How do you like to set the table for family dinner? We keep it very simple. As I've written about here, my kids are old enough now (5-and-a-half next week, and 4 in March! gasp) that I can avoid plastic entirely during dinner. We use standard china dinner plates (actually the ones I grew up using, thanks Mom!), mismatched cutlery, everyday glassware, and cloth napkins. Over this holiday season, my family had so much fun with special, big gatherings, meals at friends' and family's homes, and general festivities that when we sat down for a simple pasta on January 2nd, I realized that the four of us hadn't had dinner together just us since December 21st. The time had come to return to simple evenings together, and though I loved our holiday, it was a nice shift, into a new year.
It may seem like a trivial or unnecessary thing, to pause and think about how we set the table. But there is significance in establishing that small preparation ritual - preparation, after all, for the family dinner ahead. The beginning of a new year is a nice time to think about taking time to establish a new ritual or two - and there is something both tidy and comforting about a lovely set table. (Think hygge!) Setting the table creates a structure and a physical frame for family dinner, every night. Kids notice when events are given importance, and they notice small, repeated gestures. My kids haven't ever been particularly bound to routines (a lifestyle we have tried to foster for them), but the expectation that family dinner will happen, and that it will be made in our kitchen, is grounding. Cash often says these days, "I love the dinner you make, Mummy." (This is after months of poorer dinner table behaviour, so don't despair, parents.) Last night I made pad thai, and he was actually disappointed that I hadn't made the rice noodles from scratch.
Setting the table is in fact a great and easy addition to kids' involvement in family dinner. Growing up, it was the kids' job to set the table at my house. "Girls! Time to set the table!" my dad would holler from the kitchen, 5 minutes before the meal was ready. "How many hotmats?" we would call back. My sister and I loved tossing the tablecloth in the air and smoothing it out on the table on nights when we were having people over.
One of my principles in the Bite-Sized Kitchen is the importance of thoughtful visual presentation. If food is laid out in an appealing way, children (and adults) are more likely to want to try it, and enjoy it. Taking care over table setting is similar to food preparation, in a way; in both tasks, you are laying the groundwork for welcoming people to join you and share a meal. We have friends over for dinner fairly often, and typically the kids join us, just like every night. I get out beautiful tablecloths and heavy silver, shiny glasses and all the wooden boards. I often ask the kids to choose small toys to decorate the table; they look very sweet against the white cloth.
Many others have waxed (more) poetic(ally) about the ritual of table setting, too. Jenny Rosenstrach has a great cookbook called How to Celebrate Everything, an ode to rituals both simple and spectacular. One of the most influential books I've ever read is Setting the Table, by New York restaurateur Danny Meyer. His approach to welcoming people is remarkable. And even though he rarely set the table himself (leaving that task to us kids), my father deserves a big nod for always being the most ebullient and gregarious host: inspiring me to create an atmosphere of homey warmth and a most welcoming, laid table.
Happy New Year, and thank you for following the fun and simple practices of the Bite-Sized Kitchen. Here's to a festive 2018! I hope you'll join me.