My Italian mama made dinner time a special event. She was always in the kitchen stirring the sauce, putting my brother and me to work rolling meatballs, and stuffing manicotti shells for company. She instilled in us that meals were an opportunity to extend hospitality. My parents loved to invite friends from church, neighbors, and my friends from school to our table.
Everyone loved my mama’s cooking, but more than that, I think they were attracted to the rich sense of community they found at our table. Laughter rang out on Friday nights when my high school friends gathered after a game. On Sunday afternoons, we told stories around the table with friends and dished bowls of ice cream with my mama’s famous pizzelle cookies.
Even though we didn’t have extended family in town, we always had extra guests at our dinner table. The table was the gathering place where friends became family through the years.
Now that I’m a mama myself, much of our life also revolves around the table. The table holds a centrifugal force, drawing our family together. The table is the place where the stories and light most often unfold.
I treasure the times my three daughters are in the kitchen with me. One sets the table while the other two help with dinner. At ages 12, 9, and 6, they have learned the art of chopping, mixing, stirring, sautéing and serving up meals. Their creativity and tastes are beginning to blossom as I give them more responsibility and freedom.
We have a multicultural family, and my kids share my love for all kinds of ethnic foods. On a given day, we could be chopping vegetables for Filipino pancit, measuring spices for Indian butter chicken, sautéing Chinese fried rice or baking our favorite salted caramel chocolate chip cookies. We love to play with ingredients and make a mess.
Through the years, I have discovered our most meaningful times at the table include these four ingredients:
We savor food at our table. When my girls were just weaning from breast milk and starting to eat table food, I taught them the word “savor.” To savor means to relish something, to pause and enjoy. I invited the girls to eat slowly and to use their five senses. Food was not something to be wolfed down and forgotten. When my middle daughter Giada (who is named after my favorite Italian chef) was two, I overheard her teaching her friend, “We savor our food.” She closed her eyes, took a big bite of a ripe strawberry the size of her fist, and sighed. This mama’s heart was delighted.
We share highlights at our table. We let our conversations lead down rabbit trails throughout our meals, but the kids know we always conclude by sharing one highlight from our day. This was a tradition my husband Ericlee started when we were first married. This opens the door for us to hear each other’s hearts – what brings us joy, what new experiences we’ve had, and what brought a sense of wonder.
We welcome tears at our table. After my husband died from cancer in 2014, I started saying this little phrase whenever people joined us for a meal. I have learned that life at the table isn’t just about entertaining. True hospitality is sitting face to face and loving each other in our brokenness. My family and friends know that it’s safe to cry in our space. The table has often been the place we have shared memories about daddy or people have vulnerably shared their hurts. We don’t need to apologize for our tears.
We pray at our table. We start our meals giving thanks for the “yummy food,” for the sweet parts of our day, and other random tidbits my girls throw in. Through the years, I have learned to treasure the girls’ prayers. As they pray aloud in their own way, they are learning the language of prayer and conversation with God. On Sundays, (when we remember) we add in an extra prayer time to close our supper conversation. We pray for the Filipino boy we support through Food for the Hungry. We also keep a basket of Christmas cards near the table and pray over one family who sent us a card that year.
Sweet mama friend, don’t be discouraged if your family meal time is challenging. There may be crumbs decorating the floor, and the food might not be restaurant quality, but you are doing something more important than simply filling bellies. You are making memories and cooking up community. And that will nourish souls for a long time.
**Dorina contributed some of her cherished family recipes to this free e-book from Kindred Mom. Click the image below and subscribe to our mailing list and get your own free copy!
Dorina Lazo Gilmore is a blogger, speaker, and an award-winning children’s author. Dorina has served as a journalist, missionary, social entrepreneur and Bible study teacher. She and her new husband are raising three brave girls in Central California. Connect with her at her blog, Instagram, and Facebook.