Meal times should be peaceful and a time of refuge. We all need a safe haven where we can hang our hats, put up our feet, and dare to be ourselves. It’s important that our homes and, in particular, our tables be gathering places for nourishment of all kinds.

While breaking bread, we can create opportunities to make investments in one another’s pots of self-esteem. Since life inherently makes withdrawals, the best defense is a good offense … a consistently safe, reliable, and validating time with our loved ones.

I discourage families from bringing up difficult topics or criticizing one another at meal time. A family table should feel like a “no-fly zone”. It’s no place to bring up failed tests, untidy rooms, or other matters of concern. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner should be light and sweet: a time of celebration and not confrontation. It’s the best insurance that our children and loved ones will continue to come home and seek us out after a long and possibly hard day. Table talk as a time of refuge is a great model to offer children in terms of tradition, fellowship, and connection.

While I love to cook for our family, I’ve stood up more than once and reminded them, “I didn’t spend hours cooking to hear negativity at this table.” I’ve had parents challenge this zero-tolerance approach by insisting that it’s an ideal time for teaching table manners. In most cases, I disagree. It can be embarrassing for a child to be singled out in front of siblings and guests. Unless someone is standing on the table yelling, “Food fight!”, parents should wait to privately make corrections. The conversation will be less charged and the child will likely be more open to suggestions.

It’s tempting for busy parents who have limited time with children to use table conversation to pursue information: What did you get on the test? Did you clean your room? What have you done to get a job today? A barrage of questions can feel like an interrogation. Our family refers to this line of questioning as: the “Barbara Walters interview”. Sometimes it’s not what we’re asking but how we’re asking it in terms of tone and anxiety. Table talk should be respectful, intentional, and fair for all involved. Nobody should want to crawl under the table.

Our family tables are where tendencies toward nice or mean-spirited conversation form. Why not insist that comments be helpful and not hurtful, supportive and not undermining? That way when we go out into the world and experience adversity, we have an arsenal of positive feedback to offset it. Parents have a responsibility to set the table for safe conversation and an atmosphere of mutual regard. A humorous way to keep table talk in check is to insist that the only roasts permitted at the table come with potatoes and gravy!