How To Enhance Your Family Dinners With More Fun And Better Conversation
One of the signs your family is disintegrating is the decline in the quantity and quality of family dinners – where fun, food and conversation converge around a table.
And yet, in just a few decades, something like 1 in 2 families in the Western world seldom have a meal together. And those that still do so often have dinner times that are so bland or distracted that no sooner has someone taken their last mouthful and they’re leaving the table.
Why is this? It seems that increasing busyness and technological distraction are eating away at our families.
We’re paying for it more than we realise – when we don’t connect with our families, a deep crevice of insecurity runs through the lives of every family member.
It doesn’t have to be that way. Not in my house. Not in yours. Earlier this year, I challenged other families to join our family in thoughtfully etching family-strengthening habits (aka rituals) into each day. One of them (maybe the most important of the lot) is having dinners together … almost every night.
Dinner time as an intentional ritual
Like all good family rituals, repeatedly having dinners together gives our kids and our family some important things:
It gives stability and predictability. After a hard day of being apart, and facing life’s challenges, ‘s find ourselves thinking, ‘This positive experience is something I can count on in the future.’ This security serves as a shock-absorber for the hardships of life.
It deepens connection and belonging. The people we ritually eat with cause us to say at some deep level, ‘These people are my people. I belong.’
It conveys identity and values. Sitting around the same table with the same people, it dawns on us, ‘This is who we are and what we value; this is who I am and what I value.’ One major function of the family system, and especially family rituals, is to inculcate into the next generation both a sense of self and a set of values.
Not surprising then, ritualizing dinners around a table leads to social, psychological and even educational benefits in children. Research associates it with lower rates of substance abuse, teen pregnancy and depression, as well as higher grades and self-esteem. Real conversation is a more potent vocabulary-booster than reading, and the stories told around the kitchen table help our children build resilience.
Thinking through the dinner ritual
There are some main elements of family meals. Every family gets to design their own unique ritual. I frame these elements as questions to ask yourself about your family. Think about how each element currently works for your family, and which ones you want to modify.
- What do we eat? See my post for my thoughts here.
- How do we ensure people have sufficient appetite for this meal?
- Who prepares the meal?
- Who sets the table?
- Is the environment conducive to connection and conversation?
- How are family members called to the table?
- How are family members seated?
- When and how is the meal served?
- How is the dinner commenced?
- Do we pray, and if so, how?
- Are distractions and interruptions permitted?
- How is conversation encouraged and facilitated?
- How do we make our time together more enjoyable?
- Who participates in the conversations?
- How do you handle table manners and food preference issues with children?
- Is the end of the meal ritual clearly defined?
- Who clears the table?
As important as all these elements are, in this post I want to hone in on just two of them, which I will come back to in a minute…
- How is conversation encouraged and facilitated?
- How do we make our time together more enjoyable?
Making changes to your ritual
The idea is to start from where you are and take a few small steps toward enhancing your family’s meal rituals.
If you are concerned about how other family members would respond to even a simple suggestion for improving your meal ritual, I recommend that you bring it up as something you personally would like to try.
Avoid direct criticism of how the family is eating its meals, as in, ‘Our family meals are chaos and nobody except me seems to care.’ You are sure to be met with defensive resistance, such as, ‘What’s wrong with the way we eat?’ and ‘Please don’t stand in front of the TV.’
One constructive technique is to simply make a small change yourself, such as lighting a candle or putting on music, and seeing how the others like it. But even better if you can get your spouse to read this blog, and together as allies lead your family dinners in a new direction.
I have to admit how seldom we get my advice in this post right with 5 kids under the age of 8. The percentage of time any topic we bring up devolves into someone crying at the table, talking about poo, claiming another person has stolen their airtime, or pouring their juice on their brother’s food is uncomfortably high. BUT the times we have gotten it right, and everyone remains fully-clothed and in control of their emotions, makes us committed to increasing our hit rate. I suppose it’s only fair to set the bar low when they’re small.
