The Family Meal – An Act of Communion

“Dinner time is my favourite time of the day,” my friend said to me the other day. We were discussing how nowadays many families no longer are able to sit together for family meals on a daily basis. 
This could be because of several factors – one of the main ones being that many of us work long hours, or that we have not taken up cooking skills from our parents. Or it could simply be because we do not find it important to have meals together.
Research is divided on the benefits of sitting around the table as a family to dine.
Some say it helps to affirm familial relationships, improve and encourage communication between family members, resolve conflicts within the unit, a channel to pass down values and traditions through discussions, and that it even helps improve vocabulary for the younger ones.
“Dinner is a time to relax, recharge, laugh, tell stories and catch up on the day’s ups and downs, while developing a sense of who we are as a family,” says the Family Dinner Project.
But not all agree about its goodness, or at least that they are as beneficial as claimed.
The New York Times, in 2012, conducted its own study and came to the conclusion: “Our research... shows that the benefits of family dinners aren’t as strong or as lasting as previous studies suggest.”
The newspaper, however, did not dismiss the family meal altogether. 
“[We] don’t dismiss the possibility that they can matter for child well-being. Given that eating is universal and routine, family meals offer a natural opportunity for parental influence: there are few other contexts in family life that provide a regular window of focused time together.”
Indeed, testimonies from friends – both parents and children – support the view that there is much to be gained from having meals together.
David Tan says he has been doing this with his adult children and grandchildren and finds that family meals present “a time for the grand kids to bond and communicate with us on a regular basis.”
For Sophia Tsang, the tradition started when her mother-in-law was ill. To keep her spirits up, Sophia would bring her children to visit and have potluck with their grandma.
“[It was] possibly the best meal for her in the week,” Sophia says. “We enjoyed each other so much we carried on even after her death. It's been 2 years plus now and we are still doing it. We have become much closer as a result and we rely on each other whenever we need assistance.”
Family dinner for Christine Parimala Pelly was a daily ritual, until her daughters went off for their studies. “We touched base about our day, often there would be an issue over which we may have different opinions that could lead to a lively discussion.” 
Something as simple as making eye contact, she says, can be an intimate experience.
“[It] is a pity if children do not get to experience this while growing up,” she says.
But my younger friends in fact seem to also appreciate the time together round the table. 
Yasmeen Banu, a student, says she never understood why her mother would emphasise on eating together. “There was no way you can avoid eating vegetables!” she says. But growing up, she realised such times of communion were “one of those things you learn to appreciate and hold close to your heart.”
“Candid conversations, talking over each other, knowing what everyone else is up to, bad jokes the elders will tell and the young ones never seem to get,” she says, “and ultimately fighting over the last meatball is just one of those moments you look forward to after school or work.”
“My family always make a point to have dinner together because it really is the only time we can actually sit down as a family,” says Tiffany Gwee, 19. The time together is made more precious for her because it is hard for the whole family to come together on a regular or daily basis because of other commitments. “[It] doesn't matter if it's just two or five people at home we just will eat together.”
Of course not everyone or every family may want to gather round the table. 
As another friend, Jennifer Teo, puts it, it may be difficult to have dinner together daily as everyone has his or her own schedule. 
“Once a week [is] more likely,” she says. “Also, there are other ways to bond. And if family members don't get along or have nothing to talk about, eating together is stressful.”
So, remember that while gathering round the table and interacting with family members over some home-cooked meals is something many may desire, it is perhaps important to keep in mind that it is not really about where we commune or share with one another.
“[What] is important is for the family to have a together time every day,” says Ravi Philemon, a father to two young adults. Family time, therefore, may not necessarily be dinner time.
“For my family, our family time is usually just before bed-time,” he says. “Since as long as I can remember, the children, Catherine and I make it a point to come together to chit-chat, share, joke and sometimes pray, about an hour or so before our bed-time. I would like to think that this has kept my family a tight-knit one.”
For us, the conversation flows from what the boys did in school for the day, mom’s work in the office, or generally about life and even current affairs. Once in a while, we take up a philosophical question, such as, “What is happiness?” 
But more importantly, to me at least, is how we converse with the boys about things of life – like honesty and humility which we spoke about the other day when the elder boy asked if he should always tell the truth. You may be surprised at how differently children see the world from the adults. And oftentimes, you go away thinking more about what you believe in since these are what you would be transmitting to your kids.
But, like Ravi, we don’t always sit around the dinner table talking about the great mysteries of the universe, or peel away the inscrutable layers of life.
Friday is, perhaps, the day the boys love best. It is not only because it is the last day of school for the week, but it is also TV-dinner night – the one day of the week when we switch on the television.
Each Friday, we prepare dinner, choose a movie and plonk ourselves in front of the screen for two hours or so. We take breaks in-between to rest our eyes. Mummy is particular about this! “Ok, rest your eyes, boys!” she’d say, and the three of us would go, “HUH? It is getting to the most exciting part!” But mummy always gets her way. But the break gives us a chance  to raid the fridge for dessert, like ice cream! So it all works out. 
The point, I guess, is that the family meal is flexible. It is not always about sitting around the table and having serious conversations.
As the New York Times said, don’t beat yourself up if you can’t find regular time to cook a meal and sit around the table with your kids or spouse. Just find another way to connect with them.
After all, it is ultimately about making time to care for those around you, your loved ones. And there is always a time and a place for this.

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