When it comes to dinner as a family , I’m not interested much in the perfection of it all, just the opportunity each evening provides for our family to grow even in some small way . I view meal times as a blank canvas where possibility abounds !
Everyday , at least once a day , there is the potential for me to be the facilitator of a mini family celebration where candles are lit , a table is set or food is arranged appealingly on everyone’s plate . These meal times can be a chance to celebrate trying something new to taste ( even the tiniest nibble of something new can be a chance to celebrate bravery !). Meal times are a chance to learn how to be helpful and mindful of one another’s needs, they can also be a time to express creativity through setting a table and a time to replenish our bodies after a long day . Whatever the lessons are for that day , the list is rich & long !
Personally , I have always been thankful for my own childhood where setting the table for dinner was an exciting & meaningful ritual that meant getting to choose the cloth napkins, the drinking glasses and the herbs or fresh cut flowers from the yard for the centerpiece.
I remember my mom often asking my brother & I to light candles for the table or pick a bouquet and eventually, even when she didn’t ask , my brother or I made a point to do it ourselves anyway . Why ? The many reasons make for far too long of an answer but I think mostly because early on , my parents invited us to be apart of building the culture of care & beautification in our family in this way . I think somehow flowers & candles evoke memories of celebration in the hearts of children ( and adults) and it’s meaningful to us to be part of that. They can remind us of times well spent. So why not put them on the family table as often as possible ?! To this day , the smell of smoke from a blown out candle brings me right back to the many evenings spent with family & cousins at my grandparent’s home in southern California where I grew up . One whiff of candle smoke & I can taste my grandma’s pie, her perfect garden greens with robust garlic dressing . I smell the black coffee brewing and hear the click of the hand mixer whipping up fresh cream all because someone took time to light candles for the table . I cherish & revisit these mealtime memories often.
As an adult , the thrill of beautifying a space excites me still ! It was fairly early on , as a new Mom that I began to notice the influence my own ceremonious setting of the table was having on our son ( then 2 1/2 ) . Even at his age , he began expressing his pleasure in this ritual through his creative play . He began to ask me to set “party tables” with him for fun . He’d head to the kitchen collecting anything interesting he could get his hands on and begin piling it on , to set a “party table “ for us to enjoy when daddy got home .
I think that when children are invited into the process of helping it prepares their heart’s for the connection that’s about to happen , for the enjoyment & the fulfillment of eating good food together. I’d like to think that helping to set a place at the table or sitting down at a table that’s been thoughtfully set for them , produces more gratitude or excitement for what’s about to take place. No matter how simple or thrown together the meal itself is, I’m a believer in the power behind eating beautifully & intentionally ( at least once a day !)
Of course there are seasons and admittedly most recently where our large , beautiful farm table serves mostly as a catchall ; An ornamental piece just lingering in the center of our dining space otherwise untouched & unused . However , I did make a point to dress up our plain outdoor picnic table with a dark wood stain so that plain white plates could be plopped right on top , crooked and bunched together by the helping hands of kiddos and still hold somewhat of an aesthetic appeal .
Ultimately, it’s really not about setting the perfect table but about inviting our families to acknowledge the importance of caring. Caring about beauty , caring about your food & caring about one another . For me , as a child this same invitation sparked & nurtured the thrill of new creative possibilities and offered me the chance to hear my mom say, “Meehan the table looks beautiful honey !” She gave me a moment to show the family a piece of myself through my choices & taught me how to think of others by serving the family in this way . In doing so , she was affirming and solidifying in me the innate desire to create. For my children, it will most likely impact them differently. But , whatever it is that sticks with them about meal times , I’m certain it will nurture something good that might not have otherwise been there if we hadn’t taken a moment to care about what we ate & how we ate it .
There are many wishes that I have for my children in teaching them that meal times can be a beautiful shared experience. One of my hopes is that they develop the skill of taking a moment to be thoughtful and how that can change everything . For us , lighting candles or having the whole family eat from proper China is a way of saying that our time together & the food we put in our bodies matters . I’m not talking about perfection here , There are meals we eat from paper plates , there are days we pick food from Tupperware . This isn’t a manifesto to tell people to strive for perfection or instagram “worthy” family gatherings all the time . This is a treasured value that has been cultivated in me over time & experience . These are my own precious observations & experiences with my children where I’ve seen how taking extra care around food and presentation positively affects them . When I notice a growing distaste for healthy foods , I know it’s time to reset by making it look interesting again! This never means I’m spending more time in the kitchen or digging through new recipes . For me it simply looks like sticking hummus and carrot sticks in a brightly colored ceramic bowl or arranging the food I want them to eat on a cheese platter to look bountiful and fun. More often than not , I’m pleasantly surprised by the excitement they have to eat some broccoli or snap peas just because it’s been presented nicely or differently .
Meal times are a gift to us .
No matter what the expression of beauty turns out to be , the important thing is , is that the experience of dining with intentionality together is being given a place in the family .