Friday, March 19, 2010

Response #4 - Miriam Weinstin's book - "The Surprising Power of Family Meals"

Magical moments in a family are forgotten as family dynamics change. The environment of a family meal sometimes becomes a “quaint artifact,” a forgotten ritual when lives are ruptured by divorce or death. Yet, food still is the measure in which rituals will see a rift in family relationships.

Weinstein jumps into her narrative with how real divorce is when someone is missing at the dinner table. The question for those remaining at the table is, “What do we do now?” The suggestion was that families need to reconfigure, and buy a round table, where there is no “head.” I would agree that this is a positive move for families. Change is not always a comforting aspect when families are shattered, but moving forward and finding reassurance together while sharing a family meal is.

Blended families have a unique set of problems. Not only was a family broken apart, but now there are forced relationships to be dealt with. It is a no-win situation when the “step-parent” is introduced. However, the “step” can use family meals as a way to create an image of some family social structure. The rule of never trying to replace a biological parent would give the “steps” an opportunity to establish new rituals without stepping on sensitive feelings, and taking the occasion to involve family members in the food preparation.

If your children have to be without a parent, at what age is it less disruptive? Experts will give you a multitude of responses, all valid. Many years ago, Pres. Ezra Taft Benson, prophet of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was quoted that parents need to be home during the cross-roads of a child’s life. Teenagers especially are vulnerable when there is no parent home during those “cross-roads.” In today’s society many teenagers are raising themselves because parents, whether divorced or not, are allowing their children to choose friends over family. It reminds me of the book, Lord of the Flies, by William Golding, children trying to recreate a ritual, when all they really wanted was a parent to be in charge.

There are many families in the world who do a wonderful job of creating family rituals, but in some communities, such as Wayzata, Minnesota, parents are making a concerted effort to regain balance in their homes.

The largest federally funded study of American teenagers in 2000, found a “strong association between regular family meals” and general academic success and psychological well being of teenagers. Using that as a spring board, community leaders in Wayzata welcomed the organization, Putting Family First in helping them bring awareness to the issues they were facing.

In the community of Wayzata, leaders were recognizing that families were centered on the success of their children – that was what defined them. Many families’ lives were besieged by the “over-loaded schedule,” – a choice!

As a parent, I have experienced the same choices and decisions – do we allow our children to participate in every sport or dance lesson? A parent in Weinstein’s book expressed some of our same sentiments – that our children are not great athletes! They will not be a super star, so why create an illusion of greatness. There are so many other worthwhile activities that will make them a better person without sacrificing family time and meals.

Family dynamics can change without being ruptured and shattered. By putting my family first I am saying, “I care. You are important. I love you.” To me that is magical.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Response #3 - Miriam Weinstein's book - "The Surprising Power of Family Meals"

Chapters 5 & 6:
Nourishing the spirit and flesh by gathering for a family meal is indeed a powerful mixture. In these next two chapters, Weinstein weaves her research into not only a narrative of people’s lives but makes a compelling tale of how families and individuals make a difference in the lives of a community.

The lives of women were turned upside down during the 60’s and 70’s as the feminist movement played out and more women found their “worth” in working outside of the home. This era created some radical and extreme thinking – but I am a survivor of that period. Women were told that it was beneath them to “slave” over the stove and care for children; that their place in society was more beneficial as a working woman. I did not listen to these voices as I stayed true to the belief that family and home were somehow more important than my career aspirations and my “contributions” to society was to be a stay-at-home mother.

However, many women did not have that luxury, as the feminist movement created a backlash of broken marriages. Women had to be not only mom, but the bread-winner as well. The story of Lynn F. was not uncommon during this time. Recognizing that something was wrong and rediscovering a child’s joy of helping through basil leaves made a profound change in her family. Though budget and times were still lean, Lynn F. learned that the children’s involvement in meal preparation and planning helped mend their wounded family.

The nourishing aspects of meals can be taught, but understanding the value of preparation as a former restaurateur, Rosalie Harrington did, by educating others through a local community outreach program. What a selfless act of service she offered. At this stage of my life, I try to do the same within our women’s Relief Society organization. What good does my knowledge have if not shared? That is how I learned, from other women and men sharing and teaching principles of food preparation to me. This has been a source of joy as I have watched my own children individually explore food preparation in their own homes, as well as the countless women I have been able to pass along information to.

With the numerous choices in foods that surround us, and the time we allot to eating is it no wonder that there are so many eating disorder issues. According to Ellyn Satter, parents and children have forgotten that “eating and sharing food are inherently pleasurable.” Instead, meal times have become a tug of war. Through understanding the responsibilities of both parent and child and in addition, learning to “relax,” families might be able to enjoy more meals together rather than become a short-order cook for finicky eaters.

It was interesting to read how those Weinstein interviewed felt deep spiritual feelings for the linkage of the “bread” and “body.” It was a great reminder that others have profound faith in Christ. The truth that is spoken by others not of my faith is the same in the homes of my family. A Catholic theologian, Bill Huebsch shares that, “In most of our lives, meals are also memorials.” They are rituals that teach us faith and the importance of family.

Within the home of Paul and Denny, who have opened up their home to others in need, have found that family meals are “a ritual that works unconsciously in people.” Their generosity of spirit is an example of sharing one another’s burdens and joys while breaking bread.

As members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we are taught to make our homes a sanctuary against the storms of life. I want all those who enter my home to feel welcomed and nourished by the good word of the Lord and a family meal. I too would like my home to be considered a mikdash m√©at, or ‘little holy place.’

