Fish Eaters: The Whys and Hows of Traditional Catholicism

``Where the Bishop is, there let the multitude of believers be;
even as where Jesus is, there is the Catholic Church'' Ignatius of Antioch, 1st c. A.D

The Family Dinner Table

While the family dinner table isn't a "sacred space" strictly speaking, it is in that family life is ordained by God, should be directed to God, and the rituals that families engage in that keep them strong, together, and ordered to God should be reverenced. There's also the fact that the Sacrifice at the Mass is followed by a communal meal, a recalling of the Last Supper (Matthew 26:17–30; Mark 14:12–26; Luke 22:7–39; and John 13:1–17:26). There is something so profound about eating together as a single community that it is reflected in -- exalted by-- the greatest act of the Church.

The importance of family dinners really can't be overstated. They're correlated with fewer behavioral problems in children;1 children spending more time on homework and reading for pleasure;2 decreased risk for eating disorders, substance use, sexual intercourse, and suicidal involvement among the young;3 "opportunities to acquire vocabulary, the ability to produce and understand stories and explanations, acquiring general knowledge, and learning how to talk in culturally appropriate ways";4 a higher intake of vegetables and fruits, and lower intake of soft drinks;5 a decreased risk of obesity,6 and other desirable things. Please, have dinner as a family. At the very, very least, make a practice of it on the Lord's Day, and if you do have daily family dinners, make Sunday dinner extra-special.

Now, perfectly healthy families can be very different from each other. Some people are more quiet while others are more excitable, and the dinner tables of Italian Americans and Jews, for ex., can look very different from those of the descendants of people who came to the United States on the Mayflower. This scene from "Annie Hall" is as good a demonstration as there is of such differences:

But no matter what your family is like, there are things you can do to make family dinners events that everyone looks forward to. Some basics:

Phones are turned o-f-f unless one's in a parent's hand and he's using it to lead a game or otherwise interact with those at the table.

Televisions are turned o-f-f except for rare events like coronations and moon landings.

Set the scene. Light a candle, even if it's just a single tall glass votive one finds in grocery stores (they're very inexpensive and last a long, long time!). Even a single candle flame at the center of a table can change the ambience of the entire room. It warms the place up, animates it, and provides a focal point. You can put your children to service (and keep them busy) by havng them make centerpieces related to the liturgical calendar and any feasts you may be celebrating: hearts for the feasts of the Sacred and Immaculate Hearts, a crown for the Feast of Christ the King, paper roses for the feast of St. Therese of Lisieux, etc.

Start with prayer. The traditional Catholic pre-meal prayer is (broken up into lines that indicate the typical rhythm with which the prayer is prayed):

Bless us, O Lord,
and these Thy gifts
which we are about to receive
from Thy bounty,
through Christ, Our Lord.

Play some music -- not so loudly that conversation can't be easily had, but to provide a background that makes everyone feel more relaxed and creates a tone. No one wants to sit in silence and hear themselves -- or others -- chewing, and be aurally assaulted by the clinking of cutlery against the dishes. Dinner time is an opportunity to expose your children to music they're not likely to hear at most other times of the day! Let them hear Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, Schubert, et al., Big Band groups like the Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey orchestras, the great crooners like Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, et al., doo-wop groups from the 1950s, old country, like Hank Williams, Sr. and Patsy Cline, etc. If you're too young to know these types of music yourself, expand your horizons and learn with your children! Your kids' knowing the music their ancestors, especially their grandparents and great-grandparents listened to, is a good way to connect them to their roots and get them to think in bigger terms than just the present. It also will help them understand the mores of the past and more easily resist the too-often thrown-together and highly immoral pop-culture offerings of today. Consider, too, matching the music to the meal: for ex., if you're eating Italian food, listen to Caruso; if you're eating French food, listen to Edith Piaf, etc.

Talk to each other -- and know how to elicit information and get conversations going. Instead of asking too general questions like "how was your day?" or "what did you learn in school?", be more specific. Try "anyone have anything funny happen to them today?" or "what are you studying in history class, John?"  When asking questions, avoid those that can be answered with a simple "yes" or "no" -- e.g., instead of asking "Did you like that movie last night?" ask "Which movie did you like better, the one from last night or the one from last week?" Then follow up with "why?" questions.

From the Domestic Church page, I link to a number of pdfs meant to lively-up family dinners. There are Questions for Family Dinner Table Conversation and For Couples and Making Family Dinners Fun, and Things To Do To Kill Time on Long Car Trips. I also have a large compilation of Aesop's Fables, offered with the hope that one or two will be chosen at mealtime, read to the children, and discussed to see if the kids can guess the morals of the stories.

Off the Gratitude page, I describe how to make a "gratitude tree" meant to inculcate an "attitude of gratitude" by getting people to really count their blessings -- and then turn it into a family game. On that same page, I also recommend teaching your children where food comes from -- the steps taken and labor involved in getting the food they're eating from a farm to their table. It's crucial that they not have the idea that food "magically appears" without human labor.

Something else to consider is keeping a large, old-school dictionary next to the table and choosing a new vocabulary word each night. First read the word and have everyone guess its meaning (that can get really funny!). Then define the word and challenge each person at the table to use it in a sentence. Choose a new word the next night -- but use the word from the night before a few times again as well to better get it into your children's long term memories. Throughout the week, try to use the newly learned words once in a while.

