Mealtime Prayer Traditions

I grew up with the tradition of saying a silent prayer before and after each meal in my Amish family and community. Once we were gathered around our kitchen table, my father would say "Händt nunna" (Hands down) and we would all put our hands in our laps and bow our heads. When we heard my father's hands brushing up over his denim pants, it was the signal that he was finished.

When I was very young, I didn't know I should be praying during that time. And then when I did know that, I didn't know how to pray because we were not taught how to pray in our own words. Once I was old enough to have learned the Lord's prayer in German, I would say that. I think that was what my father did too, because about the time I was saying "Amen," Datt was getting ready to look up.

Now that I think back, I realize that taking that time to quiet our minds and hearts was a form of prayer all on its own. Perhaps that is why the Amish tradition of mealtime prayer does not actually guide people what to say during that quiet time.

When I left my community the second time, I was introduced to the Roman Catholic tradition of "saying grace" in David's family. The words were said in unison, "Bless us Oh Lord, and these thy gifts, which we are about to receive, from thy bounty, through Christ, Our Lord. Amen" and were accompanied with "the sign of the cross" at the conclusion. I never knew whether I was expected, as a non-Catholic to participate in the prayer, and I felt uncomfortable with making the sign of the cross for several reasons. First of all, I would get it wrong, about which shoulder to touch first — I would be going in one direction, while everyone else was going in the other. It also felt like a betrayal of my own prayer traditions. What I hadn't realized when I was still in my community, is that there was a reverence that came with invoking quiet during "hands down." In David's family, I missed that reverence, especially if there was a television or radio going in the background, or if David's father started the prayer before everyone had gathered around the table. This prayer tradition felt like an "assignment" before a meal, rather than truly feeling what people were saying. Consequently, I began bowing my head during their prayer time. It gave me a moment to center and feel gratitude for my blessings.

When David and I became part of a Presbyterian church community, we liked the tradition of people holding hands and singing the Doxology together during potlucks or other mealtime get togethers. Around that time, we also encountered people "composing" prayers before mealtime. Neither David nor I ever became comfortable with doing this ourselves. Though a few years ago, we were eating with my Mennonite aunt and cousin, and my Aunt Martha said a prayer just before breakfast outside. It came out so naturally, it was as if she was having a personal conversation with God, thanking him for the birds in the trees and for nature and the food we were about to eat. Both David and I wished we could say prayers like that.

When I was living with my friends, Deborah and Steve, I learned the Quaker tradition of holding hands around the table and bowing our heads in silent prayer. It was very much like the tradition I grew up with, but instead of getting the cue from my father, it would come when someone squeezed my hand. I never knew who at the table started the "signal."

This past May, when the Kochs came to visit from Switzerland, we learned a new prayer tradition. They had two songs that five-year-old Hadassah would choose from, and we would hold hands while they sang. Recently they recorded one of these songs, and I am sharing it with you here. Below the video you will find the song translated into English.

In English: "You provide every animal with food and every flower with water. And you have never forgotten us as either. Heavenly Father we thank you. Amen"

When David and I began our own household, we did not start our own mealtime prayer tradition. I often have regretted that, because to this day we haven't established one. David never really found the Catholic prayer meaningful, but he also feels uncomfortable with silence. Because neither of us feels comfortable with composing prayers, that leaves us without a tradition of our own. As I write this, I realize it is never too late to start. Which prayer tradition we settle on is not as important as establishing one. We need to create a ritual to express our reverence and gratitude.

What mealtime prayer traditions are you familiar with? Which ones do you find meaningful?

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24 thoughts on “Mealtime Prayer Traditions”

  1. Showing gratitude is important, no matter the tradition. However, I absolutely abhor the business of holding hands–it’s starting out the meal with heaven only knows what from the persons on each side of you. Makes me want to excuse myself and go wash up. Think of it–breaking the roll and transferring it to your mouth, etc. However, I guess passing the serving dishes around the table has the same contamination element! Maybe including in the table grace should be the silent prayer that everyone has washed their hands before they sat down!