Response #2 - Miriam Weinstein's book - "The Surprising Power of Family Meals"

Chapters 3 & 4:
Being strong while eating conotates an image for me as being able to eat the nasty fish (ceviche) my father brought home from Mexico. I could not leave the table until I ate what was on my plate. The threat of having more put on my plate proved that I had strength in downing a horrid food, and my resiliency in overcoming this objectionable task!

In the third chapter, Weinstein explores a number of areas in which eating dinner can make you strong. She begins with the story and eventual research of Marshall Duke, a clinical psychologist at Emory University. His studies were centered on the resiliency of family members that were dealt with difficult circumstances growing up. They found that families, who talked about the failures and successes of family members, both present and dead, helped model behaviors that despite setbacks “we” would overcome. Researchers discovered that the family lore was discussed at the “family dinner table.”

Additionally, Weinstein captures the essence of other research dealing with alcoholic families and families that had children with food eating-disorders and substance abuse issues. How does having dinner together make us strong in any of these situations? Dinnertime for the alcoholic family is controlled by the bottle – yet there is a family meal together. Strength and resiliency occurred more often as family members either tried to find balance or made vows to break the cycle. Whereas children with food eating-disorders or substance abuse repeatedly showed little structured meal time together. When families made the effort to provide consistent family meals, there was significant change in the health of their children.

Many parents today are too busy, getting caught up with “things,” that they forget about the those that depend on them. A meal, as simple as pancakes, says that I care about you. Statistical evidence shows that children’s mental well-being and performance in life are clearly linked to family meals. Children are better equipped to handle life’s challenges.

I love the South African quote that Weinstein uses, “When you have a lot to do, start with a meal.” When you consider the implications of beginning a task of varying importance – what better way to begin than to share a meal with family to discuss the assignment?

The family meal not only serves to strengthen families—it is a teaching tool for younger generations. As in the study of Mexican children’s gradual acceptance of hot pepper flavors, parents must introduce children to the many different cultures within their own community.

When do we eat? Where do we eat? Do we invite others to join us for dinner? How adventuresome do we make our meals? How insistent will we be in enforcing manners? Do we teach manners? Will outsourcing our meals provide more time with the family and not break the bank? Does taking time to prepare a meal for the family have any value?

Resoundingly, YES! For someone, particularly mothers, the task of teaching and providing for your family can be overwhelming. For working mothers, the demands are even greater. Contemplating my own life and the statistical data on working mothers, I am so grateful that I was able to be home with and for my children.

Time spent in introducing foods to my family and teaching manners were valuable. One aspect of a parent’s pay dirt is when company joins you for dinner and your children behave and are pleasant. Another payoff is when you enter an “outsourcing” establishment, and your family is well mannered. Cultural capital is about investing in my children so that they are worth more.

My family is a treasure. They have made my life rich. My desire is that we to do not have any empty chairs at our table. With everyone there, therein lies our strength.

Response #1 - Miriam Weinstein's book - "The Surprising Power of Family Meals"

Chapters 1 & 2:
It was with surprise that I discovered the “magical” components of Miriam Weinstein’s book. She has a gift in using words that not only convey a specific message, but rewards us with an image in her play on words. The research she has gathered with different peoples will be holding my attention as she writes of her experiences regarding family meals.

It was significant to read that the word in Roman times for, “one who breaks bread with you,” is companion. For thousands of years, those that break bread with you are family members. What an appropriate word. When we sit down to eat with our families, we are fortifying bonds with our “companions,” who, we hope, love and care about one each other.

Weinstein’s recognizes that there has been a rapid decline in family dinners, which is fraying the social fabric of our world. The “enormity of the potential loss” of history forecasts a nation of people with no communal bonding. The sacred nature of meal time has been diminished to a “drive-thru” experience for family members.

As Weinstein shared what she was working on, people immediately responded with detailed descriptions of their memories. When reading this, I too felt myself going through my mind, the ritual of what transpired in my home. However, in today’s world, especially my children’s generation, there are few memories of sitting down to “break bread” with one another.

With a nation of traditional and dysfunctional families, the family meal provides not only nourishment for the body, but an opportunity for face-to-face nourishment. It is part of the day that can help restore and heal, and “reinforce pleasurable associations.” A sacred time of day that needs to be fought for.

For a time in California, our church leaders sent out a “decree,” that there were to be no meetings or activities between five and six in the evening. This was a sacred time, where families could enjoy one another without interruptions. It was a successful venture, where many families that made a habit of it were strengthened.

During these rituals of breaking bread with one another, a sense of belonging and learning who you are immerge. Weinstein describes the ritual in which “a meal together draws a line around us.” It defines who we are despite the world moving around us. I remember times in my home when my parents would share family stories at dinnertime. They helped develop who I am as I listened about the strength of character of grandparents and other family members.

When family therapists want to understand a family’s dynamics, they use “snapshots” of different family functions. The most telling of these functions is the family meal. Here one is able to observe the “pecking” order! These counselors use family meals as a way to “help fractured families heal.”

Creating a ritual of a family meal can be hard when it hasn’t been established. When I had children at home, and an invitation was offered to my children’s friends – it was always accepted. But never once did I ask if these friends had meals together with their families. However, these friends always lingered longer, and were hesitant to leave. Unknowingly we helped “set the table” for a future ritual.

I agree with Weinstein’s observations that rituals are powerful tools, especially the family meal. As a family, with little children, meals were sacred. We didn’t have to be dressed up, we had no candles, nor beautiful white napkins, but we all were there. We thanked the Lord for our blessings, and went about breaking bread and creating magical moments with our children.