Some dieticians claim breakfast is the most important meal of your day. Others say the midday meal.
But let’s look beyond mere nutritional or metabolic benefits. Let’s make the case for dinner—specifically, family dinner.
Eating dinner together as a family, once a common tradition, is getting rarer and rarer.
There are plenty of reasons. The modern world has ushered the stay-at-home mother into the workforce. It has replaced her home-cooked meals with fast food, frozen dinners and takeout. Parents are working longer hours. Sports and other extracurricular activities can pull teens away in the evenings. Kids have grown used to foraging for snacks at all hours in lieu of real meals. Many families thoughtlessly eat while gazing at a television screen. Personal technology has many family members retiring to their own worlds, even when under the same roof.
Little wonder then that, according to studies, fewer than one third of all children have a sit-down dinner with both parents on any given night.
What a loss.
Family supplies the most precious relationships we have. Weaving a family into a unified team—interdependent, mutually helping and caring for one another—doesn’t happen automatically. It takes time and effort.
Perhaps nothing builds that bond like the daily rhythm of joining together at the table. When a family breaks bread, its members are nourished not just by the food but also by the company they share.
Yes, the family dinner takes effort. You have to prioritize it and make it happen. You have to coordinate your schedules. You have to forgo competing claims on your time and attention. And ideally, you have to procure ingredients and cook some food.
Difficult as it is, this is effort well worth making.
For starters, a homemade family dinner tends to be healthier than what you would otherwise eat. One study from Harvard Medical School didn’t even note what kind of food they consumed, and still found that people who eat dinner with the family “most days” or “every day” are 15 percent less likely to be overweight.
But what a tremendous advantage the family has with an in-house, educated nutritionist who is also a skilled cook! A woman who devotes herself to providing food that will truly nourish her family is a priceless treasure. Can you possibly measure the benefits in foregone sickness, increased energy, improved health?
And the nutritional benefits are only a starting point. Even amid the busyness of your day-to-day, your evening meal should be a welcome coming together among family members. This creates a sense of connection and belonging, of emotional grounding and balance, that can stabilize the lives of every member, particularly the younger ones.
This value is actually measurable. One Columbia University study found that teens in families that almost never eat together are 72 percent likelier than the average teen to use illegal drugs, cigarettes and alcohol. Those who eat dinner with their parents fewer than three times a week are likelier to smoke and drink than those who eat with their parents six times a week.
Clearly there is a great blessing in how family meals enable parents to get involved with their children and build a strong bond that children can lean on for the rest of their lives.
Some time ago, I realized that our family wasn’t eating together many nights. Because of various after-school and evening activities, our schedules conflicted, and people were just serving themselves the food my wife had cooked at their own opportunity. I decided to change that. We studied the schedule and found at least a 20-minute window each night—it was at a different time each night, but it was there—where we could eat together.
The positive effects were excellent, and immediate. This may have been the single best thing we have ever done to build more cohesion and unity in our family.
Do everything you can to sit down together, as a family, for dinner, every night you possibly can. It can work wonders in building closeness. Even making a short 20 to 30 minutes together a regular—preferably nightly—occurrence can make a huge difference.
The Most Important Ingredient
If family dinners are the most important meal of the day, what is the most important ingredient at those dinners? Love. As Proverbs 15:17 says, “Better is a dinner of herbs where love is than a fatted ox and hatred with it” (Revised Standard Version). Even a meager dinner is enjoyable when it comes with good company.
When both parents go to work and children go to school, dinnertime provides a much-needed opportunity for the whole family to gather and converse about the day. It is your chance to connect, to share, to listen, to laugh, to strengthen bonds of unity and love. It’s an occasion for your spouse and children to each see that he or she is a part of something bigger and greater.
It is also a chance to grow in conversational skill, and to learn to give and contribute to a lively discussion.
Once my family got into the nightly dinner habit, I sought to improve our conversation at the table. I asked every member to come with some points of discussion at the ready: a joke, a question, a story about something that happened during their day, a current event, a point from their personal Bible study, and so on. This immediately changed what had been rather stilted mealtime chatting into a robust conversation. It wasn’t long before I didn’t need to require prepared topics as a crutch; everyone grew better accustomed to thinking of things throughout the day that they could share with the family over dinner.
While this exercise improved our skill at conversing, it did something more wonderful: It helped us learn to enjoy each other much more. We began sharing ourselves more, laughing together more—even learning how to poke fun in love and to laugh at ourselves more, to not take ourselves so seriously. We began more freely discussing plans and things to do together.
All these benefits were unforeseen, yet priceless.
Perhaps the most important of these most important meals are the family dinners you have on the Sabbath.
