It doesn't matter whether it's chicken Marsala or chicken nuggets. Eating together as a family is what's important.
That's the message The Rev. Leo Patalinghug drove home to Bishop Guilfoyle Catholic High School students recently. Not only is Patalinghug an energetic priest with his own TV show and recipe book, "Grace Before Meals," but he holds three black belts in tae kwon do, speaks multiple languages and is an award-winning break-dancer.
To say BG students were riveted by Patalinghug's program was an understatement. While talking to students about God and the importance of faith and family, Patalinghug cooked a special meal (Monte Cristo sandwiches) with the help of a couple students and guest chef Rocco Alianiello, president of the Western Pennsylvania division of U.S. Foodservice.
(Mirror photo by J.D. Cavrich)
The Rev. Leo Patalinghug, author of “Grace Before Meals,” gives a cooking demonstration to Bishop Guilfoyle Catholic High School and local parochial students.
Some lucky students eagerly gobbled samples of the sandwiches, and Patalinghug showed everyone his beat-boxing and break-dancing skills.
"I'm not here to force families to eat together, but I want to give a firm, gentle reminder to find out what's important in life," Patalinghug said.
Growing up, family meals were a big part of his family. Patalinghug was born in the Philippines, but his family moved to Baltimore, when he was 2. As a youngster, he never imagined he'd become a priest.
"My brother should have been the priest. He's the nice one," he joked. "I didn't want to go to church. I used to get excited when the collections came around because it would give me something to do."
But, Patalinghug was called to God.
"Being a priest is weird because I was not destined to be a priest," he said.
It was a fluke that Patalinghug started Grace Before Meals. As a priest, Patalinghug often cooked for his fellow priests, and while he was cooking, he would talk about faith and family. One of the priests had an idea to film Patalinghug's cooking sessions, and eventually it got back to a TV producer for Comcast.
He now has a Web TV show and is developing a program for PBS.
Patalinghug also appeared on the food network on "Throw Down with Bobby Flay."
In that show, Flay, a chef who often appears on Iron Chef, challenges people to a cook-off. The priest and Flay cooked fajitas, and Patalinghug won.
"I'm in awe of how well this has all been received, but I'm not in awe about what God can do," Patalinghug said.
Patalinghug cooperates with the National Center for Alcohol and Substance Abuse to get the word out about the importance of family meals. According to CASA's research, family meals play a pivotal role in reducing teens' risky behavior, including smoking, drinking, doing drugs and teen pregnancy.
"Just spend time together. I'm not down on fast food. I'm really not. Just eat it together and eat it slower," Patalinghug said. "Family members can teach each other values that make life worth living."
Kim Murphy, a mother of six from Hollidaysburg knows the importance of family meals. The Murphys have been eating as a family almost every day of the week since their oldest child, Kaitlyn (now 20 and at Villa Nova) was a baby.
"Whether it's a home-cooked meal or it's pizza, the important part is we're together," Murphy said. The Murphy children, Kaitlyn, Maura, 18, Shannon, 15, Kyle, 12, Trinity, 8 and Bree, 5, all expect to eat as a family and enjoy it. Not only do they eat together, but they make sure to share important parts of their days.
The Murphys all go around the table telling the "rose" and "thorn" of their day, the rose being the best part and the thorn being the worst.
"The older kids enjoy the little kids' stories, and the little kids look up to the older kids. It's good bonding," Murphy said. But with six kids and all of them in extracurricular activities, how do they manage?
Shannon plays soccer, Kyle plays football, basketball and baseball, Trinity plays flag football and basketball and Bree is involved with dance. Add to that equation the possibility that Murphy's husband, Frederick, who is a rheumatologist in Duncansville, works late some nights. The key is flexibility, Murphy said.
"We make it a priority to eat together every night. We're flexible," Murphy said. Some nights dinner might be at 5 p.m., because the kids have games in the evening. Other nights dinner might not be until 7 p.m. because the kids have practice after school or Frederick Murphy works late.
"Dinner isn't always at 5. I choose the time we're all going to be together," Murphy said, "even if it means we'll not eat dinner until after 6:30." Some nights, the family might not be able to sit around the table until 8 p.m. or later. In those cases, it's really dessert time.
"We all come together and we know it's family time," Murphy said.
Murphy, whose two teenagers attend BG, watched Patalinghug's program and agrees entirely with his philosophy. Eating dinner as a family, Murphy believes, holds kids accountable for their actions.
"If you know you're going to face your parents and siblings every night at the table, you're a little less likely to make risky decisions. Sometimes kids make risky decisions because they feel isolated or don't feel a strong connection to someone else," Murphy said. "Family meals build good connected time. They help provide a close-knit family."