Family Dinners: Keeping the Spark Alive

Are family dinners important? What about empty nesters? Families of one? Do family dinners protect against the effects of teen drug use and cyberbullying? Writer Melodie Miller Davis in her recent blog post “How do you keep family dinner?” got me thinking about recent research on the topic.

In her post, she refers to Columbia Casa Family Day, a national initiative to remind parents that they have the “power to help keep their kids substance free.” Cornell University researchers also have discovered that shared meals may help prevent eating disorders. An article in Time asserts that teens benefit from interaction with their families and find security in the shared, predictable ritual of family mealtime possibly preventing early drug use and the effects of cyber-bullying. However, there is also research that claims such effects are overstated or not verifiable.

Whatever the case may be, the faster the pace of our lives and the more insane world events become, the more I long for the sweet spaces of serenity that sharing family meals can provide.

The Longeneckers and the Metzlers, two strands of my family line were oblivious of any such research but carried on the ritual of family meal time together. Here is a post from the Metzler gatherings, often picnic style.

Family dinners can be very large as seen here in Grandma and Aunt Ruthie’s house with twenty, mostly Bossler Mennonite Church friends, gathered around their huge dining table.

Mother L_Bossler eating_at Ruthies

Whether large or small, indoors or out, dinners require preparation. My sister Jean and her family provide some of the “raw material” from a shared meal at Mother’s house.

Mom&FairfieldsREV

Years ago if we didn’t visit Pennsylvania, I shared holiday meal making with my sister Janice, who lives just 2 ½ miles from us.

There's one in every crowd - even in family!
There’s a joker in every crowd – even in family!

03_meal_Easter_1999

And then the over-flow table with the kids . . .

04_meal_Thanksgiving_2005

After awhile, our children began entertaining us, first in Chicago where all four worked, earned graduate degrees and started a family.

05_meal_Grayslake_1999

Then when they moved to Florida, two years apart, their meal making continued with Fourth of July at Joel’s house . . .

06_meal_Thanksgiving_Cristas_2009

. . . and Thanksgiving at Crista’s house in her bright sun room.

Any excuse for a party! Besides birthdays, Fourth of July can be a cause for celebration too.

07_meal_Memorial Day_2009

One of us, who loved everything about entertaining from meal preparation to talking and eating around the table, will be missing this holiday season and every meal in between, our Mother Ruth Longenecker, hostess extraordinaire.

Mother slicing pig stomach with baked corn and a stick of butter close by
Mother slicing pig stomach with baked corn casserole and a stick of butter close by

 How have family dinners marked your family history?

Coming next: # 1 in a series “Moments of Discovery”

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43 thoughts on “Family Dinners: Keeping the Spark Alive

    1. I imagine the number of grand-children is growing too based on what I see on your blog posts. More racket – probably a good thing at your family gatherings! If the garage is right next to your kitchen, it’s a perfect set up. Thanks for being the first to comment today, Anita.

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  1. Thanks for sharing your wonderful photos of family dinners–except no thank you to pig stomach! 🙂
    I know how much you miss and will continue to miss your mother.

    You know from some of my posts how much I love family holiday dinners! They are always a lot of work, but I still enjoy them–to me, the cleaning is the chore, not the cooking. Thankfully, my husband does much of the cleaning. Now that one daughter is married and lives in Boston, and the other does not live at home, they can’t both be at every holiday dinner–and I miss their help with the food prep, too.

    As far as “regular” not holiday family dinners–when the girls were home, we always tried to eat family dinners, even if they were sometimes rushed to get them to an activity. And since I work from home and like to cook, they were nearly always home-cooked meals. But I understand how cooking is something that many people do not have the time, energy, knowledge, or inclination to do regularly. I will have to go look at the links later, but I have seen several recent discussions from food scholars I know with various points of view over recent articles–one in the NY Times, I think–about the demise of cooking and family meals.
    OK. I’ll stop now. 🙂

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    1. Just like your research, I know cooking is one of your favorite creative arts. I could have done more investigating for this one, but chose to stop before it became overwhelming. The New Yorker too puts out a issue on food usually every year, one of my favorites.

      Like me, you are fortunate to have your husband help with the clean up. We have a rule now: one cooks, the other cleans up, which sometimes takes over an hour for huge dinners. Thank you for taking time from your book launch to read and comment. I’m sure you’ll post a follow-up on that.

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        1. Yes, I remember – your book on daily life during the American revolution. Somehow I missed your post “Apples and Honey” when it was published, but have read it now and left a comment.

          Yes, our modus operandi works the same way usually: I cook and Cliff cleans up unless there are other willing hands.

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  2. I love all these evocative pictures, and the last one of your mother is best! And, unlike Merril, I love pig stomach! Maybe she would like it better by its other name — “Dutch Goose.” That one looks so plump and yummy, and your mother exudes joy in cooking, presenting, and sharing. I come from the same traditions and even the same menus.