The Friday evening meal—going into the Sabbath day—provides a uniquely wonderful opportunity. God tells us the Sabbath should be a delight (Isaiah 58:13). Doing your best to make Friday evening the most special meal of the week can really help to make it just that. It becomes something the whole family looks forward to throughout the week. And that meal sets everything up beautifully for the whole Sabbath.
For us, this has meant, for all Sabbath meals, sitting at the formal table usually reserved for company. It has meant planning ahead better for guests. Friday afternoon, the girls set the table in a special way, perhaps picking some flowers or gathering some other decor from outside for a centerpiece; placing nice napkins in a lovely fold. Even when it’s just the five of us, we dress up. We light candles. We put on soothing classical music. We savor the meal. We give the kids sparkling juice in wine glasses. We keep the fellowship Sabbath-quality. We have dessert.
All of these become even more special when you forgo those indulgences throughout the week. If you simplify your diet and avoid the sweets the rest of the time, then the opportunity to enjoy something more sumptuous is a genuine treat.
The Sabbath pictures the abundant life of the World Tomorrow. It is like a mini-Feast of Tabernacles at the end of every week. So it is very appropriate to make your Sabbath meals more Feast-like. God builds this natural rhythm into our lives that keeps the millennial vision alive.
The changes needn’t be elaborate—even to small children, an ordinary meal can become extraordinary just by lighting a candle. But we have found that, coupled with the small amount of deprivation through the week, they have a wonderful effect, not just on the kids, but also on my wife and me: We really do look forward to the Sabbath all week.
Yet another benefit—not just of nice Sabbath meals but of all family dinners—is that it gives you the opportunity to teach your children, by training and by example, to eat properly. The need is certainly great. Just watch schoolchildren eat among themselves, or even with adults present: They tend to engage in some pretty unrefined behavior. Manners at the table are a small but significant part of politeness, respectability and civility. Children—and adults—need the reinforcement of good table manners that can occur only when a family eats together regularly (sidebar: “Mind Your Manners”). And when you make your Sabbath meal more formal, your children have regular practice at feeling comfortable dining in a more refined setting.
God Loves Family Dinners
Do you know where the custom of family dinners started? Let’s look at it from a spiritual perspective.
The family dinner represents communion. The warmth of fellowship associated with “breaking bread” comes from the New Testament. That phrase is used to represent the fellowship enjoyed by the members of the first-century Church (e.g. Acts 2:42, 46; 20:7).
The beautiful thing is, our great God wants to “break bread” with us! We are God’s Family, and the Father and Son want to dine together with us.
Looking at the subject from this view puts those regular family dinners on a much higher level, doesn’t it? The joy of communion we can have at a family meal can point our thinking toward the joy God has in sharing spiritual meat with His Family!
Think about the spiritual bounty God has placed before us. The truths in His Word provide a continual feast; the smorgasbord of revelation to His end-time Church expound on that Word—in countless books, booklets, articles, television programs, sermons and letters. Have you ever thought of the satisfaction God receives in sharing that food with us?
Remember, Christ tells us in this Laodicean era, “[I]f any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him,and he with me” (Revelation 3:20). The word sup refers to enjoying the day’s principle (or evening) meal. But it’s not just eating. Thayer’s Lexicon says it is “to share in … most intimate and blissful intercourse.” Christ comes into us and dines with us, and we with Him, in intimate and happy communion! What a remarkable picture of a “family dinner.”
As a man, Jesus Christ valued His regular “family meals” with His disciples. He was particularly moved to eat the Passover with them the night before His crucifixion: “I have earnestly desired to eat … with you before I suffer,” He said (Luke 22:15; rsv). He took that occasion of “breaking bread” to teach them all He possibly could while He was yet with them.
The Old Testament also has some beautiful examples showing how God has always earnestly desired this special fellowship with His chosen people.
After God delivered Israel from captivity in Egypt, He led them to Sinai. There, He gave them the Ten Commandments and a set of judgments (detailed in Exodus chapters 20 through 23), and sealed His marriage covenant with Israel with blood (Exodus 24:3-8).
What did He do next? He hosted something like a marriage supper for 74 of the leaders of Israel. “And they saw [a vision of] the God of Israel: … And upon the nobles of the children of Israel he laid not his hand: also they saw God, and did eat and drink” (verses 9-11).
This extraordinary feast that accompanied the confirmation of the Old Covenant points us forward in prophecy to that spectacular meal we will enjoy with our Husband at the consummation of the New Covenant: “Blessed are they which are called unto the marriage supper of the Lamb” (Revelation 19:9).
Family Dinners at the Tabernacle
Another amazing example showing God’s desire to dine with His people is seen in the law of the offerings.
