By Janice Lane Palko
When a new year begins, I like to take stock of my life and see where I can make some improvements. One thing I’d like to change is how I eat. During the lockdown when we had much more time at home, my family and I found ourselves for lack of something to do, setting the table and eating Sunday dinner in our dining room.
When I was growing up, we always ate dinner at a table, and I was often asked to set the table. I still use the mnemonic device I learned as a little girl to set the table. I remember that the knife (who is the dad) and the spoon (his kid) go on the right because he’s taking her for a walk while the mom (the fork) stays at home on the left and cooks. Sundays, back then when there were blue laws, laws that prohibited some commercial operations from being open on Sunday, many families gathered for dinner on Sundays.
I don’t know if it was the advent of TV dinners or if our lives became too hectic, but our family dinner has eroded over time. When my kids were small, we all sat down at our kitchen table, but as they grew older and had more after school activities, our dinner hour degraded. I, and the rest of my family, have gotten into the habit of eating in front of the TV or eating while I’m standing or eating while I’m doing something else.
According to the Family Dinner Project, there are many benefits from eating together and not just avoiding spilling food down the front of your shirt. In an April 2020 interview by the Harvard School of Education with the executive director of the Family Dinner Project, Anne Fishel, stated:
There have been more than 20 years of dozens of studies that document that family dinners are great for the body, the physical health, the brains and academic performance, and the spirit or the mental health, and in terms of nutrition, cardiovascular health is better in teens, there's lower fat and sugar and salt in home cooked meals even if you don't try that hard, there's more fruit, and fiber, and vegetables, and protein in home cooked meals, and lower calories. Kids who grow up having family dinners, when they're on their own tend to eat more healthily and to have lower rates of obesity. Then the mental health benefits are just incredible. Regular family dinners are associated with lower rates of depression, anxiety, and substance abuse, and eating disorders, and tobacco use, and early teenage pregnancy, and higher rates of resilience and higher self-esteem.
Who knew that something as simple as sitting down to eat together can be so beneficial? When we traveled in the Holy Land last fall, we witnessed how both Jews and Muslims there placed a high priority on dining together as a family. Though they live in political tension, overall, they seemed more relaxed as people. Perhaps this is one reason why.
So, this year, I’m going to make an effort to eat while sitting at a table and to take the time on Sundays to set the table and dine civilly.