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Anne K. Fishel, Ph.D.
When a colleague recently told me about her Thanksgiving tradition, it got me thinking about family dinners — a topic I consider every night around 7 pm and with every patient I see in family therapy.
Indeed, as a mental health provider, I sometimes feel I'd go out of business if families had regular dinners with one another. Truly. There are dozens of research studies that show that frequent family dinners promote kids’ mental and emotional well being — by lowering rates of depression, anxiety, eating disorders and substance abuse, for starters. Family meals also strengthen children’s resilience, self-esteem and sense of connectedness to their parents. Isn’t that exactly the goal of therapy?
It’s no wonder that I often have to stifle the urge to say, ‘Stop wasting your time here. Go home and eat dinner together.’
But, I’m well aware of how hard it is for busy, harried families to find time to sit down to dinner, and I’m always looking for new ways to unlock the benefits without adding any guilt or pressure. So, that is why my colleagues remarks sparked my interest. Here’s what she said:
“My sisters and I love Thanksgiving so much that our father makes a Thanksgiving-like meal throughout the year that he dubs ‘Harvest Dinner.’ We just can’t get enough of his mashed potatoes!”
I love the idea of bringing the special quality and spirit of Thanksgiving dinner to everyday meals. Two elements could easily translate to everyday dinners: sharing the workload, and focusing on more than just food.
Thanksgiving may be the mother of all family dinners, but it’s a meal that fathers, aunts, uncles, grandparents and kids all contribute to.
In my family, Thanksgiving is the only meal my husband takes the lead on. He buys, cooks and carves the turkey, and he recruits our sons to make an old-fashioned stuffing. The side dishes and desserts are my domain, but the cooking is, for once, shared equitably. Each of our guests brings a signature dish — homemade pies from my sisters-in-law, and two types of cranberry sauce from a friend.
However, here are ways you can spread the work of dinner when it’s just a random weeknight:
•Don't let any one person shoulder the workload (planning, shopping, cooking, cleaning up) of nightly meals. The more that family members participate, the more they become stakeholders who will feel committed to making time for dinner. While it can be extra work to supervise young kids while they stir the soup and crumble the cheese, it will get them in the habit of helping as they grow into more competent cooks.
•While men are featured as chefs on cooking shows, the workload they carry in most home kitchens has not kept pace. More women than men are still in charge of putting nightly dinner on the table. Just as women are encouraged to “lean in” at work, so should men be encouraged to lean in at home. Teaching your sons to cook can be a feminist act.
•Encourage your kids to choose meals they really enjoy, and see if they might take the lead in preparing them — or at least join in the cooking. Even if they just make a choice, it will prompt them to be present for the meal they love. Younger kids might choose a name or theme for the dinner, such as “The Sunday Special” or “Food for Thought.” This, too, is a part of contributing to the family process.
In my work with The Family Dinner Project, we bring families together to cook, and share tips for overcoming obstacles to creating family dinners of their own. Recently, we were invited to Hanscom Air Force Base, where we learned about a new way to share the workload: each family makes four batches of a dinner, and then meets up with three other families who have made the same effort. The families swap dinners so that each now has four different dinners — with only one cooking episode required.
Food brings us to the table, but it's the talk that keeps us there. At Thanksgiving, there are usually extra people around the table to tell stories and contribute to discussion. Thanksgiving dinner tends to run much longer than the 22 minutes that is average for a nightly family dinner. During the rest of the year, you can help extend time spent at the table by playing games, asking interesting questions and telling stories.
Conversation Ice Breakers
Bring some variety to the conversation. Instead of asking, “How was your day?” (which often elicits a conversation-stopping “fine” in return), you might ask everyone to describe their day in terms of a rose (something positive), a thorn (something difficult or challenging) and a bud (something hopeful). Or, cut up dozens of little strips of paper; on each one, write a “conversation starter,” some of which may include:
•Where do you feel most relaxed?
•What is your best personality trait?
•If you were an animal, what would you like to be?
Then, stuff them into a jar or tissue box. When conversation lags, suggest that someone pull out a slip and answer the question.
Kids who know stories about their families are more resilient — and dinner is the main time we tell stories.
At Thanksgiving, there are many food-themed stories to tell, such as what the Thanksgiving dinner experience was like for the elders at your table when they were children. For the rest of the year, however, you might tell stories ranging from a favorite family recipe, to how family names were chosen and how you and your partner fell in love.
As we all know, some kids, particularly teens, may be reluctant to talk. They may be inclined to mutter a few insignificant words, role their eyes, or even denounce the conversation altogether. Yet, kids love to hear stories about family history, and they do want to know about their parents’ lives. It’s kind of like jumpstarting a car — it may be hard to turn over initially, but once it gets started, it keeps on running.
So, how can you get the conversation going? Think about collecting small stories from your own day, or perhaps something relevant to your history growing up, the meal served, or any topic you feel may interest or amuse your kids. Then, start the dinner conversation with a story of your own. This modeling behavior can be great at getting the ball rolling.
Shortcuts Are OK
What NOT to carry forward from Thanksgiving: Hours of cooking.
The many benefits of family dinner do not depend on serving organic arugula or making chicken stock from scratch. In fact, you can hate to cook and still love family dinners. Here's how:
Embrace shortcuts to cooking. For example, have breakfast for dinner. Now that eggs are in good standing try baked eggs over wilted greens with a sprinkle of cheese. Or, opt to make lunch for dinner by serving soup and sandwiches.
•Make a double batch of soup or stew and freeze half of it. When you defrost next week, it’ll be like having a sidekick cook.
•Buy pre-made pizza dough and just add toppings. Or, you could buy a rotisserie chicken for one night, and use the leftovers to make chicken noodle soup the next.
In these small, but manageable ways, you can have “harvest dinners” — and maybe a closer family bond — all year ‘round.
Anne K. Fishel, Ph.D. is the author of Home for Dinner: Mixing Food, Fun, and Conversation for a Happier Family and Healthier Kids (Amacom, January 2015) and a founding member of The Family Dinner Project. She is also the Director of the Family and Couples Therapy Program at Massachusetts General Hospital, and an Associate Professor of Psychology (part-time) at Harvard Medical School.
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