Before the Israelites’ sin with the golden calf, God pitched His tabernacle, or tent, right among the tents of all the families of Israel. He wanted all of His people visiting Him regularly.
God had designated certain animals—most prominently oxen, lambs and goats—for the purpose of sacrifices. While Israel was all together in one camp in the wilderness, He forbade anyone to kill any of these animals without bringing it to His tabernacle (Leviticus 17:3-5). As a result, God received regular visits from all these families as they brought animals to offer.
Notice verse 5: God says these animals were “for peace offerings unto the Lord.” The peace offering was a special offering among all the altar sacrifices, because it was shared by God, and the offerer, and the priest, and even the priest’s family! (Leviticus 7:11-16; 29-33). In a very real sense, it was a “family dinner”! It brought each Israelite family into special communion with God and with the priesthood as they shared this meal together.
When Israel later entered the Promised Land and the people were spread out over a much larger geographic area, this requirement became impractical, and God allowed them to eat some of these sacrificially appropriate animals at home (Deuteronomy 12:14-15). Still, there was a specially ordained place where the people were to give offerings. And here is how Moses described this place: “[T]here ye shall eat before the Lord your God, and ye shall rejoice in all that ye put your hand unto, ye and your households, wherein the Lord thy God hath blessed thee” (verse 7).
We probably think of the sacrifices as being a great burden on the Israelites, and in a sense they were. But they also had a very pleasant side, and God wanted the people to rejoice in them. That shouldn’t surprise us, considering the wondrous spiritual lessons the sacrifices embodied—one of which was this picture of God’s earnest desire to share in intimate and blissful communion with His children.
Today, God’s people are members of a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices that are acceptable to God by Jesus Christ (1 Peter 2:5). God feeds us abundantly with Christ, the bread of life (John 6:48-51). And as we are satisfied in Him, we ourselves can become “an odour of a sweet smell, a sacrifice acceptable, well-pleasing to God” (Philippians 4:18; also 2 Corinthians 2:15). We should be living sacrifices (Romans 12:1), trying to let God consume our lives completely. Beginning with our Spirit-led prayers, we should strive to give our hearts, minds and bodies to the service of God and His Family.
What joy-filled family fellowship we enjoy as we do so! (1 John 1:3-4).
Soon, we will help bring all the world into this fellowship. And what a “family dinner” that will be! “And in this mountain shall the Lord of hosts make unto all people a feast of fat things, a feast of wines on the lees, of fat things full of marrow, of wines on the lees well refined” (Isaiah 25:6).
So savor those family dinners! There’s quite an exciting vision wrapped up in them. Make them a vital part of your family life. Take full advantage of this most important meal of the day!
Sidebar: Mind Your Manners
Table manners are a lost art. Our culture has become casual and low-minded; in America in particular, it seems we pride ourselves on our uncouthness; we exalt the rude and the base.
A book called Amy Vanderbilt’s New Complete Book of Etiquette shows just how quickly that trend has become entrenched. It’s just over 60 years old—published in 1952; my copy was last updated in 1963—yet the rules of social graces it details seem to represent some exotic historical epoch. Particularly helpful was this list of rules for dinner table conduct that parents should teach children. Here, summarized from Amy Vanderbilt in 1963, are some things we should not do at the table:
- Sit down to a meal unwashed and uncombed or improperly dressed.
- Tilt our chairs or push them back from the table with all our body weight on them.
- Tuck in a napkin, nor suck our fingers instead of wiping them on a napkin, nor use our clothes as a napkin.
- Lounge on the dinner table, including putting our elbows on it or sitting back on our spines. (Apparently it is OK to put elbows—preferably one—on the table between courses. I’ll try to remember that when we have a meal with courses.)
- Put more than a manageable mouthful in our mouths at one time.
- Chew with our mouths open or with obvious noise or lip-smacking.
- Speak unnecessarily loudly or chatter incessantly.
- Behave noisily and conspicuously.
- Burp, belch, sneeze or cough without attempting to turn away from others, and then only behind the cupped hand or a clean handkerchief.
- Scratch, pick the teeth, spit, comb the hair, or tend the nails.
- Pull our finger joints, drum our fingers, or indulge in any similar irritating little habits that set people’s teeth on edge.
- Leave a spoon in a cup, or eat with a knife.
- Interrupt a conversation—except for an important reason and then only after asking permission to speak.
There you have it: 13 ways to build tiny bits of civility back into your manner of dining. Soon after reviewing these rules with my children, one of them corrected my wife on the placement of an errant elbow during a meal. I told my daughter it is far more rude for a child to correct an adult than for an elbow to be misplaced.
But that does bring up an obvious but crucial point: The best way to teach these rules is by our example.