Perspectives: Food, fun and conversation – the recipe for a great family meal

October 7, 2019 by On the Table NLN

As On the Table demonstrates, the act of coming together in conversation can be a powerful tool to bring communities together, drive change and more – however, the On the Table model isn’t the only way this idea comes to life. In our “Perspectives” series, we feature other leaders and organizations in the civic engagement space, sharing thoughts and insights on a variety of issues. Up first, Dr. Anne Fishel, Director and Co-Founder of The Family Dinner Project – a nonprofit initiative based at Massachusetts General Hospital’s Psychiatry Academy that helps families realize the many nutritional, academic and mental health benefits of family dinner.

What is The Family Dinner Project and how did it get started? 

The Family Dinner Project is a nonprofit initiative that champions family dinner as an opportunity for family members to connect with each other through food, fun and conversation about things that matter. With online resources and community-based programs, The Family Dinner Project helps families improve the quantity and quality of their meals together – making dinner simpler, more nutritious, more fun and more meaningful. 

The Family Dinner Project is the brainchild of Shelly London, a retired senior corporate executive who developed several initiatives to “give back” after her retirement when an inaugural fellow in Harvard’s Advanced Leadership Initiative, a program for senior leaders who want to go from their primary career to a life of service. Since its inception, our team has been made up of men and women from a variety of personal and professional backgrounds – education, conflict resolution, family therapy, design, social work and food – brought together by our shared passion about the power of family dinner.

Why focus on family dinners?

Over the past 20 years, scientific research has shown that sharing a family meal is one of the most powerful activities that parents can do for the body, the brain, and spirit of their kids. Studies link regular family meals to many outcomes that parents want for their children: higher-grades, resilience and better nutrition, as well as lower rates of depression, substance abuse and obesity. Many of these benefits derive from the finding that sharing a meal helps children feel more connected to their parents. It turns out that family meals do many of the same things I try to do as a family therapist!

More than 90 percent of all families want to have regular family dinners. But, on any given night, only between 30 and 50 percent are eating together. TFDP helps makes it easier for busy families to reap the many benefits of family dinner. Research tells us why family dinners are meaningful, and we show families how to make it a fun and meaningful part of life.

What impact have you seen from The Family Dinner Project’s work?

We reach families online and through community-based events. We have reached well over a million families through our online resources. In our work with partners, we host community dinners at schools, clinics, military bases, homeless shelters, libraries and public markets where we bring families together to cook, eat, play games and have meaningful conversations. Parents learn from each other how to overcome shared and common obstacles to family dinner, such as being too busy, having picky eaters or having tension at the table.  

We also run workshops for parents and caregivers who report that after participating in our workshops they have increased the quantity of meals they share in a given week and  improved in the following areas: eating more nutritious and diverse foods; finding more fun and enjoyment at the table; reducing mealtime distractions; and talking about everyone’s day and topics that matter to the family.

Our research has found that parents often initially focus on eating better but after participating in our programs, they report having more fun and more meaningful conversation at the table. This finding mirrors one of our fundamental beliefs about dinner – food is what brings families to the table but it is the warm and enjoyable atmosphere at the table that keeps them there. It is that atmosphere that accounts for most of the benefits of family dinner. 

Additionally, our reach has expanded far beyond the U.S. borders. We have received requests for our materials and have shared them with groups across the globe from the UK to Poland to Australia and to China and the Philippines. Our work has been featured in major media outlets including The New York Times, The Washington Post, NPR, Time, and Parents, as well as by journalists in Canada, Brazil and Greece.

What are three tips you have for sparking conversation around the dinner table?

Parents often get tired of asking “How was your day?” only to have their kids offer a monosyllabic answer like “fine.” Some kids don’t need much prompting at all to start chatting, but others are worn out from answering questions all day at school. No matter what, we’ve found it can be a good idea to add variety and novelty to the conversations around the dinner table. We suggest trying these tips to help get the conversation flowing:

  • Sometimes kids will be more willing to talk if the conversation starts as a game. You might try asking everyone to tell two stories about their day that happened and one that is made-up. Everyone tries to guess which is the fiction. Or have everyone go around the table and share their rose (the best part of their day), a thorn (the most difficult part of their day), and a bud (something they hope will happen tomorrow).
  • Try keeping a conversation jar on your table. Stuff it full of slips of paper offering whimsical, unusual questions, such as “If you could have any superpower, what would it be?” “What character in a book would you like as a friend?” “What animal would you most like to be?” and “Where do you feel most relaxed?” For dozens more questions, click here.
  • Use real-world events to talk to your kids about topics that are important to your family. A great example is our Conversation of the Week about the U.S./Mexico border.

How do you approach tough topics with kids – trauma, current events and more?

