One of my favorite things to do is to prepare a nice meal for family and friends. When I come to stay with my daughter and her family, I get to cook some of our meals and relieve her of some of the busyness of her life. While we love to cook together, there is something very special about preparing a special meal for someone else or for company. The table is a traditional gathering place for families and friends, and a place that invites us to share special times with one another.
Last week as my Granddaughter and I played throughout the afternoon, we excitingly made plans for a special meal. We prepared roast garlic and lemon chicken, rice, yogurt salad, and chard. Using team work, we cleaned up the kitchen sweeping the floor, washing the dishes, and clearing the table. She enjoys setting the table and I enjoyed teaching her the proper way to set a formal table, just as my mother had taught me. She carefully set the forks, knives, spoons, napkins and plates at each place. She determined who would sit where, and we put a beautiful candle centerpiece in the middle of the table. We each washed up and put on some festive clothes, and looked forward to surprising her mommy and daddy with a special dinner at the end of a busy week. This special, spur-of-the-moment celebration reminded me of how special mealtime together at the table can be. She greeter her parents at the door, and took great delight at walking them down the hall to the sight of a beautiful candlelit table.
Introducing meal time traditions. Young children love to develop traditions and habits, and they love to be part of the activities of daily life. Meal time can be made a very special, sacred experience when everyone takes on a special role. Recently, at my granddaughter’s school, the idea of excusing oneself from the table was introduced. This was a part of my family’s mealtime tradition when I was growing up, and was now being reintroduced into the family circle by our granddaughter. Planning, preparing, and setting up for dinner engages everyone in taking part in meals on a regular basis and on special occasions.
Creating peaceful and calm mealtimes. Mealtime can be a time of great stress and chaos. Without some kind of routine and preparation, meals don’t just happen. We all need to eat, and when we plan ahead (shopping for necessities, planning menus, preparing foods ahead of time), we avoid some of the scenes that can occur when everyone arrives home tired and hungry.
Some ways that we can involve our grandchildren in preparing for meals is to include them in on the planning and preparation. Keep a shopping list in the kitchen, and remember to add items when you are running low. My granddaughter reminds me to add items to our list, and she reminds her parents when we’re running low on milk, cereal, or fruit.
Regular shopping trips are occasions to involve children in learning about food and helping with meals. Before you go shopping, make a menu for the week ahead. Let everyone plan a special meal to include in the menu. Menu planning helps you shop more efficiently. Menu planning also allows you to have ingredients on hand for specific meals (you can be flexible with the meals by having ingredients that serve two or three different purposes). Visit the farmer’s markets or go to the local truck farms to get produce. Children can learn how to recognize a ripe avocado or a juicy lemon. Shopping is a great experience for teaching about daily life.
When everyone in the family is working and busy, consider having the first one home begin the meal preparation. My daughter does a great job of preparing the day’s meals in the morning. She packs everyone’s breakfasts (during the week) as well as lunches and healthy snacks. She has found colorful insulated bags for packing meals. Prepare soup, casseroles, meat loaf, pasta, or salads in large quantities that can be used for lunches and dinners later in the week. Freeze soups and casseroles for next week’s dinner.
Create special occasions around mealtime. Have everyone in the family make their special meal. On weekends, my daughter prepares a special breakfast/brunch, following in the tradition of Little Bear’s famous Flying Flapjacks. My specialities include lemon chicken, tabouli, chard, and homemade soups. My granddaughter specializes in corn bread, and her daddy is an expert at fresh fish. Teaching our children and grandchildren to cook and prepare food is not only an enjoyable experience but also excellent preparation for their becoming responsible members of the family and of learning how to eat well.
Get involved in growing food. My granddaughter and I have planted a vegetable and herb garden in pots on the back porch. We plant the vegetables that we use for our salads and for cooking. She picks fresh parsley for her Mommy’s vegetable drink, and tomatoes for our salads. If you have a yard, you can build a raised bed and plant a variety of vegetables. Here in San Francisco the growing season is nearly year round, so there is always something that can be growing to support the family’s food. Cole’s Hardware Store sells packets of seeds that include 6-7 vegetables for growing your own salad. Grow a lemon tree on your deck or herbs on your kitchen window sill.
Decorating the table. Put a fresh bouquet of flowers on the table. When there are no flowers, I sometimes put a bouquet of fresh parsley or other herbs and greens on the table. Grow flowers year round. My granddaughter and I planted tulips last fall, and now we have 4 beautiful red tulips that are in bloom. At home in Astoria, my tulips are just beginning to bud, and we won’t see the red blossoms until April or May. Pull out a colorful table cloth. I found a red and white checked oil clot at Joanne’s, and remembered Mother using oil cloth spreads for picnics and messy type dinners (spaghetti).
Sharing at the table. One of the best parts of gathering together around a meal, is the conversation and sharing of goodness. As we joined together over our end-of-the-week dinner, everyone was relaxed and happy. Everyone had taken time to have shower and change clothes, and we all sat in the candlelight and enjoyed one another’s company. Sitting together, across from one another, was something that fascinates my granddaughter. She arranges everyone’s seats so they can see one another, and I think that is so very telling of how important the idea of gathering and sharing time together is to her.
Last Saturday, my Daughter and Son-in-Law invited friends to a special birthday celebration for me. They had put a lot of time and thought into planning and preparing a beautiful meal, and my Granddaughter enjoyed helping and setting the table, assigning each guest a special place. As we sat in the candlelight, enjoying a delicious meal and sharing good conversation, we started the meal with everyone offering a toast. We toasted to those who suffer and gave thanks for our bounty and good fortune. We toasted to one another’s health, sharing the best of expectations for one another and all our family, friends, and neighbors.
Sitting around tables, gathering around fires, and sharing mealtimes together…all times when we have the occasion to consciously be present and grateful for the people in our lives. Make mealtimes a time to count your blessings and enjoy being happy with one another. Make the table a place to give and receive, a place to create special times in the ordinary times of our lives. Create traditions, habits, and memories that ground your children and grandchildren celebrating life in the ordinary and special times of life.