‘The family that eats together…’

‘The family that eats together…’

I have been somewhat dismayed by the fact that my pre-teen kids, my wife, my wife’s father, who lives with us, and I never seem to sit down to a meal together because of our different schedules. Am I being unrealistic or completely out of sync with the times in wanting to insist that some meals, at least, need to be taken together as a family?

You’re not being unrealistic. Family mealtimes are, at the very least, associated with healthier diets and better absorption of nutrients. Whatever religion, faith or spiritual belief you have grown with or adopted, each and every culture and family has traditionally emphasized the sanctity of ‘breaking bread’ with your loved ones.

Sitting down together for a meal ensures, quite naturally, that considerate behaviour comes into play. Simple things like eating without spilling or making chewing sounds, seeing that there’s enough for everyone else before serving yourself, passing food to the other people, etc. All the stuff for which we seem to need ‘finishing schools’, but which can so easily be learnt right at the table.

One thing that can mar this potentially wonderful family interaction is what we talk about or communicate during mealtimes. The entire interaction can become uncomfortable if we use this time together to bicker or sort out unpleasant personal issues.

Some typical scenarios that we’re all familiar with—and need to avoid:

u At the dinner table, Dad asks the kids about schoolwork, marks, exams… If there’s nothing great to report, the children side-step the question, or reluctantly reveal their school progress. Needless to say, the child has stopped paying attention to the meal, leave aside enjoying it. Others around the table are tense, too. The family meal has been emotionally hijacked.

uThe family is at breakfast. Mom is issuing instructions to the maid, asking Dad if he can make it for an evening appointment; Grandpa has some comment to make—the three of them get into a minor argument. All this while food is being consumed—but it is food that’s soaked in a gravy of grumbling. Hardly the stuff of health and well-being.

uIt’s Sunday lunchtime. The family is eating. In complete silence. Everyone is totally preoccupied with their own lives, plans and worries. They are only physically present around the table. As they finish, each person simply gets up from his or her seat and ‘exits’ the meal—as indifferently as one exits a computer program. The meal has turned into a joyless affair.

u Another meal. Kids are pushing around food half-heartedly. Mom’s exhausted, resentful, and announces that she’s too tired to eat after having ‘produced’ a meal. Dad’s on the phone, conducting business, walking around with maybe a rolled paratha in his hand. Both parents are intermittently urging their kids to ‘eat well’ and ‘finish everything on your plate’. The kids wish the food would somehow magically vanish. Someone gives them lectures on how there are millions of starving children in our country and they should be grateful to have food on their plate, for which their Mom has slogged. This mealtime is one of those dreary affairs, nicely garnished with guilt.

In the last few decades, one aspect of family life that children have simply lost out on is pleasant sit-down home meals. It’s time we ‘re-invested’ in this simple family interaction, making time for at least one meal a day together.

Tales from Ground zero

At my parents’ place, dinner was a family meal at the dining table. We would catch up with each other and talk about our day at school or work. It was also the time to ask dad for whatever we wanted—a new book, permission to spend the night at a friend’s place or just extra pocket money. However, my husband likes to eat his meals in front of the TV. So, now, I eat my meals alone on the dining table, out of habit, I suppose. Also our daughter, Anvi, who is a year and a half, gets fed in her pram or high chair and the time that she eats her meal is different from ours. So, we never really have a family meal time. Sometimes, I like to join my husband and eat while watching TV, but it does not really increase our interaction in any way.

Varsha Dixit Mehrish, 34, writer

Dinner at the table was the only time I got a chance to bond with my father. It was great, the way we used to chat about everything. Just recently, I have tried to make my daughters, Arianna, 5, and Kyra, 2, sit down at the dining table to eat but frankly, I find it easier to just sit down on the floor and feed them one by one. My husband, in any case, comes late from work and the concept of one family meal together can never work while the girls are young. We do try to have a Sunday lunch meal together on a table, but frankly my husband prefers to watch TV while eating.

Ashima Goswamy, 36, homemaker

Ever since I can remember, dinner has been a family meal at the dinning table. I live with my parents, grandfather, brother and sister-in-law and we all sit down at night to eat together. It’s our time of the day to catch up with what’s happening with each other, to make plans for the weekend or just the next day, and find out what is happening with the extended family. It’s also a time to share viewpoints about what’s happening around us and over the years, most family debates have taken place at dinner. My dad and I usually have the same ideas and knowing this makes us even closer to each other. I love the fact that this is one tradition that has continued in our family in spite of TV, individual commitments and busy schedules.

Email your questions to Gouri at learningcurve@livemint.com