We usually advise keeping family dinner conversations positive, so that the table is a warm and welcoming place for all. However, sometimes there are sad, scary or upsetting events that demand our attention. In those cases, families may want to use the dinner table as a safe and supportive space for asking and answering tough questions.

Events such as natural disasters and mass shootings can easily overtake our consciousness and become overwhelming, especially to children and teens. It’s important for families to carefully and sensitively address such occurrences and gather strength and comfort from one another. It’s a good idea to ask your children what they’ve heard about a particular event and whether they have any questions, feelings or concerns. You don’t want to offer more information and explanations than a child wants or is asking for, but rather to let your child take the lead. It’s also helpful to share some of your own feelings so that you model for your child that it’s okay to feel scared, angry or upset and that we are a family who can talk about negative as well as positive feelings. Also valuable to a child’s sense of security is talking about all the ways that you and other adults are keeping your child safe. It may also be useful to limit children’s exposure to TV news so that they aren’t inundated with images and information.

On the flip side, how can you make family dinners more fun through conversation?

Whether your dinners include toddlers, teens or just people who are young at heart, having fun together while you eat is an essential element of making mealtimes compelling. Here are some ways to enliven conversation at the table:

  • Invite laughter to the table. Dinner doesn’t have to be serious to be meaningful. Make a family joke jar, allow technology only for sharing funny memes at the table, play a round of Cat and Cow or try some tongue twisters to get the giggles going.
  • Play with your food. As our worlds become more and more virtual, cooking is one of the few activities that involves our senses and allows us make things together with our hands. Whether it’s letting young children paint with food coloring and make edible collages, challenging older kids to a blindfolded smell test or ingredient race, or getting everyone involved in a family Iron Chef challenge, making food a hands-on exploratory experience can give children and adults a chance to play together.
  • Break the routine. Every once in a while, purposely dedicate your dinnertime to fooling around together. Indulge your gaming-obsessed teens and tweens by spreading out snack foods near the gaming system and asking them to show you how to play their favorites. Invite kids to join you on a picnic blanket or inside a tent for hot dogs, s’mores and outdoor activities. Wear pjs to dinner and serve dessert first, or set everyone up with popcorn, pizza and movies to enjoy together. 

Why do you think these types of conversations are important?

Conversations around the family table are an opportunity to talk about what’s most important to us. Engaging children in meaningful conversations also helps them learn to listen, to express a point of view and to respect others’ opinions. These skills will help them think critically, listen deeply, speak confidently and collaborate enthusiastically. Dinner conversations are where children learn turn-taking, how to tell a story, and how to use humor to soften the hard edges. The dinner table is the place where parents and children create their identities as a family and talk about who they are and who they want to be. 

In most industrialized countries, families don’t farm together, play musical instruments or stitch quilts on the porch anymore. So, in the 21st century dinner is the most reliable way for families to connect and find out what’s going on with each other. In a survey, American teens were asked when they were most likely to talk with their parents: dinner was their top answer. Kids who eat dinner with their parents experience less stress and have a better relationship with them. This daily mealtime connection is like a seat belt for traveling the potholed road of childhood and adolescence and all its possible risky behaviors.

Of course, the real power of dinners lies in their interpersonal quality. If family members sit in stony silence, if parents yell at each other, or scold their kids, family dinner won’t confer positive benefits. Sharing a roast chicken won’t magically transform parent-child relationships. But dinner may be the one time of the day when a parent and child can share a positive experience – a well-cooked meal, a joke, or a story – and these small moments can gain momentum to create stronger connections away from the table.

What types of resources does The Family Dinner Project offer and how can we learn more?

Our resources include tip sheets, recipes, games, activities and conversation starters to help transform eating dinner together into a reliable time of the day for connection. We offer all the resources that families need to harness the power of family dinners: recipes for easy, nutritious meals; games to promote conversation and lighten the mood; and tips to stimulate meaningful conversation. 

The Family Dinner Project website offers practical, easy-to-use tips, including:

  • Dinner Tonight and Budget Dinner Tonight (a daily helping of a recipe, a game, and a conversation starter)
  • Conversation of the Week (a summary of a current events, along with thought-provoking questions to help your family have conversations about things that matter).
  • A 4-week program to help families dive deeper into family dinners
  • A monthly newsletter with stories from families and creative ideas around themes, like promoting courage, adjusting to an empty nest, or keeping dinner going during the summer

In addition to our website, The Family Dinner Project recently released our new book, Eat, Laugh, Talk: The Family Dinner Playbook! Filled with dozens of stories and recipes from real families that are sure to inspire, the book is organized in sections according to common mealtime obstacles and provides 52 weeks of food, fun and conversation for families of all kinds. All author proceeds from the book will go towards The Family Dinner Project’s community-based work with families.

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