Getting To Know Your Dining Table -- And Each Other

You know that piece of furniture in the kitchen or dining room with four legs and a couple of chairs tucked in around the perimeter?

Yes, that thing that doubles as a desk and a mail box and is in need of a good dusting, is called the dining table. It is the surface upon which we place our daily bread and at which we gather, sit down and eat. The problem is, we don't.

Come on. Be honest: How often do you sit down at the table for supper? Forget about breakfast, I already know the answer. It goes something like this, right?

Breakfast is for the weekends, y'all. I've got my sippy cup of coffee and a granola bar, which I'll tear into while swerving lanes and exercising my road-raged lungs.

And lunch, although it has at-table potential, how often does this really happen? Even I -- a work-at-home-gal in her pajamas -- am guilty of eating lunch at my desk. But why? And when did we give up mindful eating for multi-tasking shoveling?

As the day segues into evening, our attention shifts to dinner. Or not. When I was growing up, dinner was the one opportunity in the day to break from homework and jobs and laundry and meet each other at the table. Dinner was when we argued, pushed our food around the plate and reported on the news of the day, from book reports to flat tires. It was when we connected.

Over the last year, the daily work load has more than doubled at Casa Appetite, and more often than not, dinner is prepared by the seat of our pants -- and eaten in the living room with the television on. For the latchkey kid who was raised by television, this is a habit hard to break, and most of the time, I put the kibosh on the tube.

"Let's sit at the table instead," I'll suggest, and if he protests, I'll offer to eat Japanese-style on the living room floor, facing each other across the coffee table. Dinner is served, and the conversation magically begins to flow.

Imagine the possibilities if we all engaged in a little table talk. We might actually like it.

Today's Eco-Bite: Confused by the difference between organic and conventional produce? Check out these organic cheat sheets:

The Organic Center in Boulder, Colo. has compiled a pocket guide with its recommendations for conventional produce to avoid, and the Environmental Working Group's walllet-sized version offers both its "dirty dozen" (12 worst offenders) and the "cleanest 12," a list of conventional produce that consistently scores lower in pesticide residues.

By Kim ODonnel |  April 4, 2008; 10:45 AM ET Kitchen Musings
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Kim, I love this topic. I can think of very few nights when I was growing up that my entire family did not eat dinner together at the kitchen table. It's one of those things that I didn't appreciate at the time, but now miss. One of my New Year's resolutions was to eat dinner at the table more frequently and I've been making progress. I find it helps to leave the placemats and cloth napkins there all the time as a reminder to not plop in front of the TV at dinner time. I live alone so there's not a lot of conversation going on unless I have dinner guests, but I am very aware of eating more slowly and mindfully when I sit at the table.

P.S. Have you read the book Real Food by Nina Planck, whose parents have a stand at the Courthouse market? I am reading it now and it delves into a lot of the topics you have addressed in your blog.

Posted by: Allison | April 4, 2008 11:41 AM

This is one reason I am glad I don't have an eat in kitchen (or one of those horrible islands with counter-stools). I eat dinner in my dining room, at the table, every day. We don't always eat together, but at least we're not scarfing it down in front of the TV!!

Posted by: cc | April 4, 2008 11:50 AM

Over and over studies show that the one thing that successful students have in common is that their families would eat together at least once a day.

If, indeed, civilization begins with each child, the dinner table is the essential place for teaching conversation skills, connecting with each other, having a safe place to vent and brag.

How about putting the television in another, hard to get to place, like another room or (at our house) the basement?

Posted by: Muriel | April 4, 2008 11:53 AM

We eat at out table every morning, every evening, and every meal we're home. We're at the end of a huge remodel--we moved out for 5 months and still haven't moved in all the way. After the bed, the first item we moved in was the dining room table. Even though we were still using our camping dishes, the table meant we were home.

When we were having the plans drawn up for our house, the building designer said that the formal dining room was the least used room in the house. We laughed and said we could get rid of the living room before the dining room. He also wanted to put in a bar or some other eat-in space in the kitchen. We both nixed that. After our building designer came over for a dinner party--16 adults, three courses--he wanted to revise the plans again to make room for a bigger table. (We put in pocket doors so we can extend into the living room if needed.)

Also, we only allow food in the dining room and the kitchen. (I let the kids lick the beaters and eat pieces of bread dough while we're at the counter.) There's no food allowed in the living room or bedrooms. Part of it is to prevent messes, but part of it is to teach my kids that the biggest part of eating well is to recognize that you are eating and notice what it is.

I know a lot of people say they can't do what we do because they work, but my partner and I both work full-time, and we're doing the remodel ourselves--the actual construction work, not just telling people what we want done.

So how do we find the time for this? The only thing I can think of that makes us different than 99% of Americans is the fact that we don't have TV. All that time other people spend in front of the TV, we spend doing things--even if it just means sitting across the table with a cup of tea and cinnamon toast, talking. Not only that, but our kids don't see ads for a bunch of junk food (they don't seem to need ads to want it, don't worry), and they have never asked to watch TV while their eating. Honestly, I don't know how people don't find the time to sit down and eat together.