    1. Lol, Carol, that is a good point. I never thought about the germs I might be picking up from others’ hands. And you’re right, we all have different standards of washing hands. I’ve known people who spritz cold water on their hands and call it washing them.

      I also agree that gratitude is important, in whatever way we express that.

      Thank you for your comments.

  2. Being Quaker, I love the silence before a meal. When I’m in a Quaker group, potluck after Meeting, for example, we usually sing a grace. I know lots to choose from. Saloma, if you’d like, I can send you recordings of my favorites.

  3. I too, grew up with the silent prayer. It occurs to me that parents- whether Amish or whatever- miss a good opportunity at mealtime. Amish tend not to put a ‘lot of stock’ in verbiage- I don’t know whether most Amish families are as scornful of book learning as my Dad was and I suspect that being facile with words would have come under the same umbrella. However, what could stop an Amish parent from periodically telling their youngsters to make up a prayer of their own to offer at mealtime?

    Mom taught us youngsters a bedtime prayer although I don’t remember her ever translating the German words for us. Much later I checked with my brothers and it turned out that we all swiftly mumbled: “Meaty binny, geh zu ru, scheliesy miney auen zu, fater lossy dow and dan eber minum betty san”. What she taught us (You’ll have to put in the correct umlauts and so on) : mude be ich, gehen zu ruh, schliesen meinem augen zu. Vater, lassen du and dein, uber meinem bette sein. (Translation. paraphrased: I am tried and going to rest. Seal shut my eyes. Father, may you and yours watch over my bed.)

    My family did not have evening prayers either, although my Mennonite cousins’ household did, always guided by the patriarch. However, his mumbles were so quiet I don’t think I ever heard a single word on the occasions when I stayed overnight.
    I just remembered that during WWII, my family did have evening prayers, all of us kneeling at the furniture in the living room. Again, it was all silent and I was very young. I don’t remember ever being impatient with it but I entertained myself with ‘watching’ horses galloping. Horses were a big part of my life. lol

    1. Johanna, your experiences mirror my own. Except there was a period when my father decided we should say prayers at night before bed when my sisters and I were teenagers. And we would kneel by the chairs or couch in the living room, as you described at your Mennonite cousins. Dad was trying to make us submit. He would read from a German prayer book… sometimes for as long as 20 minutes. Not a positive memory of bedtime prayers.

      I have heard that child’s prayer before, but I’m not remembering when and where. Thank you for sharing it.

  4. It’s interesting to see how many different ways people say prayer before a meal. Personally, I would like to think that no matter how its done, or said, that if it comes from the heart God is well pleased.
    I grew up learning a simple child’s prayer at meal time. Each of my brothers and sister or i would say grace each night, depending on who said it last.
    I taught my children a prayer I made up myself that I thought would be easy for them to remember. Now that all the boys are grown my husband Paul and I say what ever is in our hearts to say in gratitude for all He has given us.We do the same when the boys and their families come to dinner. We give thanks at each meal, not just at dinner time. After all, all that is given to us comes from God, that includes breakfast and lunch!! :)

    1. Pamela, I agree with you that no matter how it’s done, God is pleased when we express our gratitude. Good for you for making it a tradition to say grace before each meal.

      Many Blessings to you, Pamela.

  5. Pingback: Mealtime Prayer Traditions | Former Amish News

  6. As A child, my family lived with my maternal grandparents who were Swiss Apostolic. I remember at mealtime, our tradition was to gather around the table and bowing our heads with a few moments of silence. The the oldest member present would say a prayer either in German or English. At the end when they pronounced Amen, those that were gathered said Amen together.
    Moving away when my mom remarried, we attend a church where the custom was to hold hands while someone said a prayer – either a formal or something from their heart.
    I found that I prefer the custom from my childhood. Having everyone together with a ‘quite’ time, then having a few words spoken. I find it give me time to settle my mind and to listen for God’s word to settle in my heart.

    1. Kimberly, I completely understand what you are saying. Somehow creating silence is important for reverence. And prayer without reverence is like living in this world without nature. I love your last line… it is exactly what I mean by reverence.

      Thank you for dropping by and for your beautiful words.

