In the hectic pace of everyday life, daily family meal time today is often just a fond memory. Eating on the run, grabbing whatever can be found in the refrigerator or eating at different times, and even different locations, often becomes more of the norm, instead of an exception to the rule. Yet, family meal time is a grace-filled event and one of significant importance in regards to faith and to the health and stability of family life.
There are numerous biblical references pertaining to the sharing of a meal. Jesus is often going to a meal, present at a meal or leaving a meal. His enemies even accused him of being a “glutton and a drunkard” (Matthew 11:19). Jesus was neither of these things, but he dined often, many times with the poor, the outcast and those labeled as sinners. Our faith teaches us that meals are more than the mere consumption of food. Sharing a meal is a grace-filled moment, in that such a meal is an expression of welcome, hospitality and friendship. In varying degrees, these traits are common to all cultures in the world. It certainly was in the time of Jesus and it continues to be so today.
One of the greatest gifts Jesus gave the world is the Eucharist. It was at a meal, the Last Supper, that he gave us his Body and Blood to be shared with one another, until his return at the end of time. Even the very rejection of Jesus by Judas occurred at the Last Supper and with food: “So he dipped the morsel and took it and handed it to Judas, son of Simon the Iscariot. After he took the morsel, Satan entered him” (John 13:26-27). Heaven itself is often referred to as a banquet: “… and I confer a kingdom on you…that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom” (Luke 22:29-30).
Data from information collected over the years confirms that having dinner together in the evening, for example, is difficult for today’s families. Slightly more than a quarter (28%) of adults with children under the age of 18 report that their families eat dinner together at home seven nights a week. Almost half (47%) of the parents polled report their families eat together between four and six times a week. Another quarter (24%) report they eat together three or fewer nights a week. When families make the effort to dine together, as often as their schedules permit, the rewards are tremendous.
According to the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, children and teenagers who share family dinners three or more times per week are less likely to be overweight; are more likely to eat healthy food; perform better academically; are less likely to engage in risky behaviors such as drugs, alcohol and sexual activity; and have a better relationship with their parents.
In her research on the importance of families sharing meals together, Dr. Anne K. Fishel, a clinical psychologist, author and a cofounder of The Family Dinner Project, writes: “Over the past fifteen years researchers have confirmed what parents have known for a long time: sharing a family meal is good for the spirit, the brain and the health of all family members. Recent studies link regular family dinners with many behaviors that parents pray for: lower rates of substance abuse, teen pregnancy and depression, as well as higher grade-point averages and self-esteem. Studies also indicate that…stories told around the kitchen table help our children build resilience…What else can families do that takes only an hour a day and packs such a punch?” Dr. Fishel offers great ideas and suggestions for family meal time, including conversation starters for children of all ages, dinner menus and much more, at the website, www.thefamilydinnerproject.org. These suggestions include not watching television during meal time and making the dinner table a cell phone free zone.
Sharing a meal as a family offers the opportunity to emotionally connect with one another. I know families who use the time to discuss pertinent topics of the day, read Scripture and share stories, all while learning how to listen more intently to others and to be fed in body, mind and spirit. Over the years, I have learned so much about the lives of my parishioners simply by sharing a meal with them in their homes.
Eating together as a family is indeed a spiritual activity that goes beyond the grace prayer. Praying before and after a meal is an important component in the spiritual life of our families, but grace is also found in the actual sharing together of that particular meal. Make regular meal time a part of your weekly schedule and discover again the grace of the family meal.
Father Gary Janak