Families gathering around a dinner table to give thanks, share a meal and talk to each other has become an increasingly rare occurrence. Busy lifestyles have made it easier for people to pick up fast food and communicate by text message or cell phone than to prepare a meal and actually sit down at a table to eat it.
Consequently, families are losing a crucial source of connection not only with each other, but with God, according to Father Leo Patalinghug, a priest who has made it his mission to bring people together around the table again.
In 2003, Father Patalinghug founded “Grace Before Meals,” a program based on the concept that creating and sharing a meal can strengthen relationships. Father Patalinghug grew up in a strong Filipino Catholic family where he learned about the positive impact of joining for meals while preparing and sharing traditional dishes.
“Grace Before Meals” has produced a popular Web site, blog, podcasts, and a book, “Recipes for Family Life.” Father Patalinghug speaks frequently at churches around the country and is working on a pilot show for PBS and on a book that encourages couples to use meals as a way to strengthen their marriage.
All the work is worth it, he said, when he sees parents and children rediscovering mealtime as a chance to communicate with each other and to nourish their faith.
“It’s important that people are paying attention to the family meal, and more importantly that there’s a spiritual dimension to it,” he said. “Saying grace before the meal and the meal itself is about families working together. They need to recognize the blessings not only on the table, but around the table. And hopefully, with more dialogue, families can see how they are invited regularly to a family meal with the church itself.”
The very act of sitting down to eat together connects people not only with each other, but with the history of the church and with the life of Christ, he said.
“It’s all about relationships … you show you love somebody by eating with them,” he said. “Food is a connector. It’s about putting in perspective the power of what food can do to strengthen loving, honest and sincere relationships. That’s why Jesus ate with sinners — to show them how much he loved them.”
The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University has even started “Family Day — A Day to Eat Dinner with Your Children” which will take place on Sept. 28 this year.
But how do you get people used to a fast-food lifestyle to take the time to cook and eat together?
“I tell people to just do it — a lot of times people want to make it harder than it is,” Father Patalinghug said. “For many people, it’s difficult. It takes discipline and mastery of one’s schedule, but I tell people it’s like exercise, it’s like prayer. You have to do it, and how are you going to learn to make it part of your life unless you try?”
He encourages couples and families to make a real effort to make meals that are both nourishing and fun to prepare and eat. Cooking and eating collectively can be enhanced if people try recipes that are traditional to their ethnic heritage, have been passed down from relatives, or are tied to particular holidays and celebrations.
To learn more visit www.gracebeforemeals.com.