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The Home-Cooked Advantage

5 steps to a happy meal at home

by Kate Wicker

Lent is a good time to eat and pray together.

Growing up, there were a few of Mom’s rules you just didn’t break. First, you made your bed every morning, no exceptions. Second, shoes came off before you traipsed through the house. And third, you showed up at the dinner table at 6 p.m. on the dot – or else.

Mom’s dedication to the family supper left a lasting impression on me. Today I work hard to make dinnertime mandatory most evenings, but I know that as the kids grow older and our calendar fills up with more activities, it will likely become increasingly more difficult for us to regularly gather at the dinner table.

But it’s worth the effort.

The Family that Eats Together

Numerous studies show regular family meals have a major impact on a family’s unity and happiness. The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University found that children who eat with their families boast better academic performance. Another study showed that preschoolers who are accustomed to eating with their families have improved language skills and conversation etiquette. (Yes, that 2-year-old barbarian will one day be able to sit through a meal!)

Yet it seems pre-teens and teenagers benefit the most from regular family meals. “Research out of CASA supports something we believe on the social level but also spiritually: If you want to reduce teenage pregnancy, suicide, drug addiction, plus increase your teenager’s SAT scores, then eat together as a family,” encourages Father Leo Patalinghug, founder of the Grace Before Meals movement, which works to build stronger families and communities one meal at a time.

An added perk: Regular, home-cooked meals are also easier on your waistline. Grabbing food on the go or eating alone while you watch TV often means you’ll eat less healthy food as well as more of it.

Although most of us know eating together is the ideal, getting there can be problematic. Here are five tips to help you bring back the family meal:

1. Do what works for your family. My husband’s work hours can be erratic, so he can’t always make it to the dinner table before our young children become famished and overtired. If we can’t make dinner together, then we might try to enjoy a Saturday morning pancake breakfast as a family.

Another option is to strengthen your family ties with regular Sunday dinners. My mom grew up eating dinner with her extended family at her grandma’s house after Sunday Mass every week. Grandma served her best dishes and pulled out her good china to celebrate the togetherness. The Sunday dinner ritual can give you a chance to connect even if only your nuclear family can congregate around the table. Look at your schedule, and find a way to squeeze in at least a few family meals together at whatever time will work for your lifestyle.

2. Think outside the box. Family meals are about more than just the food, and you don’t have to be the next Bobby Flay to make mealtimes memorable. I don’t recall what my own mom cooked as much as that I ate it with her, my dad, and brothers. However, Father Leo encourages families to look beyond pre-packaged food and to try to give dishes a touch of zest and a pinch of flavor.

To get you started, check out Father Leo’s cookbook, Grace Before Meals: Recipes and Inspiration for Family Meals and Family Life. “I use ingredients that you can find in any grocery store and are perhaps already in your pantry. I just want to give people a chance to explore flavors, to play with their food a little bit, and enjoy delicious food.”

3. Get the kids involved. If you haven’t been regularly noshing together, your kids, especially if they’re older, might initially balk at the idea of consistent family meals. To help ease the transition, let them participate in the meal planning, or even prepare a meal. For added fun, host theme nights, such as “diner delight.” Throw a checkered tablecloth over the kitchen table, and dish out diner fare like cheeseburgers, milk shakes, and french fries. Arm kids with notepads, and let them act as your wait staff. Or broaden your children’s palates, and feature different international cuisines.

4. Open lines of communication. Once you’ve made it to table together, make the time count. If your family banter needs a pick-me-up, consider a resource like “The Meal Box: Fun Questions and Family Faith Tips to Get Mealtime Conversation Cookin’.” My daughters love it when I pull out the deck of 54 cards that include fun questions like “If you could have one hundred of anything right now, what would you choose?” Flip the card over, and you’ll find a question that sparks dialogue related to our faith.

5. Use mealtimes to build faith. Even without a deck of cards, a simple mealtime prayer or going around the table for each family member to say what he or she is thankful for helps to bring your Catholic faith alive. Mealtime is ideal faith-building time because it offers you the opportunity live out your faith in word and action. You can read about a favorite saint or savor God’s word while you’re filling your stomachs. But even when faithful words aren’t spoken, parents are making love real for their children by serving them. In turn, children can serve their parents by helping to set or clear the table.

The Eucharist is the source and summit of our Catholic faith, so it’s not surprising that there’s something very spiritual about breaking bread together – even if it’s just Pillsbury crescents. “People want company around the table – a communion of persons,” Father Leo says. “We need to make connections together, and eating meals with each other is a way to do that. The meal is the most Catholic thing because Jesus became our meal.”

We are made for communion. At the Eucharistic meal, we unite ourselves with Christ. In our homes gathered around the table together, our families are called to be one in love. And that can prove to be a very nourishing encounter indeed.

Kate Wicker is the author of Weightless: Making Peace With Your Body and a senior writer for Faith & Family.