist a child in becoming a happy, successful, capable adult. And the need for attention to detail and ongoing participation cannot be overstated. One needs not to look too hard at society in general to see and hopefully understand the need to have actively involved parents steering the ship.
Language development and social skills
One of the most important jobs as parents is simply to talk to our children. In our busy lives meals are often the best, if not the only, regular opportunities parents have to get and hold the attention of their five-to eighteen-year-old and speak with them. A parent innately knows how to speak to a specific child. You innately use sentences of a length they can process and language they can understand. You have a pretty good idea as to what your child knows and doesn’t know, so you know if they have a frame of reference for a topic or not. A parent with the knowledge of their whole child is better suited to provide this invaluable input than anyone else. We call this targeted input. This targeted input and verbal interaction creates the building blocks of language and much more. If we are verbally interacting with our children throughout the day, it is often language that is directing them to do something or stop doing something; and although there may be opportunities throughout the day, particularly for families who are home educating their children, to really talk and communicate, the family meal can and should be perceived as a daily unique opportunity to have Dad, siblings, and even extended family participate. Language development occurs most rapidly when verbal interaction is of interest to the child, meaning you are talking about things your child has a frame of reference for, knowledge and interest in, and when the actual language being used is targeted to them. Parents almost universally use language that their children can understand and process, and constantly, even though they are rarely aware of it, they use language that is always just a notch above their child’s, which helps develop their language skills. This targeted interaction can be tremendously more efficient in building the child’s language structure and vocabulary than most group classroom instruction or interaction between children. Such group or child-to-child interaction is either not targeted to an individual or, as in the case of verbal interaction between children, they are modeling sentence structure and language that is not developmentally advantageous and perhaps not even acceptable. Children often speak to each other in abbreviated code, economizing on words and using vocabulary that Webster would scratch his head over. That’s not exactly conducive to proper language development.
Verbal interaction during a family meal is also an opportunity for parents to model and guide their children in proper table manners and acceptable ways to have a discussion, to agree or disagree appropriately. We all have many patterns of behavior that affect virtually all aspects of our lives. Children interacting with other children without the benefit of quality targeted parental modeling and feedback can lead to negative patterns of behavior, which can be difficult to modify or develop.
Processing (short-term memory, working memory, and executive function)
A major key to global development and function is processing power. Most children today have better visual than auditory processing power as a reflection of opportunity or lack of such. Children generally develop visual processing before auditory simply because until they can understand language, they learn and understand their world based on what they see.
As children develop, we need to provide as much targeted auditory language input as possible to balance these critical pieces. Ultimately, auditory processing is the more significant piece relative to cognitive development. Auditory processing facilitates thinking in words, and as it develops, so does the complexity of thought, language, maturity, behavior, attention span, and so on. The importance of auditory processing cannot be overstated. And what builds auditory processing? Targeted language input. Targeted language input is that which builds auditory processing. I believe that over the past decades as we have seen the increase in mothers working outside of the home, we have seen a corresponding increase in attention disorders, which are largely a reflection of auditory processing issues. You attend to what you can process, and the more and better you can process, the longer you attend. Parents talking to children is hugely important to the development of processing and its associated pieces. To learn more about processing, please read the associated article.
Communication between parents and children
If you are aware of a problem, have a misunderstanding or a question or just feel out of touch with someone you work with or a friend, your first thought should be to talk about it.
As important as it is to establish this relationship and open and maintain the avenues of communication, this often does not exist between many parents and their children. Ongoing, regular family meals do, again, provide rather special opportunities to establish this open communication. Parents can throughout the course of busy daily interaction with their children throw out questions in an attempt to find out what is happening with their children, but often this is not sufficient to facilitate good responses and open good lines of communication. As a case in point, ask the majority of kids upon their return from school about what they did at school and most parents get the same response—“nothing.”
Family meals can be used to open these critical lines of communication. If families simply talk during meals, the meal becomes this regular time to talk and communicate, and a question like “What did you do at school today?” is much more likely to produce a very different answer and open the door to further exploration, teaching the child how to express feelings and problems and to share their lives with their siblings and parents.
Most parents miss the boat when it comes to taking advantage of their unique position in helping, if not taking the lead, in their child’s education.
To understand how significant the parent’s role can be in education, let’s start by separating “what was taught” from “what was learned.” Schools and most curriculums are packed full of tons of “stuff,” and we tend to confuse all of this “stuff” that was “taught” with what was learned. If you learned something, you know it. If you don’t know it, you didn’t learn it. Pick a subject, any subject, from the explorers, to anatomy and physiology, trigonometry, astronomy, chemistry, or whatever you were “taught” and today write down everything you remember about that subject. This might not take long. Some of these things you might have been “taught” for years, and what do you remember? Perhaps not much, and certainly the more years that have passed since you were “taught” these things, the less you remember. But what you remember is very important and significant.
We tend to remember the more important pieces, the pieces that were reviewed over time, that were practical, interesting, or relevant to you—knowledge and information that helps you make connections between what you learned and understanding your life and the world today. These gems should be shared with your children, before, during and after they have been “taught” these things as part of their curriculum. “Did you know that…”. “Would you believe…” “That reminds me of…” are all phrases you can use at these family meals to introduce subjects; and over the course of a few meals, you can plant seeds, create interest and relevance, or even provide an entire foundation so that when these gems are part of your child’s curriculum they have more relevance and significance; and perhaps because of your meal discussions, your children will learn more of what is “taught.”
