Family Dinner Conversations
How to enjoy talking at table with your kids
Good family dinners are warm, sharing, happy occasions - an everyday holiday.
Memories are built here. Affection is strengthened. Healthy food is made, eaten, enjoyed, talked about. EVERYTHING gets talked about. Really, really terrible jokes are told. Laughed at too. Because nothing is funnier than a family in-joke, the kind you have to explain to outsiders.
Parents have always suspected that these dinner conversations were important, if only for the desperate lessons in table manners - "Twirl, honey, twirl! Don't braid spaghetti into your hair!" But recent social research proves just HOW important, linking regular family meals with the behaviors parents want to encourage in their kids: higher grades, self-respect and respect for others (plus good eating habits), while reducing likelihood of the scary stuff like drug use, teen pregnancy, and depression.
Yet (depressing news) just as experts announce "Family Meal Saves All!!" - - - It's getting harder and harder to have one. Today's world just does not make it easy to regularly schedule the sort of Norman Rockwell meal we wish we had instead of fast-food-in-the-car-on-the-way-to-T-ball-practice-Daddy-will-be-late-
What to talk about? How to create the back and forth of conversation? How to get the quiet kid started...?
This Lens will try to help.
How often does tabletalk happen?
It's hard to get everyone to the table together to eat, much less to have actual, you know, like, conversations. But it seems important somehow.
Does your family meet for dinner often?
Starting a Conversation
It's called "breaking bread" but sometimes it's the conversation that seems broken: it limps along pitifully, a sort of Kids' Limbo with mac-n'-cheese. Asking the bored third-grader, "How did school go today?" probably won't fix it.
Instead, try asking, "What was the weirdest thing at school today?" Ask, "What's the worst joke you know?" Because it's a kid's job to bring real groaner puns and elephant jokes to the table. (When I used to tell mine, my parents would say, "You saw Friend X today, didn't you?" I was amazed at their intuition! But Friend X had a subscription to Bad Jokes Monthly.) The best table conversation includes a lot of laughter.
Keep questions light and casual: this isn't an inquisition (they had that at school) this is friendly chat. Talk about your own adult day - but be mindful of your young audience and make it as snappy, funny, or dramatic as possible. Anecdotes are story-telling. After desert adults can lapse into grownup-boring, after the kids are excused from listening. Though if you wax philosophical, older kids may just join in. (Score!)
In fact, as your children grow older, the conversation will shift into more thoughtful territory.
Discuss the news and issues of the day. Ask which super power they'd choose to have and why? Or what they'd want with them if shipwrecked. Discuss topics important to you. Discuss books, movies, favorite music and art. Good questions get asked. It helps to have a couple reference books on hand to instantly research questions that come up (nowadays maybe this insta-expert is an iPhone). With teens you can have spirited debates - which is great! You'll just need to teach 'em young how to have a CIVIL debate. (Then teach the rest of the world, please!)
"- - - kids who did well didn't just eat dinner with families. They ate dinner with families that maintained complex conversation, rich with explanation, storytelling and more."
Alix Spiegel NPR
The classic "How was school today?" is also the original lead balloon. So what ELSE can you ask?
1) What was the weirdest thing that happened at school today?
2) What was your favorite class? Why?
3) How did that test/project/class trip/ (gotta keep track!) turn out?
As much as possible, you want to keep up with your child's progress at school and its cast of characters, so you can ask for details - with real curiosity, but not pushy - until your scholar begins to expand on their day.
You also want tie school learning to the real world. Compare history lessons with daily news or family history, combine geography class with vacation trips, or use new math skills to help measure flour for pancakes or new carpet for the bedroom. Show that this stuff can be useful!
4) Ask about favorite books and films, then discuss the characters and their actions or decisions.
5) Ask about things seen or done during vacations. Discuss living in different places or times. For instance, if that last family trip was through the Old West... what would life be like as a cowboy or a pioneer woman or a Spanish conquistador or the native american who met them?
Here's the single question that leads to the best discussions:
6) Ask "What if...?"
"What if...?" could be about anything! What if suddenly we were living in France. (Or on Mars.) What if you were invisible? Or super strong? Able to fly? (Great questions after watching any super hero movie: what would you do if you had those super powers?")
"What it...?" expands the imagination and raises great questions about the way the world works... can open the door to priceless discussions of moral and ethical behavior.
Table Talk - Fun Conversations (and hard ones)
Aids to getting a conversation going.
Need More Topics?
Here are a hundred and fifty of them...
- Family Activities - 150 family dinner discussion topics
Gotta be something interesting for Your family in here...
- Dr. Laura Markham
Some good topics.
- Real Simple magazine - family conversation starters
A nifty spin-the-wheel starter tool!
Talking about Pop Culture
Ever since some Roman parent complained it was impossible to talk to their child ("Circuses! Bread and circuses - that's all modern youth talk of!"), parents have had a hard time:
a) keeping up with
b) taking seriously or
c) approving of youth culture.
("Culture?" we snort. "Trash!") This is a perfectly natural adult opinion and about 75% of why youth likes what it likes. Nevertheless, it's wise for a parent to know a little bit about the latest enthusiasms and its IMPORTANT to show a certain respect toward your child's taste. Some pop culture is trash and will be forgotten - as a lot of things from our youth or our great-grandparents' youth has been - but there is valuable stuff too. Handel's Messiah was once pop culture (and a scandal). Norman Rockwell was pop - so was Charles Dickens and opera and jazz and "your" song. But some of this culture will turn out to be important (like the Beatles) or sentimental to your child for the rest of their life.
