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Hero at the Table

I’m so pleased to welcome a great new guest columnist, and she’s the most recent member of theMompreneur Directory as well. Jennifer Downing’s home-based business, called Nourish, offers cooking experiences in her Batavia kitchen, with an emphasis on sustainable, local and natural ingredients. She offers classes for kids and birthday parties, too. Check her listing for more. But here, Downing writes about something simple you can do that’s so good for your children: Eat a meal around your family table. -- Tara

As a child growing up in our fair Fox Valley, I was never much into heroes.  The mystique of Superman, Wonder Woman, and their marvelous friends always escaped me. I remember watching “Batman” with my brother in the family room of the house where I grew up.  As memory serves, along with his faithful sidekick, the Gotham City protector appeared after school just as dusk was beginning to settle but before “Son of Svengoolie.” The room would grow dim with only the yellow flickering light of Channel 32, and our eyes glazed over. It seemed hours had passed when reality returned and, with it, the call for dinner.

Photo by Jennifer Downing.Mom always had dinner on the table and always at a reasonable hour. We weren’t on the run, and afterschool activities were limited or sometimes non-existent. Everyone sat together, there was no television, no phone calls, and texting didn’t exist. The table was set and graced with a complete meal including salad and sometimes Jell-O. Busy days would come and go, but dinner always seemed to be a priority. Some of my fondest memories take place around a casserole at that small iron-based butcher block table. Conversation was good and included odd facts gleaned from WTTW. At that table I tormented my brother into repeating the “r” words he practiced in speech.  Mom taught us to hang spoons from our noses – I have pictures. We learned to keep our elbows off the table, chew with our mouths closed, and ask to be excused.

These memories include my grandparents’ pickled oak table, too. While the food was delicious, the best part of the meal was when it was over. The dishes would sit and the real conversation would begin after “the men” would retire to the living room. Here I learned about distant family members I had never met and sat quietly hoping to be privy to the smallest, tasty morsel of family gossip, even if I didn’t really understand it. There never seemed to be a thought to the dishes piled high in the tiny kitchen.  They weren’t going anywhere and since eventually we would leave Grandma’s, having that time together was what mattered most.

Today I am a mother to four great kids and have a worn black farm table of my own where the food is the star. When I read recently a parent can be a hero to their children every day in the kitchen suddenly, my laissez-faire hero attitude changed: Heroes are awesome! I try every day to prepare the best food from all parts of the pyramid of nutrition. I work harder for homemade and willingly pay for local, organic and sustainable. In thinking of the dishes I heroically serve my loving diners I became more conscious of the place I like to end my day. Like my mother, I make it a priority to gather my family.

There is a tremendous amount of information available about the importance of gathering for mealtimes around a family table. Statistics show it to be one of the most important ways to save our children from the ills of society. Avoidance of addictions, better communication skills, higher grades, and greater feeling of value are but a few of the weighty benefits. The humble kitchen table may offer a greater base for success than income level, afterschool activities or family structure.

I recently bought “The Family Dinner” by Laurie David, and it’s given me so much inspiration. It’s full of thoughtful advice for bringing families back to the table with recipes, games, ideas for setting a fun table and involving the kids in the cooking. It’s reminded me while we are at the table together I’ve allowed us to forget to honor its importance. The food may be fabulous, but the table is not always set, the glassware is often plastic, and after years of cutting food for little people, I forget to provide knives for everyone. Being a ridiculous and sometimes over-the-top type “A,” it would be easy to allow hysteria to ensue. Into my fourth decade, however, I know what’s important: It is having everyone together. Instead, I’ll make a point to resurrect the linen napkins. There may occasionally be classical music and table setting has become required -- but only to provide further enjoyment and respect for a special part of our day.

I know as I write this that not all days will end with a gourmet feast, but I’m learning they don’t have to. Leftovers make a meal, and fondue while gathered around a cocktail table creates memories, too. Similar to a well-worn adage, it’s not what you’re eating but with whom you enjoy it. Superheroes are admirable and through the years they’ve remained thin enough for spandex, but in the end, the comfort of the simple things is what saves the day.

Jennifer Downing lives in Batavia with her four very hungry children. In addition to her website for her business Nourish, she keeps a personal blog at In the Yellow House where she writes about, among other things, raising chickens in her backyard.

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