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In the 1960s neighborhood of my elementary years, kids played outside. We had neither air conditioning nor video games to entice us inside, so neighborhood kids regularly organized games like dodgeball or hide-and-seek. We played hard.

Until the street lights came on.

At the first blink of the street lights, playtime ended. Without exception, every single one of us would drop what we were doing, running on foot or pedaling our bikes home for supper as fast as we could go. We all knew it was time to show up at the dinner table for a family meal.

Odds are that today’s streetlights won’t signal dinnertime for the majority of children. In fact, a busy young family is more likely to squeeze supper somewhere between practice and a grocery run, and possibly at a drive-thru window on the way to a PTO meeting.

While home life has no doubt taken an unusual turn in recent months, we are a busy people, likely to return to our previously scheduled chaos or create a whole new version of busy as soon as our new normal settles in place. Pandemic or not—when life is busy, it’s easy to lose sight of the significance of family mealtimes. But the dinner table remains a place where we can fill our hearts as well as our plates if we plan for an atmosphere of acceptance, compassion, and even Biblical instruction.

For years my husband and I gathered our three daughters around our kitchen table as often as we could possibly manage. Whether the table held frozen pizza or my family-famous lasagna was beside the point—what mattered most was that we’d taken the time to gather around a table where we were wanted, loved, and heard. Of all the things we did right, our family meals stand at the top of the list.

Whether you’ve slaved over a gourmet dinner or ordered take-out, you can create family mealtimes that will strengthen and encourage the foundation of your home.

FAMILY MEALS SAY, “YOU MATTER”

Prioritizing family mealtimes sends a clear message that you place value on the people sitting at the table with you. Our young daughters complained about having to sit down for family meals in elementary school, but by the time high school rolled around, they realized we’d invested a lot of effort to be in their company.

At the kitchen table we taught our daughters to cheer each other on. As they recounted highlights and disappointments from the day, we taught them to “encourage one another and build each other up, just as you are already doing” (1 Thessalonians 5:11).

No matter what my girls had experienced during the day, at dinner they found a team of supporters. And from the most outgoing to the most reserved, my girls all felt valued because they each had a voice at the table.

FAMILY MEALTIMES CAN BE A THERAPEUTIC WAY TO PROCESS THE DAY

It’s easy for kids to feel they’re navigating life on their own. They encounter countless naysayers, disappointments, and decisions, and they lack the maturity and wisdom it takes to put it all in proper perspective. That’s why family mealtime is an ideal place to process the day.

As our daughters shared events around the table, we were positioned to help them keep things in perspective. As they bared feelings, we tried to listen well. What sounded like anger was often exposed as fear when we listened with our hearts. With gentle probing and understanding, a family meal can easily turn into a counseling session when feelings are recognized, validated, and properly expressed.

The family table can also be a safe place to weigh feelings against Biblical truth. Then we can more easily follow the instruction to “not be conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may discern what is the good, pleasing, and perfect will of God” (Romans 12:2).

Our family meals often turned into hours-long sessions as we talked through the day, discussed problems, and made plans. We laughed, cried, and argued in a place where we felt safe, loved, and valued.

THE DINNER TABLE = CONVERSATIONAL SKILLS AND TABLE MANNERS

One of the most obvious advantages to family meals is also the most overlooked. Mealtime provides a perfect opportunity to teach conversational skills and table manners. Our kitchen table is where we taught our daughters to honor other people by listening and using good manners.

What better place is there to remind kids to listen when someone else is talking? Or to refrain from interrupting? Family mealtime is also a safe place for kids to learn to contribute to the conversation. In our home no one’s words were considered ‘too dumb’ for the dinner table. Instead, everyone was expected to have a voice.

Family mealtime is also ideal for instilling table manners that will benefit your children for the rest of their lives. Where else can you find a better opportunity to teach children to close their mouths while eating, keep their elbows off the table, and pass the salt?

Whether we’re teaching table manners, conversational skills, or Biblical instruction, family mealtime is a perfect opportunity. Around the table is one place of many where we can “repeat them to your children. Talk about them when you sit in your house and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up” (Deuteronomy 6:7).

MAKE FAMILY MEALTIME HAPPEN

Even under stay-at-home orders, it can be difficult to make family mealtime a priority—yet there’s no better place for cultivating the hearts of our children.

Whether dinner is a steaming hot meal from the Instant Pot or cold burgers and fries from the drive-thru-window, try sitting down together. It doesn’t matter if the table is full or if there are just two of you. Use this unprecedented time to build a rhythm of togetherness into your home. For as many evenings as you can, gather around and take turns sharing your feelings and experiences from the day.

In time, you’ll demonstrate to your children that you value their company enough to make family mealtimes happen. You’ll help them navigate their day with Biblical insight. And you’ll have a chance to teach them social skills that will benefit them for the rest of their lives.

There are so many things I wish I’d done differently while raising my daughters, but sitting together at the family table isn’t one of them.

OPEN-ENDED QUESTIONS FOR FAMILY MEALTIME

If you find your kids need some prodding to join in the conversation, try using open-ended questions. That way, they’ll have to answer with more than a yes or no, and conversation will naturally develop as you tune into their feelings and listen to their hearts.

What was your favorite part of the day?

What was the most difficult part of your day?

What are you thankful for today?

What made you laugh today?

What are some of your favorite memories from this school year?

What are you most looking forward to this summer?

Who are your thoughts and feelings about the events happening in the world around you?

What do you like about yourself?

What do you wish you could change about our family?

Which of your friends do you think I’d like the most and why?

What’s the funnest thing our family has done?

What are you most proud of?

When have you been embarrassed?

If you could trade lives with one of your friends, who would it be and why?

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