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Saturday, May 4, 2013

Make-Believe Tea and Other Secrets of the Shared Meal

by Ellen Kanner

Ever play tea party as a kid? Then you’re already an expert on the value of the shared meal. It’s about being totally engaged in the moment and with each other, even if the other party guests are imaginary. The tea may be make-believe, but the delight and wonder we bring to the table is real.

Then we grow up. We have real tea and real food, but we have crazy, conflicting schedules, sky-high stress, work deadlines, demanding lives, and complete sets of emotional baggage. Our sense of joy and ability to be present isn’t gone for good. They can be coaxed back, and a shared meal is the way to do it.

Eating together can be magical, but once you grow up, it takes planning. And patience.

Identify who you want at the table. Your spouse, since you eat in shifts?  Your BFFs whom you text but don’t even see these days? Your sullen, texting teen?  Put the word out. Try to get everyone on board (even the sullen teen).

Set ground rules. No food fights (unless you’re into that sort of thing). Determining who’ll do the dishes now will save resentment later. Cell phones and laptops and similar devices are not allowed at the table. We’re so busy, so plugged in, we don’t even know who we are without our gadgets handy. Here’s a brief and finite amount of time to find out.

Be flexible, too. Maybe you’re Food Network fabulous in the kitchen, but your child only eats plain pasta and your friend’s culinary prowess doesn’t extend beyond the microwave. Maybe you like to eat at 6:00 on the dot, but your friend can’t possibly get to you before 7:00. The meal is the incentive to bring people together, but it’s not the only thing. The goal is to have time to connect with people you care about, or people you’d like to know better (this may include yourself) and get something good to eat, too.

Schedule it. This may be the toughest part. It’s nice to dream about sitting down together once or twice a week. Start by setting an attainable goal. Shoot for one single sane and sit-down meal. When can everyone manage it?  If nights are impossible, what about breakfast?  Fifteen minutes with friends and family, fresh fruit and a pot of coffee can add sparkle to an otherwise dreary day.

Breathe. You don’t have to do it yourself. Host a pot luck. Have everyone bring a dish. Or create a meal together. We get lonely and frustrated alone in our designer kitchens. Elsewhere in the world, communal cooking is the rule. Get in a global frame of mind. Working together in the kitchen gets the conversation going. A bottle of wine doesn’t hurt, either. What you prepare can be as elaborate as making homemade pasta or as simple as tossing prepared pasta with your favorite sauce. Keep the talk (and the wine) going at the table over the dinner you’ve made together.

Add children. When kids have a hand in shopping for or preparing food, they’re more engaged and willing to eat something other than McNuggets. Caveat  — children may not mix and add ingredients in a tidy or timely manner. Keep a sponge and a trash can handy, along with a sense of humor. Your kid will bring the sense of wonder. All will be well. This is not just about dinner, this is about connection.

Rediscover the child in yourself by tasting your favorite childhood foods again. Make a kitchen date with your mother, your auntie, whoever’s the keeper of the culinary flame, to learn how to make the dishes that bespeak home, comfort and celebration within your family. Ask about the history and people behind the recipes. You’ll bring your family together, preserve the flavors and memories of the past, and enjoy them together.

Invite others. Should family meals produce anxiety, go for the dilution factor. Having friends at the table makes family members behave better, and changes the dynamic and the conversation, too. In the course of the meal, you may discover things your own family has never shared. Your husband’s always wanted to go to Venice?  Who knew?

No need to sweat over a five-course meal. A welcoming pot of soup works its own miracle. A rock star told me the most interesting conversations happen over food. I didn’t even know the man ate. The meal is nice, the conversation, the connection, the sharing is what really matters.

Bring your most authentic self to the table, the way you did when you played tea party as a kid. That’s what makes everything delicious. We create celebration when we gather. More make-believe tea, anyone?

Based on the book Feeding the Hungry Ghost. Copyright © 2013 by Ellen Kanner. Reprinted with permission from New World Library.

Ellen Kanner is an award-winning food writer and author of Feeding the Hungry Ghost: Life, Faith and What to Eat for Dinner. She is also Huffington Post's Meatless Monday blogger and the syndicated columnist Edgy Veggie, is published in Bon Appetit, Eating Well, Vegetarian Times, Every Day with Rachael Ray, and Culinate as well as in other online and print publications. She’s an ardent advocate for sustainable, accessible food, serving on the Miami boards of Slow Food and Common Threads.

When she’s not teaching underserved students to cook and speaking about what we’re hungry for, Ellen takes time to tend her tiny organic vegetable garden, hike in the Everglades, make friends with cows and make dinner with friends. She believes in close community, strong coffee, organic food and red lipstick. A fourth-generation Floridian, she lives la vida vegan in Miami with her husband. Learn more about Ellen at

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