New Jersey Jewish News
Shabbat dinner: the real Happy Meal
Theyre everywhere, like a scene out of a bad horror flick. Under beds, behind couches, wedged between seats of SUVs. No, Im not talking about invading aliens. Im talking about Polly Pocket, G.I. Joe, and the rest of the fast-food toy family. These plastic playthings are so rampant, in fact, that studies show one in three toys received by an American child is delivered via the drive-thru window.
Unfortunately the preponderance of these meals represents more than an onslaught of cheap imported knickknacks. It also is a harbinger of the demise of the old-fashioned family dinner.
In 2001, the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse and Coca-Cola teamed up to launch an annual Family Day to encourage families to eat dinner together on the fourth Monday in September. The government even provided a list of suggestions to facilitate the event: Eat dinner together. During dinner, turn off the TV and talk and listen to each other. Involve the entire family in planning and cooking the meal.
Families from any older generation would surely laugh at a government-issued annual family dinner prescription, say researchers at Emory Universitys MARIAL Center for the Study of Myth and Ritual in American Life, whose studies on the importance of such meals and storytelling have attracted the attention of such national publications as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and Newsweek. The helpful guidelines would seem as absurd to some as a manual instructing Americans on how to get dressed.
Yet it seems that such a specific decree is exactly what modern families need. Statistics show that kids today spend twice the time doing schoolwork and taking part in organized activities as they did a decade ago. In other words, whos got time to gather the gang for a hot-dog hoedown when youre shlepping from school to sports to lessons to kiddie stress management workshops?
It certainly might appear that eating a plate of pasta with our kids is an insignificant event in the scheme of things, but a plethora of recent research suggests that simple family dinners may be among our most powerful parenting tools toward ensuring our childrens present and future well-being. Studies show that kids whose families have regular meals together tend to have higher self-esteem, interact better with their peers, and show higher resilience in the face of adversity, including resisting smoking, drinking, illegal drug use, and experimenting with sex.
Perhaps the most glorious rewards of the family dinner, however, are those that cant be measured: The happy buzz of stories passing between parent and child and kids wrapped securely in the familiar comforts of home. As family dinners disappear from the modern kids radar screen, experts fear that so, too, will their benefits.
One of the most marvelous aspects of Jewish tradition is its ability to guide, protect, and strengthen us at times when we need it most. As if our forefathers could see eons into the future knowing their ancestors would one day be faced with the invasion of Happy Meal toys they, too, gave us a prescription for a family dinner. Only instead of designating the fourth Monday in September, they mandated that we share an enjoyable, resilience-building, spiritually uplifting family dinner every Friday night.
As our sages clearly knew and researchers are only beginning to document the weekly Shabbat dinner is far more than hallah, baked chicken, and matza ball soup. It is a vehicle for wresting our kids from the dangerous clutches of Ronald McDonald and his cohorts. It is a means of keeping our families safe, sane, and happy in a stressful, frenetically paced world. It is a God-given tool for ensuring that our childrens future our future is as warm and bright as the glowing Sabbath candles.
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