Posted by: seattlecookingmom | April 4, 2008 1:40 PM

You don't need to ditch the tv to get some quality dinner time - get a Tivo and watch the news when you want to, not when it's on and so is dinner.

We always eat at the dining room table. The only problem is the table double tasks as a desk and all-purpose junk collector. The middle is our table. It's just the two of us so at least we're not teaching children bad habits!

Posted by: Fran | April 4, 2008 1:58 PM

our We grew up eating at the kitchen table all the time. (The dining room was for special events like Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner, or when Grandmother came to eat with us.) We had to be home, at the table for dinner, every night. My dad worked nights and slept during the day so dinner time was the only time we were all together before he went to work. We talked about school, what we were doing, what our friends were doing, what was happening in our community. It was our 'pow-wow' time. Too bad more families don't make a habit of that.
Now I live alone and my eat-in kitchen table is where I eat when I'm home. It's usually covered with stacks of catalogs, a newspaper or two, cookbooks, a to-do list, a table cloth and a placemat. If company shows up, it's cleared off and set with very nice china and candles.

Posted by: Southern Maryland | April 4, 2008 2:34 PM

We're working on this (2 small kids with early bedtimes makes it difficult to get us all in one place at the same time). We all eat at the same table, but in stages -- and the table doubles as the art creation place so it's usually pretty chaotic. I loved dinnertime growing up - it was the one time I could be sure to hear what was going on with my older brothers. And I love what seattlecookingmom says: "part of it is to teach my kids that the biggest part of eating well is to recognize that you are eating and notice what it is." -- I read some study a while back that said being focused and present while eating actually affected how well you digest food.

Posted by: MamaBird/SurelyYouNest | April 4, 2008 2:52 PM

As someone who grew up eating with my family at the kitchen table, I find it disappointing that the appeal of dinner conversation is losing to the television. I've had some great times chatting around our kitchen table with friends and family, more so than I can remember watching a television show.

Posted by: Texas Transplant | April 4, 2008 4:20 PM

What a bittersweet post. It's funny really, I grew up eating at the kitchen table with the family probably until about 7th grade or so when I started having sports practices and such. I have many fond memories of eating at the table and also some sad ones. I seem to recall a lot of tears shed at the table as arguments and my father disciplining us sometimes would get out of hand.

At a point my parents bought those ridiculous TV trays and for some reason watching TV during dinner became the norm. Somehow "Bowling for Dollars" and the nightly news became more important than eating together around the table. I'm not really sure why my parents allowed that to happen, but I always missed sitting down as a family despite some of the emotional memories. But then, I'm the foodie in my family and on balance the family memories are good ones as we at least ate together usually.

Even up until my father's death a couple of years ago, my parents would typically fix their meals and then eat in front of the TV, a habit I just don't understand. In my own home, my partner and I eat dinner at the table most nights we are home unless we're watching some TV event or a movie, which is rarely the case. I always light candles, and if I have my act together, the table is set and the food is ready when he comes home from the gym. Sets a calm peaceful tone as we reconnect over dinner. We try to limit shop talk to 5 minutes and instead focus on us.

I always cook enough to get four servings: 2 for dinner and 2 for lunch the next day so I rarely have to buy lunch. Even if I eat at my desk, I get to enjoy a homecooked meal at lunch that often tastes even better the next day. He tells me that his co-workers look on with envy as he opens his lunch and explains what I made for dinner last night.

p.s. Allison, I just asked Kim that same question about Real Food in yesterday's blog about milk! Loved reading that book and seeing Nina's family at the Dupont Market on Sundays. Let's see how KOD responds!

Posted by: Sean | April 4, 2008 4:55 PM

DH and I grew up in families which gathered nightly around the dinner table so it was natural that we continued the tradition (habit) when we married. After a couple of years, he went to grad school at night. Since we had no kids then, most nights I would make dinner for whatever time he got home after class, usually around 9 pm. One night the class ran late, he had to meet with classmates on a project and then got caught in traffic due to construction. We ate a warmed up dinner while watching Johnny Carson's monologue and talked over our day! DH died a few years ago and one of the times I miss him most is when there is only me eating dinner with the tv for company. Make the time and make the food and every dinner will become important.

Posted by: NoVa | April 4, 2008 5:22 PM

Agreed - my husband and I sometimes (like once every three weeks) eat in front of the TV, and it's a special treat to do that, usually when I've worked a nightshift, slept all day, and didn't want to do much other than heat up a couple of Trader Joe's entrees. My husband hates doing it, but I enjoy it if it's once in the while, so it's a real treat for me when I do it.

Growing up as a kid, we always had dinner together, and therefore eating in front of the TV was a treat for pizza night only.

Another one of my favorite dinner treats was being allowed to read at the table, a rule my father made but my mother abhored. So when he went out of town on business, my mom and I would stop by the library and then go home and read all thru dinner.

I think these things are so special because it was natural for us to all eat together at the table - it's hard for me to believe families ever did otherwise, not regularly, at least.

Posted by: Laura | April 5, 2008 5:45 AM

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