Cooking is both simpler and more necessary than we imagine. It has in recent years come to seem a complication to juggle against other complications, instead of what it can be—a clear path through them.
— Tamar Adler, An Everlasting Meal
When we sold our last home–a mid-century ranch we had renovated and transformed over a seven year period–the couple moving from Germany asked to include our large farm table in the sale, too. My husband looked at me with eyes that said, “well, what do you think?” and it took only as long as my mouth needed to form the word no to answer. They could have the newly refinished oak floors, the limestone countertops, the fridge we had bought for our first home, my favorite dining room light fixture, the large garden we had built from scratch and the new Oak trees we had planted to take over after our old, tired Oaks gave way–but the table felt sacred to me. It was more than wooden utility. For me, the table is story. In the cup rings, scratches, and uneven stain, I see hundreds of meals shared with friends and family, the school days and watercolors, the birthday parties and candle-lit dinners, the celebration of new marriages and babies, the tears of hardship and the stories of courage and belief. For almost a decade, this table has soaked up our life-spilled stories and days and every crumb we’ve shared in between. This piece was moving with us.
Yet somewhere in all of the transition and pace of last year–in the repairing of our new home, establishing new rhythms, and the haste to make ends meet financially–our family table became buried beneath tools and dust and projects and life, and our mealtime and cooking practices were buried along with it. Meals became forced and hurried, as did the connection we had with one another around it. Even this, the wandering and forgetting, is part of this table’s story. By the end of the year, I yearned for the leisure of this space, the connection with one another through food and conversation, even the messy and loud sort. I had realized that in all of my efficiency of routine to get things done, to simply take care of needs, I was skimming off some of the richest parts, the creme of our family life, our togetherness. We were becoming a familiar modern story of fast-food and moving meals.
I realize my story also belongs to many of you, not a tale about a piece of furniture or a specific food group, but one about a way of life, a connection with meals and togetherness. As Edith Schaeffer wrote in The Hidden Art of Homemaking, “Meals can be very small indeed, very inexpensive, short times taken in the midst of a big push at work, but they should be always more than just food.” Your family mealtime might take place at a beautiful formal dining table or perhaps around a kitchen island, a card table, or breakfast nook. Whatever the spot, a family meal doesn’t always require a dining room, fancy food, or a tablecloth, and although I prefer the slower, longer meals, it doesn’t always have to be that either. The true beauty is that the family table takes on as many shapes and forms as the people who fill them. The point is to keep returning, to keep nurturing that mealtime togetherness regardless.
At the end of last year, my husband and I began to evaluate our home-life, looking to mend the connections, relationally and practically, that had been neglected and strained during all of our change the last few years. Our family table seemed to be a simple place to begin, a place that we all longed for and needed for its regular meals and togetherness. Like few other things, the table nurtures and nourishes us. It cultivates story and memory with one another. It reminds us, even in a ten minute lunch, how to pause and receive. Below I wrote out some of the ways we’re reprioritizing this space and using our time around the table together. They will of course look different in your own home, but I hope they will somehow inspire you to keep nurturing your meals and the people you share them with.
start the day together // Since Mark leaves for work each morning just after 7am, we’ve been waking the kids up at 6:45am to come to the table, eat a simple breakfast, read this, and pray together. This time is usually quite simple and only 15 minutes or so long, but it’s become a sweet consistent way to begin/reset for our day.
add fresh florals // Fresh flowers and greenery are always one of the first meal details to cut from our budget. While they’re not a practical necessity, fresh flowers naturally draw attention to a space, to a place. I’ve noticed as my children are getting older, they notice and appreciate these details, too, “ooh, pretty flowers, mom!” This year, I decided to take a bit of our grocery cash each week to set aside for a few fresh blooms and leaves. It’s a small thing, but significant in nurturing a specific space, I think.
clear and clean the table // Without paying attention, I’ve realized it’s easy to simply get up and walk away from the table after a meal, leaving the dishes and crumbs right where they were. (I’m sure that’s not the case in your home.) Additionally, our table, naturally located in the flow of foot traffic, also becomes an easy place to drop mail, keys, library books, unfinished school work, etc. Although it seems obvious, no one enjoys gathering around a dirty or cluttered table. Take time before and after meals or other activities to clean up. Each of our children have specific jobs around mealtime preparation and clean-up. Currently, our girls (ages 5 and 8) are in charge of the table space right now, making sure it’s prepared and cleaned afterward, while the boys (ages 9 and 11) clean and clear the kitchen workspace and dishes.
make time to share // When we lived with my sister and brother-in-law for a year, there were ten of us at each meal (if no one else joined us). We needed a way to connect with one another in a very simple way, so my brother-in-law, Tim, began a tradition called “best/worst.” Each evening, one person begins by sharing the best and worst parts of their day, then they choose someone else at the table to do the same. This person shares and then chooses the following and so on until everyone has had a chance to share. We still practice this several nights a week, and I’m always surprised to hear the highlights of their days, often they’re far more simple than I expect, sometimes event the food iteself.
read // Reading anything from books to blogs to IG or Twitter accounts has been such an inspiring way to connect with mealtime again. In terms of books, I have read or am reading: The Hidden Art of Homemaking, An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Grace and Economy, and Bread and Wine— all of which I highly recommend. I also love reading and learning from my favorite cookbooks: Vegetable Literacy, It’s All Good, The Kinfolk Table, Sunday Suppers, and more recently, Clean Slate.
include the kids // Perhaps this is another obvious point, but having the kids participate in meal-planning and meal-making naturally slows us down, gives them familiarity with different cooking practices, and cultivates expectancy about the meal itself. Depending on their age, they might chop or process vegetables. They can sauté the onions, line the parchment paper in the pan, stir a pot of soup, kneed dough or butter the bread. Create space and time to have your children with you in the kitchen. Teach them how to protect the fingers while chopping or properly wash the food beforehand. Give them cookbooks to flip through and discover what they might like to try.
What are some of the ways you/your family connect at mealtime?