Do your family meals need some perking up? Make summer dinners special with five simple tips to make dinnertime memories worth remembering.

My husband and I listen to a chapter of the Book of Mormon each morning from LDS.org while reading along. It never matters how many times you read (or listen to) the Book of Mormon, there are new things to learn and wonder about.

As I ponder those amazing first eight years (in the wilderness, on the ocean and then in a new land) and then the generations to follow, how little we know about what they ate. There were not “goldfish crackers” for little ones, or the foods we all turn to for quick fillers for teens. As a mother, I can’t help but wonder! Other than the mothers of the 2,000 Stripling Warriors, we know virtually nothing of the wives and mothers who bred and fed their abundant posterity.

With continual warfare and no convenience foods, I can only surmise that they had to rely on simple, nutritious fare. After all, raising all those soldiers surely required a lot of food. And don’t forget all their daughters, small children and the aging segment. I am constantly curious: Were family meals a cultural norm or were ages and/or sexes separated? What did their meals include? Was there a lot of cooking and baking? Or mostly raw food? What were favorite dishes and seasoning? Meat, grain, fruit, seeds and honey are the only foods I have found mentioned specifically so far. (See my link below for a fascinating article on the grains and animals of the Book of Mormon.)  I have high hopes that in the hereafter we’ll have opportunities to know more about their culture and lifestyle. In the meantime, our focus is to create happiness, health, character strength and memories worth remembering for our own posterity.

What about you? And what about your mealtime experiences now? Are you seeking to improve the mood, spirit and atmosphere of your meals? Family mealtimes create and define a family in undeniably profound and important ways. Lighter summer schedules and long evenings make June the perfect time to be proactive and creative.

For starters, make an assessment: What are your family dinner experiences now?   What are your memories of family dinner while growing up? If you have children at home, what will their memories of mealtimes together be as they leave your home? Are there some things worth carrying into the next generation? If not, what can you do to change that?

President Monson says: “When true values and basic virtues undergird the families of society, hope will conquer despair, and faith will triumph over doubt. Such values, when learned and lived in our families, will be as welcome rain to parched soil.” Ensign, Nov 2000, 64-66

Regular meals together are perhaps the easiest, most regular ways to support this prophetic counsel. Did you know …

  •          “The average parent spends 38.5 minutes per week in meaningful conversation with their children… “(A.C. Nielsen Co.) By simply eating dinner together each night and making an effort to talk to your kids, you can easily more than quadruple that time. You get to know your child better and isn’t that the whole point of having a family?”
  •          “Family dinners are more important than play, story time and other family events in the development of vocabulary of younger children.” (Harvard Research, 1996) The dinner table has always been the social center of families, so it is no wonder that that’s where our kids learn to talk. It gives them “real live” demonstrations and practice not only in speech but also social interactions.
  •          “Frequent family meals are associated with a lower risk of smoking, drinking and using marijuana; with a lower incidence of depressive symptoms and suicidal thoughts; and with better grades in 11 to 18 year olds”. (Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, 2004.) By spending more quality time with your kids over dinner, you will quickly be alerted to any changes in your child, but you also develop a better relationship with your kids. Wouldn’t you want your child to come to you with his problems instead of turning to drinking, drugs, or considering taking his life?
  •          “The more often teens have dinner with their parents, the less time they spend with boyfriends or girlfriends, and the less likely they are to have sexually active friends”. (National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University – 2004) Not only do your teens have less time to hang out with boyfriends and girlfriends, having a good relationship with you makes them less likely to search for closeness by becoming sexually active.
  •          “Adolescent girls who have frequent family meals, and a positive atmosphere during those meals, are less likely to have eating disorders”. (University of Minnesota, 2004) It is up to you to help your children develop a good relationship with food. Not only can you significantly lessen the chances that your daughter will develop an eating disorder, this is also your chance to teach everyone in the family good and healthy eating habits that will last a lifetime.

These studies document this simple truth: Serving up good conversation and sharing each others company is just as or more important as what you actually serve. (I’ll address that aspect in my next article.)

