I’ve been trying to figure out why I’m obsessed with laying the table…Well, firstly, I’m a crockery junky. I ruddy love a pretty serving bowl. So maybe that’s how this all started. But seriously, I lay the table the same way for each mealtime because it really works in a routine kind of way to coax my little brood up to the table. But why is it so effective with the children and so pleasing for me? If you’re in any doubt of its effectiveness, read on to find out more.

Picture the scene - the children have their heads buried in Lego, a book; more likely, zombies in front of the tv or generally destroying something like a pack of unruly raptors. Then, I ring the food bell. Yes - it sounds weird and a bit like a boarding school, but we have a wall-mounted garden bell that my eldest bought for himself at a local garden centre and it works a treat… Pavlov’s Dogs and all that… Being as engrossed and absorbed in their thing as they are, they seriously don’t want to be ripped away from that world - especially if it’s for one of my experimental meals - as you'll know if you're in my Facebook Group most of my food looks a bit like sick, so the first mouthful can be quite tense for everyone. But when they walk in the room and see the table all laid out with their placemats, cutlery, cups, plates etc in their familiar places, it’s as if a comfortable old familiar feeling washes over them and they know exactly what to do next. Like tiny little robots. Hooray for operant conditioning!

I’ve done a little research and Google tells me that how you lay the table tells people how you feel about them…

After a little thought, this makes sense to me now. Somehow, laying the table sends a secret message to the intended eaters about how you feel about them. If a new friend came over for a quick lunch, but you dressed up the table with a large floral centrepiece, your finest china and whipped out a rack of lamb you’d been slaving over, they’d be forgiven for thinking you’re a bit of a bunny-boiler for making such a grand gesture. Conversely, if you had the potential in-laws over for a Sunday lunch soiree and you gave them cheese on toast in front of the telly, you may also fall from grace.

I asked parenting coach Sarah Weller to give me her take on it. "Thinking about this in terms of the Gary Chapman model of Love Languages, a lovely table links into at least three of the five languages your children receive and process." says Sarah. "By taking the time to lay the table, you are giving the gift of a lovely meal, in a visually stimulating setting, which is a symbol that reflects thoughtfulness and effort. The effort you have gone to is an act of service, and by sitting with them you are spending quality time together." So, if you have children with differing Love Languages, you can speak to many of the languages in one hit. Find out more about love languages at www.5lovelanguages.com

It makes sense. The way you lay the table is definitely a cue to the eaters about where they stand with you and what occasion you’re sat down for. I personally love dressing the table up for Christmas dinner, but hardly ever have the confidence to smash out a Pippa Middleton-style theme for anything less. Perhaps the people around me are silently insulted by my lack of effort? I’ll have to try harder next time the in-laws come to stay.

Surely that routine element is contributing to happier mealtimes?

Well, yes it does, there’s a tonne of advice on the internet about how routines help children feel safe and secure and help parents stay sane. It seems that the simple act of laying the table or even involving the children in getting the job done instils a string work and community ethic, therefore, is preparing them for a brighter future as well as creating a strong bond between you all as a unit. Laying the table could be as important as brushing your teeth.

Well, who knew? It certainly aids my cause if I can convince the world that my children will go out into the world as better humans as a result of my crockery obsession.

The predictability also helps. I have a shocking memory and I need constant reminders about the ad hoc events in our family diary. But the routine things? I’m great with those. Maybe the day of the week helps? Tuesday is swimming club, Thursday is dance etc. Although these all require plenty of preparation when multitasking, the fact that the weeks repeat like Groundhog Day probably helps me. And so, laying the table quickly as the food is cooking is something I can always remember to do and I do it in a flash. I know what needs to go on the table and I quickly get it done. If the table is occupied with the tiny people drawing (directly on the table if I know them) or fighting over jigsaws, I can simply pile all the bits up on one end for a swift lay (ahem) right before dinner is served.

Sarah's Top Weller way tip to prevent struggles in getting to the table, is to always give countdown time e.g please can you wind down your game as dinner will be ready in 10 minutes. Then another reminder for 5 mins. Then a reminder for wash hands time.

Does it matter if it’s pretty?

Well, to someone who likes all the interior decoratey stuff, yes. I like to use colourful placements, matching plates (I find having identical kids’ plates helps keep mealtime bickering to a minimum too), my grown-up salt and pepper mills and, of course, beautiful serving bowls. But I don’t think you need to go overthinking it. Using placemats does help provide a clearly defined space to sit and eat. Laying out cutlery can help create calm at the embarkation of the meal. Having all the bits and bobs - water, milk, salt, pepper, serving spoons, condiments on the table just means there are fewer ups and downs throughout, but it doesn’t all have to be pretty! I stick jars of sauce on the table with a spoon sticking out of the top, and my inner neat freak is fine with it! We even put the water filter and milk bottles straight on the table. Because frankly, you need to be focused on the food and the family and not feel like you’re entertaining every single evening!

What about manners?

Yep, of course. You don't have to be a genius to know that sitting the table will help children learn good manners. But on a slightly deeper dive into the recesses of my memory,  I can recall the school dinner hall back when I was a young teacher. One school I worked in used to provide a free school dinner to any teacher if they sat in the lunch hall to eat it. I loved this - I loved the food, it was very convenient & I adored my daily natter with the school cooks as well as making friends with children who weren't in my class. But, after a while, I had to stop. It was painful to stop, but I just couldn't do it anymore. I was become traumatised by the behaviour of the children in the lunch hall. I know this sounds dramatic, but if you've read this piece up until now, you may have grasped a tiny understanding of how much pleasure I take from mealtimes and how meaningful that quality time is to me. But every day in the lunch hall, I witnessed children throwing food, stabbing with cutlery, spitting at each other, never mind the shouting from the dinner ladies as well as the kids! I vowed to make sure my future imaginary children would have great table manners. Now that my family is a reality, my husband and I have developed a soft philosophy: we're not slaves to the manners and we try to have age-related expectations, but we do gently remind about manners and appropriate behaviour as consistently as possible and we are also aware that we are modelling manners to the tiny people, so we try to keep ourselves in check! And so far, so good...

So, what are my irrefutable benefits to laying the table?

  • it gives me the opportunity to demonstrate affection for the people around me and provide a yardstick for my relationships i.e. you are important to me
  • it adds predictability that in turn can improve behaviour and sense of stability for my children
  • it strengthens our relationships - we laugh together, we chat, we know each other better i.e. my big brother refuses to eat with a small fork…
  • Outer order = Inner Calm - therefore I am calm, we are calm, life is better

So, like I always say, why not give it a go for a few weeks and see what impact it can have on the vibes at your dinner table.

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