Mama Diaries

Why it’s important for families to share meals

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When was the last time you ate together as a family? Was it last night or at breakfast today?

Or, as is the reality with many Filipino families today, was it a week ago, on the night off from the graveyard shift of the member working in a call center? A month ago, when the head of the family was home from abroad? Or is it once a year, when the working mother is able to head home from the city to her hometown, where the family she supports is staying?

Once upon a time, eating together on a daily basis as a family was the norm. But today, for many families, this has become the exception, rather than the rule—sometimes by choice, often by circumstance.

It’s easy to overlook the effects of a family meal, especially when the parents are busy trying to make sure there is a meal on the table in the first place. But in 2001, the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (Casa) at Columbia University came out with a decadelong study which “consistently found that the more often kids eat dinner with their families, the less likely they are to smoke, drink or use drugs.”

This led to Casa’s creation of “Family Day, A Day To Eat Dinner With Your Children.” Every year, on the fourth Monday of September, parents and children are encouraged to go home early and have dinner together. Family Day, while being a once-a-year event, is a reminder that frequent, if not regular, family dinners throughout the year can make a significant difference in the fight against addiction and substance abuse.

Here in the Philippines, this advocacy was adopted by Monde Nissin, the makers of Lucky Me!, in October 2007 through the launch of “Kainang Pamilya Mahalaga!” a program aimed at building a stronger nation by developing stronger Filipino families. This Sept. 24 will be the fifth annual “FaMealy Day.” (Yes, even our advocacy slogans are more fun in the Philippines!)

‘FaMealy Day’

FaMealy Day is supported by Presidential Proclamation 1895 and a partnership with the Department of Social Welfare and Development and the National Committee on the Filipino Family.

To commemorate the fifth anniversary of “FaMealy Day,”  Francis Kong, a noted inspirational speaker and leader, has published a coffee-table book, “Famealy Matters,” to celebrate the “magic of sharing meals” and invited 50 families to share their own stories. Among the families he invited are those of civic leader Ballsy Aquino-Cruz and my fellow PDI columnists Cathy Babao-Guballa and Dr. Queena Lee-Chua. I was delighted to be invited to be a part of it as well and quickly sent in my piece. Allow me to share an excerpt from it with you today:

“Family meal times are a daily but always special time in our home. Every day, as long as Miguel is in town, he makes sure that he joins us for at least one meal. And each time, we are pleasantly surprised by our children and the things we discover about them as we enjoy our meals and the company.

“Dining together is a tradition we learned from our respective families and are happy to continue. In my family, dinner together every night was a must. Since I’m an only child, dinner was an intimate gathering which helped strengthen our bond as we discussed every detail of our day. Today, these intimate bonding sessions continue in our weekly Sunday lunch.

“Meanwhile, you’ve got to raise your voice if you want to be heard above the din and laughter that come from each of the 20 members of the Zubiri family, all of whom are expected to show up every Sunday night without fail.

“As our own family is still fairly young, there is never a dull moment when we sit down. There’s our two-year-old son racing around the table in the belief that he is a race car, while our four-year-old daughter may come down to the dining table dressed in a fairy costume.

“During one instance, I remember how Migs and I turned to each other in surprise when Adriana, who was then only about two-and-a-half years old, recited the whole prayer before meals on her own. Or more recently, how we laughed as Juanmi asked for more “chu-pop,” or what we know as ketchup.

“One day, our children will grow up. They will not remember the food they ate nor the topics of conversation. But I hope that from these meals together, they will gather lessons and values every day to strengthen them and get them through their daily challenges. I look forward to watching them grow from across the table into strong, compassionate adults, secure in the love of their family.

“But when that day comes, I will certainly miss my darling with her fairy wings sitting next to her dad and the sight of our little race car zooming around us.”

No foolproof recipes

In a perfect world, eating together regularly would be enough to guarantee a life free of addictions for our children. All parents would also be home from work every day at an early enough hour to spend time with their children. Unfortunately, we live in an era when families are forced apart primarily due to economic reasons.

And obviously, there is also no foolproof recipe for avoiding the dangers that lurk in our children’s lives. Addiction and substance abuse can hit any family, regardless of how well they try to keep it out. I am sure we all know of wonderful and caring parents who were always there for their children and yet, were shocked to realize that drugs had found its way into their home.

But we are also fortunate to live in an era when there are alternatives and solutions to the modern family’s plight. I’ve never been a big fan of high-technology gadgets and programs, but seeing how applications such as Skype can bring families together, despite distances and time differences, has made me see technology in a different light. For families on opposite ends of the world, regular and frequent Skype dates have become their regular Sunday family lunch or dinner.

In our culture, we are also fortunate to have the benefits of extended families, whom working parents can entrust their children to in order to let them grow up in a loving family environment.

Meanwhile, for families on different time schedules, dinner can be replaced with breakfast or whatever meal is most convenient for everyone, especially since everything is open 24 hours nowadays! I think the operative word is “frequent,” not necessarily daily. What is important is that during those meals or times together, parents strive to STAR, which is defined as:

S- Spending time with my kids by having dinner together

T- Talking to them about their friends, interests and the dangers of drugs and alcohol

A- Answering their questions and listening to what they say

R- Recognizing that I have the power to help keep my kids substance-free!

(www.casafamilyday.org)

There is a lot of truth in what the founder of Casa, Joseph Califano, says. Our “drug problem is not going to be solved in courtrooms or legislative hearing rooms by judges and politicians. It will be solved in living rooms and dining rooms and across kitchen tables—by parents and families.”

This Sept. 24, and as often as possible, I hope you will be able to join your family for a meal. With every small and simple step we take to be there for our kids, we also effectively help push drugs and alcohol a little farther from their minds, and hopefully, out of their lives.

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