One Way To A Teen’s Heart Is Through Their Stomach

The rise of teenage loneliness is well-documented and alarming. The issues are complex and worried parents are eager for solutions, even as we know there are no quick fixes.

One of the simplest things a parent can do is prioritize family meals. At once mundane and profound, family mealtime nourishes us body, soul, and spirit. Offering thanks to the God who gives us everything, we rest together at the table, refuel our hungry bodies, and focus our attention on the people who love us best and challenge us most.

Making time for family meals is easier said than done, yet this simple practice is both statistically and anecdotally pivotal in our children’s development. At the family table we offer our kids belonging at its most fundamental level. There is an intimacy to the familiar rhythms and a ripening towards maturity that happen incrementally and almost by accident. In meal prep and cleanup, the self-absorbed child has an opportunity to serve. In conversation, the taciturn teen is invited to share while the chatty one learns to listen. Manners take center stage, as kids “in humility learn to consider others better” than themselves (Phil. 2:3), even if that consideration is as small as letting an annoying little sister have the last piece of cornbread.

We asked some of our Rooted parent writers to share their thoughts on important mealtime practices like prayer and hospitality. Later this week on the blog, we’ll hear some creative solutions from a mom who just happens to be a nutrition professor and follower of Christ. As she will point out, family meals don’t save our child or make them immune to loneliness, but the presence of Christ by his Spirit renders the time together both holy and fruitful– pun intended (Matt. 18:20).

Tracy Yi on Mealtime Habits

Kevin and I both grew up having pretty regular family meals throughout the week. These times weren’t always filled with life-giving conversations, but the habit shaped us and naturally trained us to have family meals as regularly as possible. Family mealtime became an unspoken value for us when we got married and had kids.

In the very early years, when our kids were toddlers, Kevin and I would take turns praying out loud. Then, we transitioned to singing mealtime prayer songs once our kids were toddlers. We both grew up singing this one particular Korean song and our church sang them also before giving snacks to the kids. Our kids LOVED the short song. They would at first join in with just the “Amen” but eventually we would sing the entire song together. Now that our children are 6, 8 and 11, we take turns praying before our meals. We occasionally will sing the doxology before the meals too. Usually, one of the kids will suggest it.

In terms of conversations, we let the kids take the lead. They have the most interesting questions! We do get a lot of repeat topics like Star Wars and Marvel, but we go with it. Conversations about movies often lead to other conversations about character, friendship, and even the brokenness of this world. As we address the harder topics like brokenness, it naturally leads to talking about how God comes into the picture.

Meal prepping can become overwhelming, but we’ve learned to allow the kids to be a part of it. There are many times I want to do it all myself because it would be faster or less messy. But allowing them to be a part of the process helps them to value contributing. They usually set the table, bring drinks, do light cooking over the stove, and bring over the food once it is ready. The kitchen gets crowded A LOT with all the different bodies trying to help, but it’s become joyful chaos to us. There are often spills and some shouting because we are on the verge of hangry but once we sit down, it all comes to a calm.

We also have a no device policy at the table. And when a grown-up pulls out their phone, the kids will let us know!

Christina Fox on Praying Before Meals

Praying out loud is something many adults are uncomfortable with, and I wanted my children to pray out loud from an early age so that it was something they could do without feeling self- conscious about it. When they were young, we had a jar full of popsicle sticks on which I wrote the names of people we were praying for, and they would pull a stick out and pray for that person out loud at mealtimes. Nowadays, each of us takes turns praying before our meal. We also talk about answered prayers. This habit has helped them; as teenagers they are comfortable praying for the meal when we have guests, in youth group meetings, and other settings.

Becky Paynter on Inviting Others to the Table

Let’s be honest: as much as we yearn for honest conversation and laughter with our teens around the table, sometimes we’re grateful if they simply speak to us. As a stepparent of teenage children who painfully maneuvered through many a family meal, I eventually learned a helpful tool: invite others to dinner! Other folks – adult friends, college students, or more teenagers – alter the environment and the manner in which everyone interacts. Free from any familial strain, others had the ability to ask my teens questions that I longed to ask – and then I got to listen as they cordially and freely answered. Similarly, I often felt more freedom to interact with their friends, who were more tolerant of me – and sometimes even laughed at my jokes! There were times we found ourselves discussing Jesus and our faith in a new way, because of a guest’s comment or question. C.S. Lewis noted, “In each of my friends there is something that only some other friend can fully bring out.” His statement applies to families, as well. With others present, expectations shifted and tensions diffused. My husband and I were grateful to experience our teenagers differently, and I realized that our teens were offered alternative lenses through which to view their parents. Inviting others in benefitted our family, reminding us that we need not do this parenting thing on our own. We gain far more than a few extra place settings when we invite others to join mealtime with our teens!

Other thoughts:

  1. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. If the whole family is not available, those who are home can still enjoy the time together. Don’t quit trying because family meals are infrequent; aim for as many family members as possible as often as possible, and don’t get hung up on what you think other parents are able to pull off.
  2. If there’s too much going on in the evenings with teenagers, let breakfast be your main family mealtime.
  3. Predictability and routine can be really helpful for an anxious child, so plan ahead and do your best to follow through.
  4. Ignore grumbling. Don’t let your teen talk you out of the shared meal.
  5. If family devotions are hard to schedule, mom or dad can lead while everyone else eats. Capitalize on the time when you have a captive audience. Take care to keep the devotions interactive; you don’t want mealtime to become didactic. Remember this is a time to share, and that includes questions, observations, stories, and insights from everyone at the table.
  6. Require good table manners and considerate conversation, not because you are training your kids to perform to social standards, but because kindness the way of love (1 Cor. 13: 4).
  7. By all means and in every way you can, enjoy the time together. Savor the food (even if it’s Domino’s). Laugh loud and long. Be silly. “… Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise…” talk about those things (Phil. 4:8). “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt” just like your food is (Col. 4:6).
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Advancing Grace-Driven Youth Ministry

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