Cooking and eating offer abundant opportunities to bring rituals of comfort and pleasure into daily life, simply because we all need to eat every day. Yet often, they’re missed opportunities, as frozen entrées, makeshift meals, and take-out menus call to our craving for convenience. No wonder so many Western cultures have become overfed and undernourished. Serving fresh food that’s been prepared with love (or at least a good attitude) and seasoned with camaraderie is a simple formula for nourishing both body and soul on a daily basis.
Meals aren’t only about the food on the table. The setting, atmosphere, stories, and conversations that accompany the food all contribute to making even the most ordinary meal memorable. And don’t forget that fun and memorable family meals can include breakfast, picnics, and meals shared with extended family and friends.
Here are some ideas to consider if mealtime at your home has become more of a chore than one of life’s simple pleasures:
Declutter your kitchen:
Because of its central location in most homes and apartments, kitchens often become repositories for mail, bills, school notices, homework, recent purchases, newspapers, unfinished projects, toys, and more. Make sure your kitchen suggests comfort, not chaos. The kitchen should be comfortable, functional, and as clutter-free as possible.
Consider your shopping and planning habits:
Do you plan your meals and pantry needs so that shopping can be at least a pleasant routine, and not on a par with going to the dentist? Does your food shopping include planned stops at farms stands and organic produce markets, quality bakeries, and ethnic food shops? If you find yourself frantically prowling the aisles of crowded supermarkets without a list in hand, or if you wait until there is literally nothing in the house with which to make a simple meal, then you need to rethink your shopping habits.
Bond over food regularly with extended family and friends:
Casting a wide net of family connection with food as the common denominator is one of the most time-honored ways to connect, and an ideal way to have cousins grow up together, to see aunts and uncles, siblings, and grandparents without having to make separate plans with everyone. How about a once-a-week potluck with extended family, rotating homes, or a once-a-month dinner club with a handful of other families whose company you enjoy?
The daily necessity of getting a meal on the table can feel like a lonely task when it is the domain of just one cook. When you involve your partner or children in the process of creating meals, you also create a perfect opportunity to pass down food customs and share culinary passions. Some families have developed rituals for cooking as a team, whether for daily dinner or for fun and relaxation, often with male partners and sons as equal participants. If your little ones want to be with you in the kitchen but are too young to help, get them a play stove and utensils so they can feel included. Gradually, give them small tasks that they can accomplish safely.
Dinner time is for checking in, exchanging news, enjoying good food, and just being together. Having a set of prompts in mind works well to spark conversation. Discuss an interesting news story or community event, or have everyone talk about the high point of their day. My older son recently suggested that we occasionally celebrate or commemorate something that happened on that date—a significant historic event, or the birthday of a person we admire. Many websites, for example www.infoplease.com, have such listings.
If you want to keep conversation light, try “conversation-in-a-jar,” suggested by Meg Cox in The Book of New Family Traditions. Prepare a container to be set on the table, containing strips of paper marked with questions such as “The strangest thing that happened to me today was…” or “The best book I’ve read recently is…”
Borrow from other cultures:
If there is a culture that fascinates you or any members of your family, borrow from it to create festive meals. New Year celebrations, harvest festivals, seasonal rites, and other non-religious holidays can give your family a fresh, exciting perspective on food and teach children to appreciate cultures other than their own. Acknowledging Cinco de Mayo (Mexican Independence Day), Diwali (the Hindu Festival of Lights) or the Chinese New Year, is cultural education disguised as fun. There are plenty of books on these subjects geared to kids, and lots of information on the internet.
Candles at the table:
Candles are often saved for special occasions, though their soothing glow provides an easy way to elevate the nightly meal. The simple act of lighting candles gives the meal a definite beginning; older children enjoy this task. Dinner is over when the candles are blown out—the perfect “job” for little ones.
Candles are most welcome during the dark days of the year. For casual daily meals, try short, chunky candles or colorful tapers in ceramic holders. It’s also fun to set a tiny tea light at everyone’s place. Send a long, safe candle around so everyone can light their individual candle. When the meal is over, everyone blows out their own candle. While hardly a revolutionary idea, candles can sharpen the focus of a family dinner, while softening the atmosphere.
Start a breakfast tradition:
Special breakfasts are rarely a lot of work, since they often revolve around just one dish. Pancakes, waffles, biscuits, bagels, and fresh muffins seem tailor-made for enjoying in one’s pajamas, reading the morning paper. A breakfast ritual can be the perfect antidote to the weekday morning “rush hour” if enjoyed on the weekend; or if planned for, a nurturing way to launch school days and work days.
Pack a picnic:
A delicious meal eaten outdoors—deliberately planned, at any time of year—is a perfect springboard for creating a memorable family tradition. It may have been sneaky, but when our sons were young, we always found that they were more enticed by nature outings if we called them “picnics” rather than “hikes.” A picnic doesn’t have to be far from home; it can be in right in your own back yard, followed by a game of croquet or badminton. And it doesn’t always have to be outdoors, either—a meal of summery picnic foods eaten on a blanket before a warming fireplace on a dismal February day is the perfect antidote to February cabin fever.