Like most advice I give in my blog, the goal is not perfection but intentionality. Having owned what our meals are currently like, Julie and I ask what we hope our meals will be more like. So doing, we cast a preferred vision of the future that pulls us in a new direction, even if we only inch in that direction at snail-speed, with plenty of setbacks along the way.
Enough theory, let me get practical…
Here are 2 practical ways to 1) enhance conversations and 2) increase fun around the table…
1. Have a list of questions handy.
Every now and then conversation flows freely and naturally.
However, if you’re anything like Julie and I, you will have found that a good convo does not happen at all, or if it does, we tend to get into a rut of asking the same boring questions, and talking about the same things.
There is only so many times we can ask, ‘So how was your day? What did you learn? Did you do anything interesting?’ before kids start to yawn as they provide generic answers to your generic questions.
Then there’s also the fact that no one is asking you as an adult any questions.
Julie and I have found that one of the best ways to get kids talking, and to get kids listening to you, and to keep the conversation fresh is to have a list of good questions at hand. In my house, as people are finishing off their meal, I whip these questions out.
After some brainstorming with Julie, scouring the Internet, and getting ideas from 100s of Facebook friends, I have compiled my own list of 250 dinner questions, which I will share in my next post.
Here is a sample of what’s to come in my next post. I include every 25th question. It’s enough for you to give it a try in your next dinner…
- Q1: If you were an animal, what kind of animal do you think you would be?
- Q25: Tell us the one thing you like most about being you.
- Q50. What’s your most prized possession?
- Q75. Talk about something nice someone did for you this week, or something that made you feel better.
- Q100. Would you rather be the best player on a losing team or the worst player in a winning team?
- Q125: If your pet could talk, what do you think s/he might say?
- Q150: Tell us a story about something that happened today at work/school and another story that you made up about something that happened. We’ll try to guess which is which.
- Q175: Would you rather win an Academy Award or an Olympic Gold Medal?
- Q200: What makes you a good child or parent?
- Q225: In the Spiderman series, Uncle Ben says “With great power comes great responsibility.” What power do you have? What great responsibility comes with it?
- Q250: Would you rather walk the Great Wall of China or along Amazon River?
Two tips: 1) when possible, add the question ‘why’ after they answer. It will get your kids talking even more 2) kids tend to like sharing more than listening, so tell them. ‘We all listened to you, now give us the same gift back.’
There are 3 ways you can use my list of 250 questions…
Put them in a questions jar. Print out the list on paper or cardboard. Cut each question out separately. Each person randomly selects 1, 2 or 3 from a jar. Then go in a circle, as each person reads and answers their question. If they can’t read (like most people in my house) then read it for them. If the level of comprehension is too high, then dumb the question down.
Ask people to say any number from 1-250. Keep a printed or electronic list. They randomly choose a number and you tell them what their question is.
Select the same question or two for everyone to answer. Then use it more as a conversation starter, allowing conversation to flow wherever it flows from there.
2. Play a game from time to time.
Here are 10 games that work around a table. The first 3 are plain fun. The last 7 additionally help us develop our kids in other ways…
Broken telephone. Have one person think of a sentence or phrase, and have him whisper it into the next person’s ear. When the last person hears the phrase, they repeats it to the group, and the person who started the game tells us what it should have been. Last night, Fynn started with ‘I whisper to you’, but by the end of the round it was ‘Teenage mutant poo.’
I spy. Start with one person choosing an object, and saying ‘I spy with my little eye, something…’ and then describing the thing. For example, ‘I spy with my little eye, something… purple!’ The others have to guess what the person is looking at.
Cat and cow. One person at the table is the leader. The leader says either Cat or Cow. When the leader says Cat, the others meow. When the leader says Cow, the others moo. Keep saying Cat and Cow, faster and faster, switching back and forth and making the pattern more and more random until somebody does the wrong thing. Then they’re out. See who lasts the longest. If your kids freak out when they lose then don’t penalize anyone; just play for a minute.
