In our family, mealtimes can be a time of great togetherness and enjoyment, but they were once a time of great frustration and tension. Over the years, Charlie and I have had to talk through what our mealtimes should look like, what they shouldn't look like, and what we need to be accurately expecting from our children. Throughout all of this, though, we always need to keep at the forefront of our minds why we want our mealtimes to look a certain way. It cannot be about us, or even about our children, but it needs to be about the Lord and His glory.
"So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” 1 Corinthians 10:31
Here are four things we've learned to do over the years that have transformed family mealtime:
Before looking at the more practical steps involved in a mealtime make-over, I want to address the heart of the matter. Our hearts. Just like in all things, we need to get to the root of why we desire the things we desire. Oftentimes, in my own heart, I find that I am longing for things to be different because of how those differences will positively affect me. I will be viewed as more put together and “successful” if my table is beautiful and my children are well behaved. I will have an easier time at the table if everyone obeys right away. I will feel more appreciated if my children eat every last bite and say “thank you” when they are done with their meal. Now, reading through that list you see things like “children are well behaved”, “everyone obeys right away”, and “my children eat every last bite and say ‘thank you’”, and you wonder why that would ever be wrong. I want to make clear that it is not the desired outcome that we need to be suspicious of, but the heart of the desire. If the motivation is our glory and not the Lord’s glory then we need to call it what it is, sin. And we then must come before the Lord to confess our sins and repent, asking Him for His grace to grow in us a God-glorifying desire for a more God-glorifying mealtime.
One of the greatest hurdles to having our children display consistent manners at the dinner table is our own inconsistency in what is allowed and what is prohibited. When we tell our children that they are not allowed to talk with food in their mouth one night, but then allow it the next morning, we are inconsistent. When we tell them not to talk about inappropriate things at one meal, but then laugh at their potty joke the following meal, we are inconsistent. Do we laugh at behavior one night and then discipline for it the next? This is just three examples of ways that we can be inconsistent with our mealtime expectations. And inconsistency is truly unkind. It confuses our children and leaves them walking on eggshells.
"For God is not a God of confusion but of peace.” 1 Corinthians 14:33a
As we aim to give our children an accurate understanding of God and His character, we must be careful that we are not behaving in a way that is in direct contradiction to who God shows Himself to be in His Word. Our dinner table ought not to be a place of confusion, but of peace.
We also want our children’s manners to reflect a presence of genuine respect during mealtimes. Imagine having a very important guest over for dinner. Your senior pastor, John Piper, or yours or your spouse's boss. Would you allow some of the current mealtime behaviors that exist in your home to be present at the table with the honored guest? And I want to be clear that I am not aiming to confuse “comfort” with “respect”. It is true that sitting together as a family unit brings with it a lovely level of comfort and familiarity that is not fully present when a guest is at the table, but the level of respect that is shown at the table should remain consistent. When we train our children to seek to be at peace with those around them, as much as it is within their ability to do so (Romans 12:18), and to view others as more significant than themselves (Philippians 2:3), we must train them what this looks like at the dinner table. Interrupting, showing food, talking with a mouthful of food, getting up and down from the table, not sitting up straight, taking more food without asking, intentional flatulence. Each and every one of these (plus countless more we could list) fails to consider others. They are done with a lens of “self” alone and, in order to get to the heart of the matter, should not be allowed. The manners we require day-in and day-out from our children should not, in any way, be altered when we come together for a meal.
Pleasure is good. Pain is bad.
If we believe that it is wrong or unkind in one way or another to feed our children something they don’t like, then we believe that pleasure is good and pain is bad. The only problem is that this is a half-truth of sorts and is not at all grounded in Scripture. Scripture is very clear, in fact, that at times pleasure is very, very bad and pain is very much for our good! So then, why are we so afraid of causing any “pain” or displeasure in the lives of our children? Why do we fight to provide them with an atmosphere of continual pleasure? If we believe that God uses trials to mature us (James 1:2-4), then why are we afraid of even the tiniest trials being placed upon our children?
It is okay for our children to eat food they don’t like. It is okay that we require our children to eat food that they don’t like. It will actually produce maturity in our children to require them to sit at the table and eat something they don’t enjoy with a glad and grateful heart. All food that is set before them is a gift from God and needs to be viewed as such (James 1:17). We also need to expect and require this in our own home so that our children would never rudely refuse food at a friend or neighbor's house because they are “picky”. This would show a great deal of disrespect in such a setting, but we need to realize that it shows the same level is disrespect in our own homes, around our own dinner tables. Now, I am definitely not suggesting that we all intentionally make our children’s least favorite meals every night of the week so that they can more quickly mature and learn submission, but I am suggesting that our children are not a regular part of our meal prep considerations. We must choose the food that we will prepare and then they must eat it, with submission, respect, and gratitude, when it is placed before them.
In each and every aspect of mealtime, love must be the driving force. Our love for the Lord and our love for others. We, as the parents, must let our love for the Lord guide our motivation for a more peaceful and respectful mealtime. As children, our kiddos must allow their love for others to drive their self-control and gratitude as they sit around the table with us.
I would be remiss if I didn't point out that our mealtimes will always involve children. At face value, this is an obvious point, but let me explain why it's so important to keep in mind. We can easily get caught up in the expectation that, if our children are properly trained, mealtime with them will somehow look just like mealtime with our peers. Nope. As long as we have children around our tables, we will have interruptions, accidental flatulence, and tears. Just to name a few things.
Our aim is not to expect perfection from our children, but to train for and anticipate the growth and maturity of our children. A wrong expectation on our part will lead to frustrating and volatile mealtimes, which is the exact opposite of what we are praying for. May the Lord bring us all a more peaceful mealtime, filled with all of the tiny hands and chubby cheeks that we love so much!
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