Making Family Dinner More Than Just Food 1

Transforming regular dinner nourishes body and soul

Family dinner has been somewhat put on the back burner with our busy schedules of extracurricular activities, long work hours and so much to do. I recently listened to a talk radio program about family dinners and was intrigued with a thought shared that children can learn more vocabulary from family dinner conversations than they can from an adult reading to them. This idea comes from a Harvard Medical School professor and mother, Anne K. Fishel Ph.D., the Director of The Family and Couples Therapy Program at Massachusetts General Hospital, co-founder of The Family Dinner Project and Author of “Home for Dinner: Mixing Food, Fun, and Conversation for a Happier Family and Healthier Kids.”

We all want to foster the development of our children in the best way possible and we can do so much for them simply through having consistent family meals. Dr. Fishel said, “Studies have tied shared meals to increased resiliency and self-esteem in children, higher academic achievement, a healthier relationship to food, and even a reduced risk of substance abuse and eating disorders.”

My son just turned eight years old, and at his age it is said that he has the capacity to learn 20 new words a day, but on average it is only five to eight words per day. To help with his development as well as add creativity to our conversations, I recently started using table topic cards while prepping dinner to encourage discussions with questions like “What’s the best way to spend a rainy weekend?” or “Would you rather live by the beach or in the mountains?” It can be comical hearing a child’s response while still thought provoking and insightful for everyone. To extend quality family time at the table, Dr. Fishel suggests incorporating conversation starters or games into family meal time. She likes one called “Rose, Thorn and Bud”–also called “The Peach and The Pit”–about a good/bad or favorite/least favorite experience from the day.

For “Rose, Thorn and Bud,” each family member describes something positive or funny (the rose of the day), something negative or difficult (the thorn), and something they hope will happen tomorrow (the bud).

My recollection of family dinner as a youth was a well-balanced meal always including a green salad (without fail) in addition to cooked vegetables, with my parents recounting their work days since they both worked full-time. As children, all six of us would chime in about our school days filled with sports, work and extracurricular activities. Sometimes, as an extension of dinner, we incorporated our “family night.” A friend recently shared with me that while growing up, her family dinners were very proper without much table conversation. Now a mother herself, she struggles at times in knowing how to converse with her own children, but says it comes very easily to her husband. In following or doing the opposite of our parents’ example, at times we may find ourselves needing a little more motivation to reach our family dinner goals.

If your family needs help in the area of making family dinner a place to unwind and reconnect distant from the outside pressures of work and school, Dr. Fishel’s book includes affordable, easy and fun recipes, stories, new research and advice that may be helpful. It shares ideas to get kids to help out, how to make meals for everyone at every age including the pickiest eaters, as well as ways to make dinnertime conversation stimulating and fun. As a closing thought Dr. Fishel notes, “family therapy can be helpful, but regular dinner is transformative.”