  7. I´m a Sufi and we have several traditions: Saying “Bismillah” (In the name of God) before the meal and after finishing “alhamdulillah” (thanks to God). I don´t like this too much (don´t ask me why) so I usually just say a small prayer with my own words, either loud or silent. If I´m together with friends one usually gets “picked out” for saying the grace.

    1. Aurora, that is interesting that you don’t like the tradition you mentioned. I wonder if it is something like what I felt about saying grace at David’s parents’ house. I think the two you mentioned are almost too short to “create silence” or center oneself. Good that you have found a prayer tradition you like and practice.

      Have a wonderful weekend.

  8. I grew up in a mixed religion household. Dad was raised Episcopalian and Mom is a Soto Zen Buddhist (Japanese). In my dad’s family, there was a moment of silent prayer before meals, and with my mother’s family, we say “Itadakimasu” at the beginning of the meal and “gochisosama deshita” at the end of the meal.

    Itadakimasu is usually translated to “I humbly receive” and it’s a gesture of gratitude to the person who made the meals, the lives of the creatures/plants who died to be the meal, etc. Gochisosama deshita is more of compliment to the host and translates to “It was a feast!”

    1. Cheryl, that is interesting that your father’s family observed a silent prayer before meals. Is that an Episcoplian tradition?

      I love the tradition on your mother’s side of the family, too. I like “I humbly receive.”

      Thank you for contributing to the list of prayer traditions.

      Have a wonderful week.

  9. Christine Dunning

    My grandfather’s background was Scottish and my grandmother’s Pennsylvania Dutch. Their daughter (my mom) taught me and my sister this prayer before meals: “Dear Lord, for loving care and food we thank Thee. Forever keep us in Thy grace, until we meet Thee face to face. Amen.”

    1. Christine, thank you for sharing this prayer. I wonder if this came from the Scottish or Pennsylvania German tradition?

      Thank you for dropping by and I hope you have a good weekend.


  10. When our daughter was quite young we decided that the standard “Bless us, O Lord…” really wasn’t a good choice, as there was no way she’d have any clue what it was saying. So we found some “Grace before meals for families” and used those until we found one we liked. Much to our chagrin, she picked up on the “Bless us O Lord…” when visiting my family & started requesting it on occasion.

    We rotate who gets to choose what kind of prayer we say. Normally she picks a song which may or may not have been intended to come before a meal; my husband nominally comes up with something on the spot, but in practice says pretty much the same thing he’s been saying since he was a teenager; and I’ll pick one of the little kid prayers we found. The joys of a mixed household!

  11. Hi, I was wondering since you converted to the Presbyterian denomination do you fully accept the views of child baptism? I understand that the Amish do adult baptism, but do you now agree with it personally?

  12. I had to smile when you spoke of discomfort when signing the cross in the Catholic fashion. My husband’s family is Catholic and I am not. My husband no longer attends the Catholic church but we go to family christenings, weddings and funerals. Every single time, even after years, my husband still automatically says and does all of the responses- while I am ALWAYS a beat behind. I still have to watch out of the corner of my eye as we get up and down from the kneelers or speak a response. When my son was small and we went to a family wedding he called it ‘the Stand Up Sit Down’ so that’s how we refer to it in our house. I think a tradition of thankfulness before a meal is beautiful whether it is a common prayer, simply saying what one is thankful for or sitting in silence. I believe that God doesn’t play favorites witth prayer- all is heard equally.

  13. My Grandfather used to say a table grace in Pennsylvania Dutch that I would love to have, both Dutch and English versions. He began with (English) Come here (or dear) Jesus be our guest. He always said it in Dutch so I never knew the whole prayer either in English or Dutch. If anyone knows this prayer I would love to have both versions. Thank You.

  14. Perhaps it is what we have used as our ‘family’ grace as it has come to be known – four boys and now four daughter-in-laws, ten grandchildren and ten great-grandchildren. We say it in unison and the younger ones learn. It is “Come Lord Jesus, be our guest and let thy gifts to us be blest. Amen.” I usually say a grace and then ask we all join together in the family grace and lead off with “Come” and everyone joins in the prayer.

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