    I’m looking forward to Thanksgiving with our whole family, children and grandchildren, in Montclair, NJ. We were all together in August for a week, too, and had a number of meals in shifts around the toddlers’ schedules. But we also had one meal at the dining room table with the good china and all the trimmings.

    Something whole descends from above as we hold hands.

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    1. Mother was queen of the kitchen, and it was there she was happiest. To carry on the tradition, I have a pig stomach (unfilled) along with 5 pounds of ham loaf in the freezer at the moment awaiting other family dinners. The grand-children’s appetites are growing with their bodies, so sometimes I have just one of the families over.

      However large or small the gathering, we often sing the Doxology at we hold hands. Your last line is pure poetry, Shirley: Something whole descends from above as we hold hands. I’m happy you can share family time this week in Lititz. I’ll be on my way tomorrow. 🙂

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  3. Our Holiday dinners are the best. We mix friends and family and they last for hours. Good to see everyone enjoying themselves. My only complaint is that I am usually too busy to sit and chat with anyone until after the dishes are done 🙂

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  4. Lovely photos and tradition, Marian. I think family dinners are a great time to bond. My husband and I are empty nesters, but we prefer eating in our dining room and chatting about our experiences during the day. When the holidays come, we get together with our daughters, sons-in-law, and grandchildren (that’s only 6 plus us). We always enjoy this time together. 😉

    I think that those who eat on the run or with their face glued to the TV or internet are really missing out on some quality time with family.

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    1. We certainly have parallel thoughts concerning family dinners. When the kids were at home we sat at the round kitchen table for meals. Now the two of us have migrated to one end of the dining room table toward the window and eat dinner on comfy chairs, sometimes with candle-light. It’s prime time to share the minutiae of the day and un-wind; however, occasionally we let a TV movie entertain us.

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      1. What a warm, beautiful image you created, Marian. Our cushioned chairs do face a window that looks out on our street. (The view from the kitchen table is better – a view of the pond – but that little table is not as roomy or classy.) Our TV is in the family room which merges into the kitchen. So we’re not tempted to watch TV during dinner. 😉

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  5. Thanks for the link to my blog post on family dinners, and these take quite a festive and HUGE turn. I’m sure your family will love reflecting and remembering all the wonderful table memories. So pig stomach is actually filled with ham loaf? I never knew. I may have to change my unexposed opinion! I eat sausage in casing, so why not ham loaf? That picture is just lovely. Perhaps I’ll come begging to borrow that when we come out with a 65th anniversary edition of Mennonite Community Cookbook in 2015! And yes, Shirley strikes a lovely chord with her poetic line.

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    1. Sorry to mislead you. Pig stomach and ham loaf are two separate beasts. The pig stomach is filled with sausage & potatoes with a touch of parsley. As you can guess, the ham loaf is served alone, sort of like meat loaf.

      I found the photo of Mother in her glory with the pig stomach when I was searching through albums. Did you notice the plate of butter? She always cooked with butter. Julia Child, Ina Garten, and a host of other cooks/chefs would approve.

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  6. Well, if that isn’t happiness I don’t know what is … it just makes me smile and smile some more! Thank you Marian! There’s nothing nicer than preparing a meal for family and friends, with love. It’s what my mother always said when we asked what her secret was for her delicious food – It’s made with love was her always answer. I mean to say her ‘always answer’ 🙂

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  7. Hi,
    I have been wanting to make pig stomach forever. I have fond memories of pig stomach for Sunday dinners. I just need to find a butcher who will save me a pig stomach!! I love the huge amount of guests around your dinner table!! It brought back memories of the big extended dining room table at both my grandma’s and my mother’s. My mother would invite new visitors from our church for Sunday dinners, those who nobody else wanted to to take home with them; the Puerto Rican family, individuals from Front Street in Marietta, missionaries home on furlough, The Indian family that would come up from Washington DC with international students. There was always enough room around the table for more and always enough food to go around, like the loaves and fishes. Eating and cooking was such a part of growing up, and to think now, families are lucky to sit down at the table to eat all at the same time and to eat a home cooked meal!!!

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    1. Your mother Esther was the Hostess-with-the-Mostest, like many Mennonite women of the era. Her conviction recalls Menno Simons’ statement to feed the hungry and cloth the poor. You have a wonderful legacy. With those extended family dinners, you got an education in other cultures + the demonstration of true Christian love. And you hit the nail on the head: “just like the loaves and fishes.”

      Thanks for your comment, Geni. I can picture the faces of both your Mother Kathryn and Grandma Kathryn as I read this.

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  8. I remember so well the wonderful big family dinners at my grandmother’s place with all the aunts and uncles and many cousins. Everyone talking at once and so much laughter. My Mom also made family dinners but with not quite as many people. They are great memories too for me and my kids. Unfortunately these are a thing of the past as we no longer do them. My children and grandchildren do not live near me. My daughter makes a nice meal for me when I visit and often includes some neighbours but it is not a big family dinner. I’m pleased you still have them.

