Family Research Council reported in yesterday's Washington Update that Monday, Sept 26 is Family Dinner Day, sponsored by the CASA Organization. This is certainly a celebration worth celebrating not only on Sept 26, but every day! Not only do children, especially teens, benefit greatly from the family meal, but this concept is integral to our very beings.
CASA is the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University. Their research is summarized in a wonderful article by Jamie Lee Curtis, "Guess who's coming to dinner?"
"In a 2003 back-to-school survey of 1,987 adolescents aged twelve to seventeen, CASA determined that teens who ate dinner with their families five or more nights a week were at half the risk of starting to smoke, drink or use drugs. The teens were also twice as likely to get As in school as the teens who dined with their families two nights a week or less. This concept is mind-blowing, yet so simple."
This is among the most important reasons that one of the premier goals of CASA is to promote the idea of the family meal.
The meal as a gift
Having the family meal is about more than just eating together, but also about the act of appreciation for the preparing of the meal. Often, people offer a thanksgiving to God before eating, with a special blessing for "the cook." This very action of reception and thanksgiving affirms the one who labored for much time to give this simple gift. Often, this is the wife, as this is often one of her responsibilities as a wife. Amongst her other duties, she spends a great part of her day thinking of and preparing a meal to nourish her husband and children precisely because she loves them.
Says Jamie Lee Curtis in the above-mentioned article:
"And yet, if the quintessential nuclear family that takes time out for dinner each evening was an elusive ideal for people forty years ago, it’s all but extinct today. In the modern era, Mom and Dad rush home from work to eat a few quick bites with the kids before heading out to a social function or a meeting. Other nights, everyone is so busy with various activities that dinner begins to resemble a game of musical chairs. Each person winds up reheating leftovers on his or her own timetable, or the family orders takeout before everyone rushes off to do something 'more important.'"
Something is lost when food is ordered in or the meal is eaten at a restaurant. I have always found it peculiar when families eat Thanksgiving or Easter meals at a restaurant, for example. This phenomenon eliminates the gift-giving factor of the meal, but reduces it to an item that can be charged and service that can be tipped. It also renders it impossible for restaurant workers to spend that special time with their families. In fact, in some Mexican towns with populations of over 5,000, there is not a single restaurant in the town. It is simply unthinkable that a meal would be prepared by anyone but the people that will partake of it.
Reflections of a young person
Reflecting upon her summer with myself and our friend Christopher, Michele, philosophy student at Christendom College, said the following about the communal nature of eating. "Especially through those simple evenings of dinner, housekeeping and leisure did I find something profoundly humanizing, although the realization came later. Eating in solitude is a very lonely thing. We are the only creatures in this world that really have a sense of a meal, that communal affirmation of life through nourishing it, through enjoying the way our Creator intended us to be."
Even amongst friends the meal is "a kind of spiritual imitation of the self-sacrificing and life-giving natural family." Even away from family and living in New York City where she was deprived of her "usual modes of recollection in the beauty and privacy of nature," she found other forms of beauty "in the day-to-day living with friends." She concludes by making reference to the Nicomachean Ethics where Aristotle "explains that what friends do together is to live together… I came to realize more deeply why our Lord said, 'I have called you friends.'"
The Eucharist: the highest meal
From Michele's last sentence, we can see why our Lord used the meal as the foundation of the highest sacrament in the Church: the Eucharist. It is this integral part of our being, and all can relate to it. Often, a first date involves going out to dinner. Such is with Christ. His "date" with us is in the form of the Holy Mass, most especially in receiving Communion.
The gift of Himself is what makes the Eucharist unique. In the Catholic tradition, we truly believe that Christ is present in the Host after the words of consecration are said by a priest. Each Catholic then approaches the altar, the family table, to receive. Back in the pew, we offer our prayers of thanksgiving for the great gift, such as in the blessing before a family meal the blessing is said.
This year is the year of the Eucharist, and we must take this opportunity more fully understand the gift given in the Eucharistic meal.
Reflections of society
The instance of "order ahead, pick up to go" restaurants and fast-food chains, I believe, is a direct response to the breakdown of the family in society. Those who are single or who do not take the time (most often because they do not have it!) to prepare a meal often find themselves resorting to these options. This further dehumanizes the concept of a family meal.
For example, on Friday night, the secretary at my doctor's office was discussing with myself and other patients what she was going to do for dinner. "O, I'm picking it up!" she said. "There is no way I am going to take the time to cook after working all day." This comment reflects a twisted sense of priority among the family. In lieu of spending money on fancy haircuts, nice clothes, golfing trips and expensive cars, families ought to recognize the importance of the sacrifices necessary that one parent (traditionally the mother) is able to be home to prepare a meal.
But, I can't cook!
Fears such as lack of cooking skill ought not be downplayed; practice makes perfect, or at least better! For me, I am not so good at cooking. I go through stages where I will perfect certain dishes, such as mashed potatoes, tri-color pasta or wraps. It seems that my ability to cook has not been fostered largely because I have no one to cook for. During the summer, with the company of Christopher and Michele, I was able to fine-tune my cooking skills. For this reason, it is especially important for young, single people to form such communities of friends to share the cooking responsibilities. This will help to prepare them for marriage in a practical way. Then in partaking of the meal, they are able to exercise the giving and receiving and also to engage in fruitful and healthy conversation. This is the very act of sharing their lives with one another of which Michele spoke.
Of course, one more aspect of food as gift is actually giving! Another skill that I further developed this summer was baking pies. One of my greatest joys now is to bake a pie to present to a friend. The recipient can always tell when such a gift is made with love, and the right and perfect thing to do in the reception of that gift is to express gratitude through consuming it together, enjoying it together.
Pleasure in eating
Many recognize that the things most necessary for our survival as a species are enjoyable to the point of being pleasurable. God made eating, breathing, rest and sex pleasurable for a reason! Just as it is disordered to have sex alone, one might suggest that eating alone is disordered. Our very bodies pine for the company of a communal meal just as they pine for procreation.
As a child and even to this day, my family ate together daily. I would constantly hear "Be home at 6!" no matter what situation or event was happening. At the time, I did not recognize the importance of this event, but my parents had the wisdom to see it. My grandparents lived with my family, and all of us would sit around the table nightly. Grandpa would tell stories; Grandma would tell jokes; Dad would read a page out of his latest book; Mom would share her wisdom; each of us kids would discuss our days, our feelings and our other thoughts and opinions. We shared our lives, our faith and our family through this basic concept. We truly knew each other from this experience. The meal always ended with desert and then night prayers.
Let's make the family meal a daily celebration in our lives!