My mother once told me, "I don't care about food. I eat because I have to." It was easy to believe as she stood in the kitchen, leaning against the counter, eating a piece of cheese and drinking a beer. But, still, there was a part of me that struggled to reconcile her words with the image of her spending all day in the kitchen on Thanksgiving, basting the turkey, rolling out pie dough, whipping mashed potatoes. I thought of her at Christmas, covering the table in linen and carefully setting out her china.
I know now what I couldn't quite articulate then - meals are made great not by the food but by the people with whom you share them.
This is why I feel at home with my partner's family in Portugal, sitting at a long table eating leitão while sipping champagne. This is why I cherish the memory of dinner in a small sidewalk café in Rome with my partner and our children as we talked about the Coliseum and the Trevi Fountain over plates of gnocchi in tomato sauce and gemelli with pesto.
But, I've also learned that not every meal has to be epic to be meaningful. There is much to be said about the importance of everyday meals and we have some of our best conversations over dinner - from the routine (and often entertaining) drama of elementary and junior high school to the bigger issues of our family's values.
Like most families, we're busy with work and school. We rush to soccer practices and guitar lessons and martial arts classes and sometimes see each other only in passing. But family mealtime is a constant in our home and no matter what the day holds, we all sit down at the dining room table for dinner each night.
Because of that, I was feeling a little smug when I asked my kids what they thought about our family dinners. I settled into my chair, rested my hands in my lap, took a satisfied breath and waited for my accolades. My daughter said, "They're fun because it's the only time we have your full attention!" and my son said, "Yeah, we really talk and you don't look at your phone!"
This was not exactly the high praise I had been expecting. Never ask a kid a question if you're not ready to hear the truth.
There is still beauty there, tainted as it is with our other shortcomings, and their answers make sense.
It was over dinner in 2011 that we told our children about the proposed amendment to the Minnesota state constitution to ban same-sex marriage. My daughter who was six at the time said, "People love who they love and should be able to get married. I will not be voting for that." My son who was nine said, "But the constitution guarantees justice for everyone." The innocence of both responses broke my heart but more than anything, my partner and I were scared, afraid of the political climate and what impact it might have on our kids. We reassured them and reminded them that we would always be a family regardless of ballots and elections.
In the months that followed, each dinnertime conversation touched on that issue. We would ask if they'd heard anything about the amendment at school, if anyone had said anything hurtful to them. They would ask questions about the election and we'd answer and give updates. We'd close the conversation by making sure they knew they could tell us anything and that we would do anything to protect them. We were fortunate. They never received anything but support from teachers and classmates and the amendment was defeated in 2012.
In 2013, marriage equality was signed into law in the state of Minnesota and, after 20 years together, my partner and I began to plan our wedding. Many family dinners were spent discussing what we would wear and who would attend and what would be served. Let's be clear - the kids were discussing all of this. They had many opinions and the most heated debate was over dessert. Our son wanted a wedding cake, preferably three tiered, while our daughter wanted a giant cookie, preferably a snickerdoodle. We were married in October 2013 and guests enjoyed the cake and the cookie.
My partner and I aren't perfect parents. We are impatient and our boundaries between work and family sometimes blur. Even at family mealtime, we can become overly focused on perfect manners and spend more time than we should saying things like, "Hold your fork correctly" and "Your elbows are on the table" and "Don't sit with your leg underneath you." Okay, that last one is just for me.
But we also understand that shared meals make children feel closer to their families and make them feel safe. Studies tell us that but my personal experience is a greater testament to that fact. My mother brought our family together during those big holiday dinners when I was young. I got to know my partner's family over leisurely meals in Portugal. And, during a time when my family was under attack, we gathered each night to connect and support each other and created our own safe haven over simple, everyday meals.
I believe in the power of family meals, which is why I have partnered with Barilla to encourage families to make the most of mealtime through the Share The Table program. We can share our experiences and learn from each other by using the hashtag #sharethetable and when we do, Barilla will donate 10 meals to Feeding America. I've told you my story. It's your turn to tell yours.