Growing up, eating together was one of the most important things my parents taught me. I remember we would all gather around for lunch at the appropriate time, otherwise it was sure Mom would come with glaring eyes.
My grandpa would come around eleven and my dad would show up exactly half an hour later. That was the daily routine. As Eritreans, culturally speaking, we have been lucky as our eating methods clearly promote family ties as members eat together from one large dish rather than from individual plates.
As of the last decade or so, however, we have adopted eating in plates, a trend common to most households in the urban areas of Eritrea.
Now, I’m not saying eating in separate plates is bad, because I am one of those people who frequent eating from their own plate rather than in the traditional big dish for the whole family.
But what this way of eating has done is less respect for family time. It is quite ordinary to see family members eating separately nowadays.
Just the other day, over a conversation with a friend, I asked him how often his family ate together. His response was “Only on holidays on other days, dad eats whenever he comes home, my brothers eat while watching television, and I usually eat in my room watching a movie on my laptop and mom, well, she eats in the kitchen.”
In many countries, mealtime is treated as sacred. In France, for instance, while it is acceptable to eat by oneself, one should never rush a meal. In many Mexican cities, townspeople eat together with friends and family in central areas like parks or town squares. In India, villagers spread out colorful mats and bring food to share with loved ones like a potluck. Eating together was a tradition my parents adopted, and one we all try to maintain today, with occasional exceptions.
So what exactly does eating together as a family signify? Eating together as a family keeps us quite healthy. Eating family meals together is associated with physical health, and we eat together as a means to keep the family healthy.
Family lunch or dinners for that matter are times of the day when we can reconnect, leaving behind our individual pursuits like work, texting and doing homework or similar personal stuff.
Family time is a time to relax, recharge, laugh, tell stories and catch up on the day’s up, and downs while developing a sense of who we are as a family. I remember a couple of years back, one night I was having dinner with my family, and as usual we were all immersed in an animated and deep argle-bargle about who was going to win the football match that was going to be aired on the television later that night.
It was the finals of the African game between Cameroon and Senegal. Apart from the football facts, I learned one different thing that night. When I asked my Grandpa why it was that he was going to support Cameroon that night, he said, “We have a better political diplomacy with Cameroon than Senegal.” Ever the politician my Grandfather was! One learns these things during frequent family meals together.
Eating together can also be an important part of our families’ spiritual health. A world where religious beliefs are being eroded, family meal time is one way to have the opportunity to create family devotions. So, eating together can help develop that, when we can praise the Almighty for His provisions.
This is a critical part of a family’s spiritual training. Day by day and year after year, the kids are exposed to God or Allah through these short times of worship. Food is ritualistic.
Family dinner also reminds us of our humanity and kin. There is kinship and connectivity in eating together, especially for teens. These rituals instill a sense of belonging, of culture and of family values and goals. Our culture values extended families and, thus, sharing a meal time with grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and the like, ingrains this sense even further and contributes to the wellbeing of children and adults alike.
The most important benefit of eating together may be the fact that parents are “checking in” with their kids and vice versa. As I said, my mom is a grand advocate of family meals. As such, we are obliged to sit together in one table for least at lunch if not for breakfast or dinner.
I find myself learning new things about my family each day, and it helps me to deal with them throughout the rest of the day and their lives in a way no other person could, simply because one time of the day I get to sit down with them. Our chats about banal stuff – football and television – often lead to discussions of the serious-school, social life and also politics.
Oh of course!! The all-important table manners!! If parents don’t teach their kids table manners during family meal times, then who can they expect to learn it from? It is at family meals that children learn about manners and etiquette: saying “please”, “thank you” and “May I be excused?” and chewing with their mouths closed.
They also learn how to carry on a conversation, which involves listening and expanding their vocabulary every bit by speaking and exchanging ideas and opinions.
In one significant study it was revealed that children who eat with their parents have less trouble with alcohol and could possibly perform better academically, as parents tend to know what their kids’ best and worst abilities in school are and help them out. “To eat is a necessity, but to eat intelligently is an art,” said the 17th century writer Francoise De La Rochefoucauld. When he meant to eat intelligently, he implied the need to eat together.
After my grandpa passed away and my dad a couple of years later, the first thing that always felt different was the dining table. But we kept eating together and it was therapeutic: more like an excuse to talk and reflect on the day and recent events.
Eating together was a small act, and it required very little of us, an hour away from our usual, quotidian distractions and yet it was invariably one of the happiest parts of our day.
It is incredible what we’re willing to make time for if we’re motivated. Taking perhaps the essence of eating together as an opportunity to de-stress and a chance to catch up with those we love could help our siblings and kids not only do better in school but also refrain from deviating to undesirable behavior.
If that’s the case, then let’s give up an hour of our day to be with our family in one table and eat together!