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Turn Your Dinner Table Into an “Altar”

When I was a child growing up in the 70s and the television classic “Leave it to Beaver” was considered a reality show, one of my most vivid everyday family rituals was the Dinner Hour. The Dinner was the same—on Mondays, broiled chicken sprinkled with nothing more than paprika, not even salt—and so was the Hour—five o’clock when my dad walked in the back door from work and emptied the car keys in his pockets.

Charlotte, that’s my mom, followed the old-fashioned food pyramid like it was one of the Commandments: A mother shall serve her children a protein (preferably dried out), two vegetables, one starch, a glass of cold low fat milk, and, on special occasions, lime gelatin with sliced bananas for dessert. Although we were all well-nourished back then, today our family is grateful to reap the benefits of my mom’s greatly improved culinary skills that include the best-ever matza ball soup, cranberry chicken, kasha and shells, broccoli casserole and perfectly shaped, baked-from-scratch chocolate chip cookies.

Even though I make some of my mom’s wonderful recipes and follow the Food Channel like some people tune into American Idol, the traditional Dinner Hour remains elusive to me. Like most of today’s modern families with busy lifestyles and demanding careers, our plate is so full of after school activities that it seems impossible sometimes to serve everyone a wholesome meal that doesn’t include Honey Nut Cheerios for an appetizer.

For example, at least once a week, Jack dunks his last chicken finger in ketchup and darts off to batting practice before I even have a chance to fill my water glass. Jewish thinkers over the centuries give us some tasty advice on this common domestic dilemma. Ever since the destruction of the ancient holy temple, the sages tell us “every table in every home has become an altar.” In other words, the dining table belongs to us and to God and therefore should be a place to nourish our body, mind and soul in a peaceful setting.

Furthermore, Judaism teaches us that the dinner table is a place where a family comes together to appreciate the blessings in our lives. In my house, the only one who truly appreciates my spaghetti and meatballs is my curly-haired pooch Luci, who scratches my leg for a second helping of whatever. One way I try to set the pace for a more enjoyable meal is saying hamotsi. This prayer reminds my children that their food comes from God, not just Dierbergs. Plus, when we start with a blessing, my family’s mood is more relaxed and offers the perfect opportunity for me to give them something to really chew on, like conversation.

On these special occasions, I try to reconnect with my children and encourage them to talk about their day in between my orders to “Use a fork!” and “Don’t talk with your mouth full!” and “Eat something green!”

Whenever possible, I ask each person at the table to share his or her favorite part of the day or what they are most proud of. On a recent night, the dinner dialogue went something like this:
Sari: “My favorite part of the day is when daddy came home.”
Jack: “I am proud that I studied really hard for my science test and got an ‘A’ and when I won the toughest fifth-grader in tetherball.”
Scott: “My favorite part is when I came home, and my kids ran into my arms.”
Me: “My favorite part is right now and eating this apple raisin koogle.”

Long before Weight Watchers came along, the Talmud recommends that we should eat slowly and chew our food well, which helps control overeating. Even though the rabbis place great value on the manner in which we eat our meals, I still can’t help myself when I stand at the kitchen counter and pick the crispy noodles off the top of the casserole. Finally, another way to turn my table into an altar and teach my children about values is to encourage them to bite off more than they can chew, such as helping me prepare the meal or set the table.
“Mishegas of Motherhood” is the creation of Ellie S. Grossman, a St. Louis freelance writer and stay-at-home-mom who never stays home. Her stories are inspired by the real life of her family, including her two children, toy poodle named Luci, and her husband, but not necessarily in that order. Feel free to send any comments, prayers or recipes to ellie@mishegasofmotherhood.com.