“Every family needs to eat together . . . especially OURS,” my grandmother used to say.

And so every week our family gathered around her table, including 2nd cousins once-removed, great-great-aunts and some we weren’t sure about, so we just called them “next of kin.”

All were welcome. None left hungry. 

Grandmother loved serving carbs: mashed potatoes, fried okra, cream corn, macaroni & cheese and biscuits—all at the same meal.

And no matter what else was on her menu, she served cheese straws—especially at holiday events. Grandmother pressed the straws out with a hand press because in her mind, electric presses = cheating.

She made her cheese straws with extra sharp cheese, pure cholesterol and real butter (and nobody cared). Their velvety orange crumbs dotted her walnut table and white linen napkins and often, my shirt.

I can still feel the love and joy of her home. And I’d give anything to go back and sit at her table, one more time.

gifts of family dinners

Grandmother (Betty Jones) and me in 1987

Our family Christmas menu always included:
Roasted turkey & cornbread dressing (never to be confused with stuffing). 
Hot yeast rolls with homemade crabapple jelly and butter.
Caramel cake with a side of boiled vanilla custard.

Grandmother’s Christmas custard recipe has been passed down for generations. It tastes like liquid cream brûlée—part custard, part heaven. No one knows exactly where it originated, but thankfully, I’ve never experienced a Christmas without it. (Email me at hello@maypatterson.com for the recipe).

This week as I pulled the custard recipe out of my recipe box, I couldn’t help but smile. Warm, happy memories came flooding back until curiously, my mascara began to run.

And then it hit me: family dinners make life richer, but I’ve often taken them for granted. I’ve overlooked their significance. And failed to be thankful for the gifts family gatherings provide.

Maybe you have, too.

Perhaps you’re even dreading getting together with your family this year.

I get it.

But I don’t want you (or me) to overlook the special gifts of family dinners this Christmas, so I hope the following thoughts will help. 

8 Special Gifts of Family Dinners:

1. The Gift of Hospitality
Grandmother’s fine Southern cooking inspires me to cook special meals for my family. Since my children are grown, I don’t cook as much as I used to, but when I prepare something tasty for them, it’s very satisfying.

Soon they’ll all gather at our house for Christmas, and as I’m shopping at the grocery store and making extra snacks and desserts, I can’t help but think of Grandmother. Somehow, I know she would approve (she certainly didn’t approve of dieting). I’m thankful for the rich gift of hospitality she passed on to me.

2. The Gift of NOT Getting Your Way
You can have it your way at Burger King, but forget it at family gatherings. No, you’re forced to eat whatever the cook serves. This is a good thing.

If I’d grown up eating exactly what I wanted, I might have opted for pizza, or fish sticks, or a bowl of Count Chocula (some of you remember). Instead, I learned to enjoy fried okra, spinach-artichoke casserole and fresh summer tomatoes.

gifts of family dinners

Our homegrown tomatoes & basil last summer

Of course, there were things I just couldn’t learn to eat—like liver and onions—but this taught me how to refuse food politely. This was an important life lesson and just one of the special gifts of family dinners.

3. The Gift of Gratitude
“Millions of kids are starving in China, so be grateful for your dinner,” my parents used to say. (Did yours say that too?) This taught me to be thankful for the food on our table, even if I didn’t like it. Helping in the kitchen taught me to appreciate those who cooked. It showed me how much effort and love family meals require.

I want to extend that same kind of love by cooking for my family, too, even though it may look a bit different (confession: my cheese straws are awful). That’s the great thing about serving those you love, you can do it in a variety of ways. And hopefully one day, my family (and yours) will appreciate the effort and remember the special gifts of family dinners.

4. The Gift of Love
Grandmother enjoyed using fine china, crystal, and crisp, white linen napkins. (Me? not so much.) And while her table was beautiful, the true beauty came from the sincere love she extended to each person. Sometimes, I make family get-togethers so complicated that I lose sight of the purpose of gathering: to make each person feel loved. This Christmas, I hope to do better.

Even if you’re not a cook, take the time to sit down with your family for a meal during the holidays. Fine china isn’t necessary—just keep it simple. It doesn’t have to be an all-day cooking extravaganza (that’s what takeout is for). Just invite your family over this Christmas and try to make each one feel loved.

5. The Gift of Community
Every holiday, I could always count on gathering with my family. Although I never received an invitation, somehow, I just knew I belonged. Now, I see what a stabilizing anchor this was in my life. Like a magnet, Grandmother’s family dinners drew us together. And when conflicts arose, she worked hard to keep the peace.

Every family gathering is an opportunity to strengthen family ties or to weaken them. So this Christmas, try to set a positive, accepting tone. Recall a funny memory, together. Laugh. Go around the table and ask each person to share something interesting about his or her year. Use the occasion to foster a sense of loving community.

6. The Gift of Colorful Memories
I remember when my great-grandmother May laughed hard, her top denture sometimes popped out.

My great-grandmother May Bryant (who I’m named after) was a hoot

When May’s teeth came loose, the entire table would howl with laughter—especially her (she had a great sense of humor). My dad, who is also a writer, held us spellbound with his rich (and sometimes tall) tales. Then there was the time my sister squirted ketchup on the ceiling . . .

Of course, I remember times that weren’t so happy. We had our share of disagreements. And there were some years I’d rather eat with my friends, but that’s part of being in a family, too. Even if we didn’t feel like being together, we got together anyway. And now I realize what a rich blessing that was, indeed. This Christmas, as much as you can, try to give the gift of joyful memories to your family.

7. The Gift of Shared Faith
Our family never sat down to eat a meal without prayer. Not once. We shared our faith by thanking the Lord as a group. We paused from our chaos to honor Him. This helped me recognize that our faith, family, and food were blessings from God’s hand.

So, as you gather with your family this Christmas, make sure you pray together. Pause for a few minutes to honor the Lord. Include God in the conversation, if you can. Memories of shared faith make a lasting impression, especially on children.

8. The Gift of Hope
As you gather around the table with your family this year, think of it as a symbol of hope—a precursor to a much greater dinner. One day, belivers will gather around the Lord’s bountiful table in His kingdom (see Is. 25:6-9).

Jesus talked about this dinner. He said: “Many people will come from the east and from the west and will sit and eat with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven,” (Matt. 8:11 NCV). What a blessed family gathering that will be!

This Christmas, make the effort to get your family together. If you don’t have any family, gather with whoever you deem “next of kin.” Make rich memories. Practice hospitality. Serve some cheese straws. Boil a pot of custard (email me at hello@maypatterson.com for the recipe). Do whatever it takes to make each person feel loved and valued.


This post was originally published on Crosswalk.com. Click here to read it.