Talking at meals is different for your child than when you are sitting down to “teach.” Topics at dinner are presented in a more relaxed manner and are felt to be more like sharing than “teaching.” For this reason they are generally more welcome and have a greater impact. Another great benefit of sharing your knowledge at meals is that you get to pick and choose the topics. There is nothing wrong and everything right about first teaching your children about your interests, interests that you hope would be shared by your children and lead to lifelong shared interests and sources for ongoing interaction between you and your children. It’s often more important for your child to learn about your family business, your favorite sport, or any other of your interests and things that bring you joy and that you can possibly share with them for the rest of your lives than many of the subjects taught in school.
Family values and history
I recently had two visits from family members who I haven’t seen for many years. I live in Utah and most of my family still lives in the greater Philadelphia area where I’m from. It was great seeing them and reconnecting. A lot of our time together was spent sharing memories and getting confirmation of our joint recollections. The foundation of many of our memories came from recollections of extended family meals that generally occurred around holidays. These events were always opportunities to explore family history and values and to connect as a family. Family history offers perspective, perspective that is often missing from our lives. One of my visitors was a cousin whom I was very close to as a child and who I haven’t seen for about forty years. His short visit offered an opportunity to get him and his wife together with my extended Utah family and explore family history together over dinner. As it happened, my cousin, a recently retired judge, had done some searching and discovered that both our fathers had lived as children with their parents and grandfather in a very modest 700 square foot row home in Philadelphia. His father became a physical therapist and mine a physician. Both were innovators, and their service made great contributions to the treatment of brain injured children and others, and all from their very humble beginnings. Our families’ histories are rarely documented, and if not for the verbal communication of our families’ legacies that often only gets communicated at family meals, most of it gets lost; and our children and grandchildren are deprived of the history and perspective that helps give meaning to their lives and has the power to influence their futures.
Learning critical thought and expression
We want to create a safe welcoming environment around our family meals that produces a safe place for the exchange of ideas and views. Today more than ever, our children are exposed and often bombarded with a plethora of opinions and views that they have difficulty sifting through. Without a safe place to communicate what they have heard and a forum to openly discuss these views, they are often left with simply accepting what they hear at face value and following the latest and loudest voice.
Family meals can provide our children with the forum they need to safely talk about what they have seen and heard and learn how to speak of it and, with help, to critically evaluate it, form their own opinions, and learn how to appropriately express those opinions. Through healthy discourse with people they love and trust, they can also learn how to respect and value other opinions and learn not to be threatened by differing opinions. As parents, at family meals we need to understand that we are models, and how we react and what we say, and how we say it will teach our children how to think critically and express their views and listen to others. Often our softly spoken, non-confrontive words provide the food for thought that our children can later digest.
Becoming highly capable
Several years ago, I was a keynote speaker at the Washington State Conference on the Gifted and Talented and had the opportunity to help the educators see the correlation between cognitive processing and creating higher functioning students. At that conference they were using a new term, replacing “gifted and talented” with the term “highly capable.” I liked the term and have since redefined it and now use it more globally to mean essentially an individual who knows how to function in their world independently and competently. As I see it, helping our children become highly capable adults means that we are teaching them from an early age how to be independent in all aspects of their daily lives, understand responsibility, and develop qualities that will permit them to be confident, capable, and successful adults.
Relative to the discussion at hand of family meals, we can start the process of creating highly capable adults when our children are 5 years old. Hopefully by 18 we have succeeded in helping our child well down the road of becoming highly capable. As mentioned in the previous 3–5-year section, we can start teaching chores that the children own associated with meals. As we proceed in the development of our children, we want to continue to build on this by progressively adding to these pieces. By the time our children are 18, they should know how to plan meals, shop intelligently, understand budgets, prepare meals from A-Z, and clean-up and much more; but we can use the family meals as the foundation.
I had one of our NACD graduates who chose to go off to start her college career in England from her home in the U.S. An 18-year-old with the guts to go off to college in another country says something about confidence and capability. Shortly after beginning life in her new dorm, she made a discovery that most of the other students were lost. They had kitchens in the dorms, but the other students didn’t know how to cook or even buy food for that matter and couldn’t budget. The result was that they ate out and burned through their monthly allowance halfway through the month and had to beg Mom and Dad to send more money. As our highly capable young lady discovered, these other students also didn’t know how to clean or take care of their rooms or wash and iron their clothes. They also didn’t know how to be responsible for organizing their time, getting up in the morning on time, studying, and doing class assignments. She ended up holding classes for her dorm-mates to teach them how to take care of themselves and how to become more capable. Learning the pieces involved, learning to be responsible for all these pieces surrounding planning and seeing a meal accomplished from concept to fruition can be a significant piece that fosters the confidence and independence that can help turn a helpless child into a highly capable adult. Independence produces initiation, which in turn creates the impetus to learn more and assume more and more responsibilities.
Use family meals as the foundation to start building an adult. Do not underestimate what your children are capable of doing if given the opportunity and the responsibility. They will rise to your level of expectation.
The fabric that largely defines and holds our society together is the family. The fabric that is the family is woven together, built, and reinforced by the threads of our ongoing connection and interactions as a family. This connection needs to be reinforced and built upon on a regular basis. Sadly, for many, the connection between family members often only consists of short calls or text messages. The need for real connection is perhaps greater today than ever before, as we all shift though the bombardment of media that on a daily basis questions and even attacks many of the basic tenets that have formed the foundations of our beliefs.
Speak with most any adult about their close family times and recollections growing up and they will often speak of family meals, particularly meals with the extended family.
Speak with seniors and you will discover that past family meals are memories that last when others have long faded away. You will also discover that if such family meals are now available with children, grandchildren, and extended family that these events don’t just keep them connected to family, but to themselves.
Our sense of self, our identity, who we are and continue to be is woven into the fabric of the family.
The family meal is the foundation upon which our family is built and upon which we learn to know and maintain ourselves.
What’s for dinner?
Reprinted by permission of The NACD Foundation, Volume 35 No. 3 , 2022 ©NACD