Thanks. This one imbibes gratitude in the family. Go around the table and have each family member share something for which he or she is grateful — but in alphabetical order. In preschoolers, you need to offer the sound of the letter. So maybe you’re thankful for animals, your son is grateful for bananas, and so on. No need to do all 26 letters. Remember the letter you end at so the next meal you can start there in the alphabet.
Feelings. This game deepens emotional intelligence. Have one person leave the table for a minute. Once she leaves, the rest of the family decides on an emotion (or you can pick out of a hat). There are 2 categories of emotions: 1) Negative emotions (when needs are not met): anxious, hostile, angry, annoyed, upset, disappointed, tense, afraid, insecure, confused, helpless, embarrassed, disconnected, sad, shocked, lonely, grieved or heartbroken. 2) Positive ones (when needs are met): exhilarated, inspired, joyful, excited, curious, confident, hopeful, grateful, relaxed, content or relieved.
When the missing family member returns to the table, the rest of the family eats and acts with that feeling in mind. For example, if the emotion is anxious someone might say, ‘I don’t know if I have time to do my homework and there is a knot in my tummy.’ Or you can make it a bit more challenging for older kids by allowing only body language and facial expression to convey emotion.
Holiday. This one flexes the working memory muscle. Complete the sentence, ‘I’m going on a holiday and I’m taking… ‘ The next person repeats what the first person said and adds a word. When kids know the alphabet, each object could start with a subsequent letter.
Creating a story. This one also triggers the working memory. Someone starts a story that mentions a character and a place. The more bizarre the funner. ‘The little cow sat on the moon,’ for example. The next person repeats that line and adds another action. ‘The little cow sat on the moon, and played a giant guitar…’ Round and round you go till the story runs out of steam.
Know the family. This one teaches kids about their family history. Whoever is asking the questions mentions any two people (eg Nana and Grammy; mom and dad) and asks the rest of the table questions to which only one of the two people is the right answer. (Which one got married when she was 19? Which of the two met her husband at a airport? Which has 4 brothers and sisters?)
Food awareness. This one gives people a sense of the story behind each mouthful – the beginning of ecological awareness. Choose a food on your plate and count how many steps were involved in getting it to your table. For example, rewinding your glass of milk’s journey might look like this: table, kitchen, car, shop, truck, distribution site, really big truck, farm, cow.
Picture story. This one quickens the creative muscle. Everyone draw 2 or 3 simple picture of something – each on its own small piece of paper. Then put these drawings in a pile. Each person gets a turn to line the pics up in a random order, and then make up a story, the story-line being determined by the sequence of pictures.
Two tips: 1) Anyone younger than 2,5 tends to be a spectator in these games – but where possible include them. 2) As kids get older, don’t allow a culture of cool to sneak into the family and ruin the fun that silliness can bring. The teen rolls his eyes and says, ‘This is such a childish game’ or your tween sighs, ‘Dad, you’re embarrassing me.’ The best thing to do is to directly confront this, and better yet prevent it, by telling your kids from the earliest age: ‘Kids, out in the big world, you may want to be cool sometimes. But in this family we don’t do cool. We do crazy. Cool is a straitjacket, crazy is air to breathe.’ My kids have bought this hook, line and sinker – I’ve even heard Eli rehearsing this speech to Fynn.
What about you?
In our home, we’re trying to get everyone to sit down at the table to eat together and talk together, and have a great time doing it. Sure, we’d love to teach our kids better table manners, and to get them eating what is on their plate, but we have decided that weaving fun and conversation into the eating experience is more important by a hundred miles.
Why not commit to family dinners, and to bolstering the fun- and conversation-levels with these questions and games. Kids love them, and us parents love it when our kids love sitting at the table talking with us and each other.
Don’t forget my next post of 250 dinner questions. (And if you haven’t yet, like my Facebook page so that you get it in your feed.)
Also published on Medium.