Knowing that family schedules are tricky and that not everyone can be at every meal, we all do the best we can. As adults, set the stage by making it as fun and pleasant as possible. Whether it’s just you as a single, or as a newlywed or retired couple, or a family with a range of ages, it doesn’t need to be difficult to feel special:

Here are five creative ways to perk up your family meals and make memories worth remembering:

1. Easy No-Nos: Simply ban cell phones from the table, turn off the TV and/or radio chatter and don’t answer the phone. Life DOES go on and your time together is enormously enriched without these intrusions. It doesn’t get easier than this: just flip the switch to OFF.

2. Easy Do-Dos: Turn on some peaceful music and light a candle. Yes! For regular weeknight dinners!

It’s amazing how everyone settles down when the candle is lit and the music is on. If you have teenagers and the family can’t agree on what’s peaceful, then just the sound of conversation is enough. (Our favorite peaceful-easy-listening background dinner music is LDS acoustic guitarist Michael Dowdle and blind pianist prodigy Kevin Kern. Their beautiful, relaxing music has graced our meals for years.

We also enjoy the nature CDS from the National Park Series available www.orangetreeproductions.com. Just hearing the first few strains of the “Sounds of the Rocky Mountains” CD brings a thousand happy mealtime memories for me and our family.

Many years ago we purchased a small oil lamp that is the centerpiece of our kitchen table. Rare is the night we don’t light it. This is an easy opportunity to enjoy a beautiful scented candle as well. As our family gets smaller with children growing and leaving, we have some extra room at the end of the table. Recently we’ve added a small table-top fountain in those empty spots. It’s surprising what a joyful thing it is to see and hear the water gurgling over the little rocks. All these little things make the dinner table an exceptionally pleasant place to be so that conversations extend and everyone lingers longer.

3. Conversation:
As cell phones are turned off, so are sarcasm, blaming belittling or critical remarks.   For dinnertime, it’s truce time and The Golden Rule rules! “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Adults set the tone for mealtime kindness by setting the example of no sarcasm, criticism or belittling remarks. After sharing what’s happening with everyone, have a question of the day for everyone to answer or have individual questions placed underneath plates.   I’ve included a long list to get you started at the bottom of the article.   You can print out as a PDF, then cut apart and put in a jar. Children of all ages enjoy this.

4. Service:
When James and Gerri Condi of Woodbridge, Virginia found themselves wishing their children were more sensitive to each other’s needs, they instituted a “don’t ask, just offer” platform for certain meals. Specifically, instead of asking for the peas if you want more, you would say, “Would anyone like some more peas?” all in hopes that someone would get the hint that YOU would like some more peas. For our family, this often becomes hilarious and endearing as different members become quite animated and creative in their offerings to their siblings. Even without this exercise, mealtimes provide many opportunities to exhibit service that are comforting and gracious. Encourage and praise even the littlest efforts.

5. Reading and Games: Not everyone eats at the same rate. How to keep everyone together a little longer and little ones interested? A good read or a word game! Reading is especially helpful for those of us who are counting calories! It’s easy to avoid seconds when you’ve got a book in your hand and your mouth is busy by reading out loud. Another idea is to get audio books on CD from the library.

Whether it’s a page or two (or more!) from an age appropriate “chapter book” or something else of interest from the newspaper or other source, sharing information is a great family bonder and entertainer. It’s fun to look back through the years on the things we’ve read together at the dinner table. A particular family favorite of mine that I’ll always remember: Incident at Hawk’s HillA shy, lonely six-year-old who gets along better with animals than people wanders into the Canadian prairie and spends a summer under the protection of a badger, This is an unforgettable story and beautifully written by Allan Eckert, who won the prestigious Newbery-Caldecott Honor Book Award, as well as many other awards, for this unforgettable true story.

Currently we read two advice columnists from the Washington Post: Miss Manners and Carolyn Hax. Both columnists provide abundant opportunity to observe, explore and discuss human nature, families and relationships. The questions to and responses from Carolyn Hax on relationships are especially savvy, wise and interesting for older teens and couples. Many is the life lesson we have acquired from her that has made mealtime especially emotionally and socially nourishing.

Another family I know clipped out the daily challenging word game from their local newspaper at breakfast time. It stayed on the kitchen counter, and everybody pondered it all day, coming up with the answers to share and finish the puzzle at dinner. Many simple word games for young children can be played without any equipment, just fun thinking and talking!

