What matters at dinnertime – talk or tableware?

I expected five regular place settings when I asked my 11-year-old son to set the table. Instead, he placed – or maybe tossed – five paper plates into the middle of the table. There was a fork in the center of each plate, but three were upside down. The napkins sat precariously half on and half off the plates; one had slipped off the table onto a chair. Five plastic cups were stacked near the table's edge.

When I walked into the kitchen, he was engrossed in the newest issue of Sports Illustrated for Kids, oblivious to my now-I-have-to-finish-setting-the-table sigh.

Instead, he said, "Hey, Mom, listen to this. Reggie Bush averaged 8.9 yards every time he carried the ball!"

"That's great, Geoffrey – but paper plates? And where's the rest of the silverware? It's time to eat." I was more interested in getting everyone fed and to the school auditorium for our 14-year-old's music concert than the previous week's professional football games.

"But you said we had to eat in a hurry," he protested. "Besides, a fork's all we need."

Admittedly, he was right. Both the chicken casserole and lettuce salad would be eaten with a fork, and I had no plans to add anything that required slicing, spreading, or stirring. His logic was sound, but I still didn't think the table looked right.

Family meals are important to me, and I think my dinnerware and glass tumblers create a setting that's more pleasant than paper products. So, during the meal and amid requests for second helpings, I took special notice of the scene: No food slid off the paper plates, neither spoon nor knife was requested, and no one spilled his or her milk.

Conversation was not inhibited, either. In fact, our children's comments were as boisterous as ever, untempered by my husband's and my admonitions for the kids to sit up straight and chew with closed mouths.

When Ellen announced that she had aced her reading test, both boys reached across the table to give her a high-five and then reminisced about "Misty of Chincoteague" and other third-grade experiences.

The evening's schedule – not the choice of tableware – dictated how long we sat together at the table.

Ever since our children were young, I've prided myself on preparing balanced meals and properly setting the table, believing it's best to teach by example.

But now our meals are beginning to take on a more hurried pace. Easy-to-fix soups and sandwiches are the norm. Dinnertime discussions, which used to be built around "the best thing that happened today," focus instead on car-pooling needs and Friday-night plans.

My husband, Ken, and I tell our children that dining is an experience, which, someday, may be as important to their success as the A's on their report card. We tell them "horror" stories about the college student who talked with his mouth full during a dinner/job interview with the company president and the high school friend who, while dining at his first upscale restaurant, drank the water from the finger bowl.

Every year I create a few fine dining experiences, complete with china, crystal goblets, linen napkins, and sterling-silver flatware. I show them how to lay the fork and knife diagonally across the plate to signify they've completed their meal. We talk about salad forks, dessert spoons, and bread-and-butter plates. We wait until everyone is served before starting to eat and try to eat slowly.

It will be several years – and thousands of meals – before I know whether our efforts have made an impression. I'm assured we're heading in the right direction whenever I see a napkin move across one of their mouths or hear a polite request for the butter.

So I'll continue to place a knife, a fork, and a spoon in their proper positions at each place when I set the table, and I'll dust off the china for special occasions.

But when dinner is a 10-minute intermission between activities or eaten in shifts because one child is coming home as another is leaving, I'll give myself permission to forgo any formality.

For those meals, I'll simply sit down and listen. In years to come, memories of a few moments spent talking together will be more meaningful than whether or not the knife's serrated edge was pointed toward the plate.

Sometimes, I'll even ask Ken to set the table. He likes to place the fork to the right of the plate, with the knife and spoon. "Nothing wrong with that," he says. "That's how we use 'em."

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