This process happened recently with "The Benjamin Family Dinner Debate".
Last year, Hannah attended Ballet Lessons and CCD class. Since our D.C. Suburb is filled with dual income families, it is impossible to find an extra-curricular activity for elementary students that begin before 5:30 PM. In fact, most lessons go from 6-7 PM or 7-8 PM on a School Night!
For Hannah's Kindergarten year we had lessons two days a week that started at 5:30 PM. Hannah is a social butterfly who adores activities and new friends. However, her lessons left everyone else miserable. I dragged two tired siblings through rush hour traffic to pick up Hannah. We missed having a family dinner two nights a week. The disturbed bath and bedtime routine never found a firm footing. My famished husband snacked on peanut butter and jelly on lesson nights, while a half finished dinner boiled over on the stove.
This year we decide to protect the family dinner hour. That required a radical shift for three members of the Benjamin family. Hannah had to give up activities that she loved. Jon had to make a concerted effort to leave the office at 5:30 PM. I had to make sure that dinner was completely finished by 6:00 and not 6:25 or 6:44.
In the beginning it was hard. I missed the easy fail-safe assurance outside lessons gave to homeschooling. As a convert, I was nervous about taking on sole responsibility to prepping my daughter for her First Communion. Every time a fellow Mother rattled off all of her elementary student's outside activities, I got nervous. Was I unfairly depriving my athletic, social daughter of something important?
As time went on this year, our Dinner Hour became amazing. My kids still rock in their chairs and spill water glasses at almost every meal. But now we have a gentle time to reconnect with each other before the mad rush of bedtime. We eat real meals. We read Sacred Scripture together. Table manners for my son are gradually coming out of the Viking Era.
I looked around and realized that this poor Carmelite family is rich with a vibrant family life. In an era when most people are giving up family dinner due to the rush of baseball practice and Ballet class. We Benjamins eat 3 meals together as a family; Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner. There are three times a day when we gather around the family table to eat nourishing food and to nourish each other with our presence.
After falling in love with Family Dinner, I started to understand how critical meal time is to family life. If we are the domestic church, than the dinner hour is our Eucharist. Eating a meal prepared from scratch by your Mom, having your Dad remind you to eat a bite of broccoli, laughing over ice-cream cones with your Sisters--this is the real texture of family life.
How can a young Catholic understand the importance of Jesus giving up his body in the Eucharist, or the necessity of attending Mass with your family in Christ on Sundays, if he never had the experience of eating a regular meal with the natural family?
After making these internal discoveries my heart broke after reading the following passages from my Sister's copy of Michael Pollan's, "In Defense of Food." The family dinner situation in America is so much bleaker than I realized.
"If you install video cameras in the kitchen and dining-room ceilings above typical American families, as marketers form the major food companies have done, you'll quickly discover that the reality of the family dinner has diverged substantially from our image of it. Mom might still cook something for herself and sit at the table for a while, but she'll be alone for much of that time. That's because dad and each of the kids are likely to prepare an entirely different entree for themselves, 'preparing" in this case being a synonym for microwaving a package. Each family member might then join mom at the table for as long as it takes to eat, but not necessarily all at the same time. Technically, this kind of feeding counts as a family dinner in the survey results, though it's hard to believe that it performs all the customary functions of a shared meal. . .
Of course, people tend to eat more when they can have exactly what they want-which is why the major food companies approve of this modernized family meal and have done everything in their power to foster it. So they market different kinds of entrees to each member of the family (low-carb for the dieting teenager, low cholesterol for dad, high fat for the eight-year-old, and so on), and engineer these "home meal replacements," as they're known in the trade, so that even the eight-year-old can safely microwave them. (pgs. 189-190.)
This whole passage hurt my heart. As a wife of nine years, I can't imagine nodding to my tired, hungry, husband at 6 PM over my SOLO microwaved meal and saying"Hi Honey! Welcome home from work! There's some low cholesterol frozen dinners in the freezer for you to heat up whenever your ready." Much less, can I imagine saying "fend for yourself kids," as I prepare and eat a solo meal at our dining room table. How hard can it be for a mother to zap 4 extra portions when she microwaves her own frozen dish?
I'm not as militant against microwave meals as is the author Michael Pollen. As the Benjamins settle into the happy chaos of welcoming a newborn in August, we might be eating a series of frozen pizza dinners. No matter if the cuisine is fresh or frozen, however, we've made a pact to dine together as a family.
Hurrah for the family dinner hour! I'm happy to be a Mother from the dinosaur age for Jesus!