In conclusion, I don’t know what the Book of Mormon moms did, but I know what I can do: cheerfully perform my part to improve and cherish family meals “for life,” as the hymn Improve The Shining Moment repeats, “is quick in passing, tis as a single day.”

In my next article I’ll explore some easy, creative ways and recipes to make healthy family friendly fare, and some ways to avoid children’s inevitable leftovers. In the meantime, I hope you’ll try some of these tips, or put into some practice some old favorites of your family!

If you have mealtime success suggestions, please send them along to me: CarolynAllen@MyMiracleTea.com.

Notes and Links: Grains and animals of the Book of Mormon: “Science and the Book of Mormon” by Wade E. Miller, Grains and animals of the Book of Mormon: “Science and the Book of Mormon” by Wade E. Miller, a retired professor of geology and paleontology at BYU

Conversation Starters from “The Ungame” click HERE to print out the PDF or paste into your browser. They are also listed below my bio.

Carolyn Allen is the Author of 60 Seconds to Weight Loss Success – One Minute Inspirations to Change Your Thinking, Your Weight and Your Life. She has been providing mental and spiritual approaches for weight loss success both online and in the Washington, DC community since 1999 presenting for Weight Watchers, First Class, Fairfax County Adult Education and other community groups.  She is the owner and president at MyMiracleTea.com, an herbal detox tonic in keeping with the Word of Wisdom.  She is the mother of five and the grandmother of a growing number of delightful grandsons and granddaughters and lives with her husband, Bob, in Springfield Virginia, where she serves as the Primary Pianist.

Ungame Questions:

When do you get angry?

If you had to move and could only take three things with you, what would you take?

Do you ever feel lonely? When?

What one quality do you look for most in a friend?

What is the best advice you’ve ever received?

What does freedom mean to you?

Share something you fear.

Name ten famous people you would like to have for parents and why.

If you received $5,000 as a gift, how would you spend it?

What is your favorite sport and why?

Talk about a happy marriage.

When as the last time you cried, and why?

If someone could give you anything in the world for your birthday, what would you

want?

What four things are most important in your life?

What kind of trophy would you like to win?

Share a time in your life when you were embarrassed.

What would you do if you had a “magic wand”?

If you were lost in the woods and it got dark what would you do?

How would you describe yourself to someone who does not know you?

Talk about birthdays.

Make a statement about beauty.

Tell about the neatest birthday present you ever received.

What do you like to do in your spare time?

What do you dislike most about yourself?

What is one of your hobbies?

What do you like to day-dream about?

If you were told you have only one week to live, how would you spend it?

Tell about something beautiful.

Describe a happy family.

What seems to complicate your life?

What would you do if you found $1,000 in a vacant lot?

What is the worst thing parents can do to children?

Talk about one of your bad habits.

What really turns you off?

What do you think about when you can’t fall asleep?

What is something you can do well?

Share a time when you had hurt feelings.

Talk about “goose bumps.”

If you could change your age, what age would you rather be?

If someone were to write a book about you, what would the title be?

What talents do you have (don’t be modest)?

What do you like most about yourself?

Tell about a funny experience.

How do you feel when someone laughs at you?

Describe the ideal father.

Tell about a time when you felt proud of yourself.

Say something about policemen.

When do you feel sad?

What is your favorite food?

Describe the best teacher you’ve ever had.

What do you look when you get angry?

Say something about jokes.

When you are alone and no one else can see or hear you, what do you like to do?

Share one of the happiest days of your life.

If you could become invisible, where would you like to go?

What do you do when you are alone?

Talk about a time when you were very irritated.

What kind of people are the luckiest people in the world?

What do you think your friends say about you when you’re not around?

Describe the ideal mother.

What kind of animal would you like to be and where would you like to live?

What is your favorite room in your house and why?

Give three words to describe how you are feeling right now.

Describe your best friend.

What would you like to do to become famous?

What TV or movie star would you like to invite to your birthday party?

If you could take only three people with you on a trip around the world, who would you

take with you?

What do you think the ideal age is? Why?

Tell about someone you respect and why.

Who or what makes you feel guilty?

What advice would you give a younger brother or sister about life?

What was the most difficult thing you have ever said to someone you loved?

Tell about a time you hurt someone.

What is something you’d like to accomplish before you die?