September 2012 Print

The Family Meal

Michael J. Rayes

Kids are messy. That’s why God created paper towels.

At some point, upon cleaning up after yet another meal, you may have the feeling that your children should learn more than simply how to eat. What about civility and the dignity of living as an honorable Catholic gentleman or lady? How do you pass on the greatness of our shared Catholic patrimony to your children?

The answer could be as simple as eating dinner together as a family.

The family meal is an opportunity to teach your children history, social anthropology, family life, and culture. Dinner is the time to inculcate your own family’s culture and lineage into your children. What foods did your grandmother make? What about her grandmother? Making time to prepare these same foods will teach your children a strong element of their ancestral history. Food is one of the most powerful factors of culture and ethnic social groupings. Your children have a right to learn about their own ethnicity and heritage. They may end up learning a few foreign-language words and phrases from you as you explain the dishes and how they are prepared.

I am not a dietician and not a professional nutritionist. This is not an article on food or weight-loss; rather, we’ll explore the Catholic principle of family life as it pertains to the preparation and consumption of food. You may find, however, that a healthy relationship with food and the practice of Catholic principles will yield natural benefits for your body and supernatural benefits to your soul.

Eating together as a family not only teaches your children civilized behavior, it is an opportunity to practice a right ordering of family roles. The father of the family will sit at the head of the table and lead prayers. The mother could sit at the father’s side. The rest of the seats may be entirely pragmatic. Who will fight if they sit in proximity? Who has long legs to entwine or kick other legs under the table?

One prays grace before and after every meal. Properly, the father leads these prayers. At the end of the meal, all will wait until they are dismissed. No one may simply walk away from the table: They must be excused by the father. This may be a good time to share the events of everyone’s day, briefly inform the family about news, or to clarify a house rule.

A focus on comportment at the dinner table does not necessarily mean that you must have a quiet, serious atmosphere. Some meals could be this way, but many other times your family meals may be light-hearted.

Natural and Spiritual Parallels

Dinner should be special as the Mass is special. We may contemplate both as we ask for our daily Bread in the Lord’s Prayer. Our Lord routinely uses the natural to reveal, and even to effect, the supernatural. Consider the sacraments as perhaps the best example of this: water, oil, bread, wine, vocalized words, and imposition of hands are physical realities that effect supernatural works. Your family dinner also has, in its own, lesser way, a spiritual significance for your family. You and your children may feel a certain peace of soul when the table is set. It is edifying to see an orderly, clean table with place settings and food nicely presented.

Food also tends to pull people together. The family is a community, a school of faith. There will be opportunity to reconnect during a main meal in which the family partakes together.

This doesn’t mean that every instance of dinner need be extravagant. Using our Mass comparison, sometimes we may attend a weekday low Mass which barely lasts 40 minutes, but occasionally there is a Pontifical High Mass complete with a deacon and subdeacon. Dinner, too, might be more formal or simple depending on the occasion.

Food can restore vitality or it could make a person sick. It may even be fatal due to grave poisoning. The Eucharist, as well, is a condemnation for one who dares to receive in mortal sin. St. Paul is very clear on this point in 1 Cor. 11:27.

Concerning meals, you’ll want to consider the reality of your family life and adjust accordingly. Popular culture in America waxes eloquent about “Sunday dinner” as being a quite formal affair, but my wife and I discovered years ago that we usually don’t have the energy to exert on a Sunday dinner after getting half a dozen small children ready for church, dealing with catechism lessons, Mass, and then the drive home. Many Sunday dinners at our house consist of leftovers and easy foods the kids prepare themselves. During the week, we plan more complex meals for dinner, some of which can get fairly complicated (and delicious).

Meals as a Family

Regardless of formality, however, there should be certain minimum standards for every dinner meal. This will be a lot easier when you delegate chores to your kids. For example, you may wish to always have a clean tablecloth. A child less than ten years old can shake out the old one, put it in the laundry hamper, and spread out a new tablecloth. Kids should have various chores to prepare for the meal according to their temperaments and ages.

You will, no doubt, want your family to be relaxed and comfortable in your home, but there should also be cleanliness and order. This is a balanced approach. Consider the papal household of St. Pius X. He worked hard at restoring all things in Christ, but when it came time for dinner, he did away with the custom of the pope eating alone. He enjoyed conversations with his meals.

In my own family, my wife is task-oriented and I am people-oriented. Thus, she prepares the meals (a lot of fancy, busy work that dazzles and overwhelms me) while I manage the kids’ chores, and then follow up with making sure the table is set right. All of these tasks would exhaust one person, but together, we get it all done.

Children can also contribute to the meal by picking and rinsing food from your backyard garden. This garden can be as simple as one herb plant or you could have a whole working farm back there. The point is, your children will learn that food comes from the earth, which is a manifestation of the created goodness from a loving God.

There are also books on etiquette that will help you train your children in proper mealtime manners. The Joy of Cooking features a section on proper place settings. Catholic books on etiquette and the domestic life have been republished as well.

You may wish to consider having another table which will give you and your spouse the adult time you both need. A bistro table or a nicer small dining table in your bedroom, on the patio, or in a separate dining room works well for tea, coffee, desserts, and so on.

A Right Relationship with Food

We could compare the appetite for food to another human appetite which is properly satiated in marriage. St. Francis de Sales used food as an analogy throughout his Introduction to the Devout Life, so we will compare the appetites here. One does not go around constantly and mindlessly satisfying the amorous appetite. That would be animalistic and immoral. Neither does one need to constantly give in to hunger for food or put taste above all else. Mindless snacking is probably not advisable to one who struggles controlling the passions. Children are acutely observant and they model behavior of those around them. They may learn the virtue of temperance by your example.

Like many other things, food can be used for good or abused. The Church has always recognized this, but the modern world is catching up. The American Psychiatric Association lists two major eating disorders that warrant serious intervention. There are lesser degrees of eating problems, of course, which pertain more toward gluttony and spiritual imperfection.

Conversely, a right relationship with food will help the family follow the Church year. The foods prepared can help remind each family member about the liturgical season. For example, a Lenten dinner on Friday would certainly be different from a Wednesday dinner during the weeks after Pentecost.

By making even little changes in your culinary routine, you can improve your health, draw your family closer together, and teach your children valuable lessons about their heritage and their Catholic Faith.


Michael J. Rayes is a lifelong Catholic, a husband, and father of seven. He has been published by Rafka Press, Latin Mass Magazine, and others.