Ask anyone in my family: I don’t like people to eat alone. Even if you want to eat alone, it’s going to be a tough slog when I’m around. When my kids were little this translated into my sitting at the table for considerable periods. (I think my toddler daughter figured out that, while dining, she could have my attention as long as she wished and, well, took…her…time.) As I was fond of saying then and now, I really had not one thing better to do (which relates little to how busy I was, I assure you).
I know where it came from, this obsession about not eating alone. My mother’s parents were dead by the time she was 12. She went to live with an aunt (my Nana) who was barely 10 years older than my mother. They got along fine for the most part (a testament to the character of each, I think) but my Nana worked full-time and eventually my Mom did too, and dinnertimes didn’t always overlap. So sometimes my Mom came home to a dinner pulled out of the oven (pre-microwave days) which she ate, alone. She didn’t complain much about it, but she did tell the story. I think I’ve always since associated eating alone with how alone my mother must have felt at the time, losing her parents at such a critical age, being separated from her siblings.
Growing up, my three sisters and mother and father and I had the family-dining thing down, especially at dinner. We went out to eat at restaurants maybe twice a year, to celebrate our yearly graduation to the next grades, for example, or a First Communion or Confirmation. That’s it. The remaining dinners were eaten at home, around one table, with everybody seated at their place. The dinners weren’t lavish–my Mom was a good cook and budget-keeper–but you could pretty much set the clock by the ritual. I don’t know so much that I loved it but that it was important to me, that I would have felt rudderless, somehow, without it.
Flash forward to the 80’s-90’s, where my husband’s workday often extended to 8 or 9 at night and sports and other activities soon nosed in on my children’s lives. Even so, we tried. I cooked most nights. And I sat with whomever there was to sit with. Very, very happily.
So it is with great pleasure that I started volunteering in the “family-style dining” at my local Minneapolis public school (Webster, which I love, from kindergartener to principal). Webster is small and currently has only K-2 classes, which actually makes the family-style dining even more wonderful. When I arrived last Wednesday, a child at each of maybe 8 to 10 round tables was…setting the table! With real (not plastic) forks and spoons. And nice, not throw-away plates. When their classmates filed in, they sat in designated seats at designated tables and waited for a lunch staff person to deliver several serving bowls of food. One child took care of everyone’s beverages. It’s their job to ask if each student wants water or milk. They bring each child’s request to the table in little plastic dining glasses, which they fill themselves at a sidebar.
The children had been practicing for several weeks before I was able to come and help. They clearly knew the drill and they were more than happy to bring me up to speed. (These are kindergarteners I sat with, mind you.) Bowls get passed around to the right. Each child serves him or herself, mindful of their own hunger and how much food remains in the bowl for others (it can be refilled, but patience and good manners prevail). You don’t have to take anything you don’t want. Some kids bring their own lunch and eat in the group, too. You’re expected to engage in pleasant conversation (that’s where I come in, although I’m thinking it would be better if I found out if I could eat the school lunch, too). When it’s almost time for recess (which all the children participate in, for a good half-hour at least) a designated child collects and scrapes food off the plates, stacks them and returns them to the sidebar. (And no, this is not always done with out a few “Eeew’s” and “Gross,” but it gets done. By a kid.) Other children clear utensils and drinking glasses. A child wipes the table.
Then everyone goes out to play.
There are many articles online about the benefits of family-style dining at school, ranging from the motor-skill practice of dishing up and passing, to self-selection of what and how much food each child wants to eat, to the social responsibilities of setting up and cleaning up, to the sense of community and, well, not eating alone.
Last week I came home and ate lunch alone. Tomorrow, I’m going to see if they’ll let me eat lunch with the kids.