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    1. Well, there are fewer and fewer of the huge gatherings as shown in the photo story. My son and daughter have taken over most of the entertaining these days, except for our Christmas morning brunch, still held around our table.

      The trick is to appreciate what remains, even if it a different ritual from what we have experienced in the “olden days” – ha!

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  9. Marian — As “foodies,” Len and I love cooking and eating. We enjoy doing it up “right” just as much when it’s only the two of us, as we do for a whole group of family and/or friends. And even though the food is delicious, I think it’s the companionship — visiting back/forth with each other — that’s the most delectable part of the meal.

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  10. Marian, thanks for your follow up correction about the pig stomach. The photo sure looks like a regular ham type dish with pineapple glaze. Is that what it tastes like? And yes, I did notice the stick of butter on the table. My daughter switched me back to butter several years ago, and I love it, in moderation. It is expensive but one of those things that I now just close my eyes and pay the price. For many years I bought the cheapest margarine possible. In the four years she lived at home after college, this environmental science major nudged me towards Barbara Kingsolver type local cooking and eating as in her book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. ( I say nudged, because I still haven’t been able to give up coffee or bananas. 🙂 ) Anyway, it is a luxury and indulgence, both money-wise and calorie wise. My mom always used butter until good brands of margarine came along.

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  11. On almost every photo over the last years, there are sticks of butter on or around Mother. It’s always nice to see your smiling face in “comments,” whether about food or something else. Right now coffee is brewing and we are beginning to sift through the contents of Mother’s house in PA. Food will provide comfort as always.

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  12. The picture are a great memory of many dinners that I had at Moms and the Wengers. Yes pig stomach that I love and ham loaf that I toyed with and ate very little I’m not a ham person. I live cooking and entertaining. We have to sit at the table for all of our meals. The children always expect it. I’m blessed that my husband has always cleaned after dinner. Now that the grandchildren are older they now do the cleaning. When it’s a large group then Pablo leads the cleaning. We have great conversations, laughter and song. We are so blessed that we still love eating at home. Holidays are the best. I love cooking for big crowds which my family. Just from me were 33, including children grandchildren, great and grand spouses. God has blessed us even through the loss of one but never forgotten. Thank you again for your blog.
    Gloria

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  13. Oh what a wonderful post and blog I have come across. Family dinners or family with visitors makes for a busy time but also special bonding time. Living in Australia permanently from the time I was six along with my two younger sisters we always helped serving dinner and clear the table. Our friends were so intrigued as we curtsied when we said hallo in the German continental fashion. Three white blond little girls with our hair cut in a bob style.

    Alexa from Sydney, Australia
    http://www.Alexa-asimplelife.com

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    1. Welcome, Alexa, from Sydney, Australia! Thank you for commenting here and for letting me know something about you too. Apparently, we both come from a German background and also value family. I have two younger sisters as well with whom I am spending time this fall season at our Mother’s home in Pennsylvania, where we are sorting through her things after her recent passing: https://plainandfancygirl.com/2014/08/15/a-grief-observed-missing-mother/

      I notice on your blog that you like to post both funny and thought-provoking content, which summarizes my own. I’m impressed too that you mention that you are a listener, rare to find these days. I hope you will visit here often. I typically post Wednesdays and Saturdays weekly. Again, thank you for stopping by.

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  14. Marian, this post brought back so many family dinner memories. When my grandparents’ dining room (and card tables set up in the living room) became too crowded with 5 couples, 13 grandchildren, always at least 4 or 5 family friends who didn’t have somewhere to go, then we moved the Sunday dinners and holiday meals out to the farm houses…and on two occasions we even cleaned out the new big barn and set up long tables for serving and eating. Those are the “sharing” dinners I remember and honestly believe did more to form my value system than sermons in church or lessons in school.
    Excellent post.

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    1. Your last comment gave me pause. I remember asking our son Joel what was the most valuable lesson he learned growing up and he said “Love of family.” From his wayward ways in childhood I would have thought he might say “Obedience.” Now he’s doing a darn good job teaching middle schoolers. Thanks for commenting, Marylin.

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  15. What a feat to prepare for such a large clan! Family dinners aren’t as often as they might once have been but they are always nice to reunite the family bond. Thanks for sharing. 🙂

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  16. Thank you for the beautiful reminder of the good times we had with the Golden Agers. I believe the picture was taken on one of our day trips which Miss Ruth planned.

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  17. I grew up with regular intergenerational family meals while Hubby only had his immediate family. I still love the confusion (though there are fewer of us every year it seems) and Hubby hates it. We compromise – he enjoys a quiet weekend at home and I do the road trip/family thing. I think my kids have decided they like the gatherings too and I trust they will, for years to come! 🙂

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    1. You both are a good role model for the little guy. When Joel left home I asked him what he most appreciated about his upbringing, and the first word out of his mouth was “family.” Thanks for stopping by, Jenn.

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