Gary McClain, PhD, is a therapist who specializes in helping clients deal with the emotional impact of chronic and life-threatening illnesses.
"What's for dinner?"
When is the last time you asked that? Last night? A few hours ago?
Sure, dinnertime-or any mealtime-is about being hungry and getting fed. But it's about a whole lot more than that. Unless you've got your own personal chef, if you're asking someone else what's planned for the meal, then that person is probably going to be sitting down with you and sharing that meal.
I'd like to relate a story from my own experience. A few years ago, I led a weekly support group for men who were living with a chronic condition. About four sessions in, one of the guys stopped at a store on the way to the group and picked up some cookies. After that, other guys began to bring snacks with them to pass around. And as they shared food together, they also started talking more about themselves. They opened up to each other, and they became a more cohesive, supportive group.
That was a reminder to me about the importance of sharing food. Food is nourishment. It's energy. Eating is something we all need to do, and enjoy doing. And for the men in my group, bringing food was a sign that they were comfortable enough to take the next step in getting to know each other.
Sitting down to a meal with loved ones enhances your sense of well-being
In every culture around the world, shared meals with friends or family are a way of connecting with each other. Talking about the day. Getting and giving encouragement. Making plans together.
Shared meals can enhance your sense of well-being. They can help you to lower stress. Increase your sense of optimism. Help you to maintain your perspective. And all this has a positive impact on your overall emotional wellness. Especially important if you are living with a chronic condition.
So that brings up another question: What are mealtimes like at your house? And a second question: Do you have meals together? Or is eating a grab-and-run kind of thing?
Are shared mealtimes slipping through the cracks at your house? Here are some ideas on how to make mealtimes an opportunity:
Initiate a group meal. If it's important to you to break bread with your family, then be willing to be the ringleader. Let your partner know your intention, and ask for an agreement on what time works best. Set a time you can both agree on. If you need to work around your kids' schedules, then include them in the scheduling. Parents: you may need to pull rank and make sure your kids know that eating together is not only important, but mandatory. And if you're single, you may want to reach out to family members or friends and plan your own group meal.
Set a regular schedule. That is, to the extent that you can. The benefits of shared meals are worth making time for them on a regular schedule. That way, they become part of everyone's routine. How about family dinner every night of the week? Impossible? Then how about one weekday night and at least one weekend night? Sure, schedules may be all over the place. But chances are you can come up with some kind of routine. Also keep in mind that young children like having routines, and what's a better routine than having meals together?
Do what you can to accommodate everyone. Not everyone may be on the same page in terms of food preferences and diets. Actually, this is one of the reasons that people avoid eating together. But don't let this get in the way of planning a shared meal. If you have food restrictions, a family meal doesn't have to be a reason to go off your diet, to force others to eat food they don't enjoy, or to just give up on the whole idea of you all eating at the same time. Do what you can to make sure everyone is served something they will enjoy. It might mean spending extra time in food preparation, and maybe asking for some help from other family members. If you are inviting friends over for a shared meal, you might want to make it a potluck.
Keep the conversation upbeat. Any bad mealtime experiences from when you were a child? In my experience, one of the reasons why people avoid shared meals is because meals have all too often turned into opportunities for criticism or scolding, or uncomfortable topics like politics were discussed. Do what you can to create a mealtime atmosphere in which everyone feels nurtured not only physically but also emotionally. Parents, don't use dinnertime to get on your children about their grades, for example, or not-yet-completed chores. Couples, avoid arguing during mealtimes. And encourage kids not to bicker during a meal. Do what you can to make mealtimes enjoyable enough that you will all look forward to the next one.
Be willing to disclose. Let your family, or your friends that you consider family, know how important it is to you to sit down and share a meal with them. If you don't, they may continue to stay caught up in their own busy lives and all too infrequently take this time to be together. Feeling supported is an important part of your self-care, and mealtimes are an opportunity to get some support. So open up about what you need, and enlist your loved ones in making shared meals happen.
You, your loved ones, and shared meals. Don't miss the opportunity to sit down with the most important people in your life and break bread together. Talk. Listen. Enjoy the food. Share the love.
What helps to make mealtimes more meaningful in your home? Share your experience and advice by commenting below.