Another thing that's important to do is to teach your children basic table manners. It's important, too, that they know how to behave at dinners eaten in restaurants and at other people's houses. You can periodically pretend your dinner table is in a restauarant or someone else's home and walk them through ordering food politely, dealing with waiters so as to not make their jobs more difficult than they need to be, waiting until the host begins eating, offering to help, thanking the host, etc. But otherwise, please, dispense with unnecessary folderol at your own home. Basic manners should suffice, and everyone at the table should feel relaxed and at home. A one page pdf file of the Very Basic Table Manners.

The Cook

It's easy to talk about the importance of family dinners, but a lot of work is involved in making them happen. There are things you can do, though, to make everything a lot easier:
  • Plan menus in advance: try making a schedule of four month-long menus, one for each season, complete with pre-made shopping lists for items that have to be bought fresh weekly (in other words, a month-long schedule of meals that is used three times during Spring, another month-long schedule used three times during Summer, etc.). Gather all the schedules' called-for recipes, print and bind them, and keep them together with the relevant schedule. Then just note variations for feast day foods (which you can learn about throughout the Seasonal Customs area of the site).

    A seasonal cycle of four menus that each covers four weeks should be plenty large enough to get around food ennui and will obviate having to think about what to cook, what side dishes need to be made for each entree, which dessert to serve, having to gather recipes and make shopping lists, etc., all of which constitute half of the struggle of cooking. (When planning, don't forget to make Fridays meat-free, and Ember Days at least partially meat-free, if you plan on honoring the traditional calendar.)

  • Cook ahead: if you're going to recycle a monthly menu, consider cooking double or triple batches of some of those meals, freezing them, and then reheating them the next month. Theoretically, aside from feast day foods, you could cook one month, take a month off, etc. if you prepare menus that can be frozen.

  • Pre-prepare for meals: ex., chop onions and peppers and such and freeze them in one cup batches (1 medium onion = 1 cup chopped; 1 bell pepper = 1 cup chopped); if you often use a bread machine, pre-measure the dry ingredients (flour, sugar, salt, dry milk, etc.), storing the necessary yeast packaged separately on top, in bags, etc.

  • Find cheats and hacks: e.g., use premade pie crust instead of making your own; cook bacon and Italian sausage in the oven instead of frying them, and roast vegetables alongside, etc.

  • To save time, focus on crockpot/slow cooker-based meals, casseroles, "one pot meals," and roasted meats rather than meals that require lots of stove top attention.
  • Clean as you go! This is so incredibly important to keep motivated in the kitchen. It really can't be stressed enough. Nothing's worse than spending hours cooking -- and then facing a heap of pots, pans, and dishes afterward. As soon as you're done with the measuring cup, wash it then and there (or put it in the dishwasher if you have one).

  • Teach your children to cook while still very young and get them to help with it and with setting the table.

  • Most definitely teach your children to clean up after themselves and to do their own dishes as soon as they're able to complete such tasks. Children should be made to be responsible for their own messes as early as possible. Don't be one of those parents who runs after his children and cleans up after them; teach your children to put their own things away, where they belong, as soon as they're done using them, playing with them, eating off of them, drinking out of them, etc. If they spill something, they should clean it up immediately, and if they're too little to do an adeqate job, they can help you do it -- rather, they can do it while you help them.

  • Get a large cast iron dinner bell (a real bell, not a triangle) that you hang on your wall and use to summon everyone to dinner. It's much less stressful than repeatedly yelling across the house. The goal is a nice, peaceful family dinner, and yelling at the top of your lungs for ten minutes, hoping someone hears you and getting angry when they don't (or pretend not to!), isn't a good way to begin. The act of yelling alone gets adrenaline -- and frustration -- levels up. Avoid it.

  • Hang an icon of St. Martha, patron saint of cooks and homemakers, to bless your kitchen. Consider praying novenas to her for help in your work (since her novena involves candle-lighting, maybe you can incorporate it into the lighting of the candle at the center of the family dinner table each night, or at least on Tuesdays, the traditional day of the week her novena is prayed for nine consecutive weeks).
  • .For the non-cooks reading this: teach children to be grateful to the cook, sensitive to the cook's feelings, helpful, and to show their appreciation. You, yourself, do likewise.
Buon appetito!


1 Hofferth, S.L. and Sandberg, J.F. (2001), How American Children Spend Their Time. Journal of Marriage and Family, 63: 295-308.

Eisenberg ME, Olson RE, Neumark-Sztainer D, Story M, Bearinger LH. Correlations Between Family Meals and Psychosocial Well-being Among Adolescents. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 2004;158(8):792–796. doi:10.1001/archpedi.158.8.792

3 ibid

4 Snow, C.E. and Beals, D.E. (2006), Mealtime talk that supports literacy development. New Directions for Child and Adolescent Development, 2006: 51-66.

5 Nicole I. Larson, MPH, RD, Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, PhD, MPH, RD, Peter J. Hannan, MStat, Mary Story, PhD, RD Family Meals during Adolescence Are Associated with Higher Diet Quality and Healthful Meal Patterns during Young Adulthood, DOI:

6 Jennifer Martin-Biggers, Kim Spaccarotella, Amanda Berhaupt-Glickstein, Nobuko Hongu, John Worobey, Carol Byrd-Bredbenner, Come and Get It! A Discussion of Family Mealtime Literature and Factors Affecting Obesity Risk–, Advances in Nutrition, Volume 5, Issue 3, May 2014, Pages 235–247,

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