So maybe you just ask, "What do you like about Justin Bieber [or fill-in-the-blank]?" Then listen just as politely as you would at the office party after you've asked the VP's spouse, "Tell me, what is it you like best about karaoke anaconda-wrestling?"
You may end up with a cool new favorite song.
And, by the way, the pop culture thing starts YOUNG. My toddler pleaded for days for a toy like one little buddy's; he managed to get across to us the idea that it'd come from Burger King (I think) but after that he lost us - - - The "dwedded sweader?" There's a Dreaded Sweater toy? We shook our heads. Youth today! But eventually we realized that he was lisping "Dreaded Shredder," the villain from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. A little research showed us that the turtles were sorta funny. We got the freebie toy. Afterwards, we had a lot of dinner conversation about those heroic Testudines and their Rattus sensei. (Later, we were grateful he'd picked the Turtles - sparing us from Power Rangers or Teletubbies, if not from baking a "sewer" birthday cake with gray icing. Try coloring THAT sometime.)
Besides, what a perfect opening to talk about the original Michelangelo, Leonardo, and Raphael and to lug big, fat art books to put on the table between the gravy and the dreaded brussel sprouts?
Talking About the News
Obviously this has to be geared to the age of your children, but it's valuable to talk about the issues of the day. Tie these to things your children know about, for instance, if tax cuts are discussed in the morning paper, talk about public services like libraries or streets. Ask the kids where, if they set policy, they'd spend tax dollars. A way to introduce the idea of budgets - for governments, families, or kids' pocket money.
Let them know what you think about things! Just make sure the talk stays pleasant and low-key.
Links to articles and research
(The quote above comes from the first NPR article.)
- "The Family Dinner Deconstructed" - NPR
A discussion with experts about recent research on the influence of family dinners
- "The Magic of the Family Meal" - Time Magazine
Another discussion of the importance of table talk - with the good observation that more private conversation times may come in the car or where there's less eye contact.
- "Background: Research on Family Meals" - WSU Nutrition Education
A link to the RESEARCH itself, plus interpretation.
- "The Guilt-trip Casserole:The Family Dinner" - NY Times
An interesting spin on the family-meal research
- "Is the Family Dinner Overrated?"
A Times article looking at the scientific studies about the family dinner effect.
- "8 Reasons to Make Time for Family Dinner"
This www.health.com article spells out a number - 8! - of good reason to eat together.
(Don't roll you eyes, it's rude.)
Table manner nagging seems boring - until you meet the kid who never had any. True story: a second grader ostracized by his peers because of his gross eating style. Turns out, his Mom had always left him alone in the kitchen with his food. So his teacher spent every lunch that year with him - starting by explaining what a spoon was for. Really.
Setting the Table
Creating a routine
Family meals don't happen, they're planned.
ROUTINE - It doesn't have to be dinner (though that's a meal you might linger over), but breakfast, lunch, or dinner, it must be scheduled as a regular nigh-but-unbreakable commitment for every member of the family. Busy as we all are, it may have to be late. If they have a sustaining, healthy snack after school, even quite little kids can last till a late dinner when Mom, Dad, or whichever straggler can be there too. (In my family it was 7:00 o'clock dinner when Dad got home.) But make it dependable. Fit the meal around the gotta-happen stuff (T-ball practice, PTA) but stick to that table-time.
SYSTEM - Create a method that works in your particular family for sharing out the work of getting a meal together. One adult - with child help maybe - cooks, while someone else may set the table, fetch plates, pour drinks, fold napkins, take out trash etc. Hand out jobs according to children's ages and skills and interests.
STIR UP THE ROUTINE - Encourage the children to bring home friends for dinner. Barbecue and/or eat outdoors. Have home-made (or bought) Pizza Night. Generally speaking, the last thing you want on at dinner is the television, but a rare TV night can be fun and keeps family dinner from being too rigid: schedule a family watching (film or show) and make a big deal out of it by spreading out a blanket on the living room floor and having a rug picnic. Randomly have some little theme or event - birthdays and major holidays, of course - but also silly ones like Talk Like a Pirate Day or impromptu "Lets put fall leaves on the table!" moments.
DECORATE - Let kids take turns decorating the table. Looking around the house and garden for "decorations" is fun and educates the eye, teaching improvisation. (A handy life-skill, that.) Use a basket of apples as a centerpiece; flowers; a cluster of candles; red, white & blue anythings; or a Lego castle. Let one child find dinner music. (There's a conversation topic: "Why Heavy Metal disturbs digestion.") Or create "mood" lighting. (Kids love Christmas lights - why not a few on the table? Or a lava lamp? A conversation starter!)
TABLEWARE - Tableware can spark conversations. Use great-aunt's bowl and talk about her as you pass the potatoes. Use the Mexican plate or the French souffle dish and talk about that country. (I once heard a French family at a famous French restaurant go on for twenty lively minutes about a fork. Really.) Pay attention to presentation. Food just flat tastes better when it's nicely served. This doesn't mean fancy or expensive, just thought about, because you can improvise things (a banana leaf plate for Hawaiian chicken!) or find great colored/shaped/patterned dishes to fit any budget (more on that later).
GO GREEN - There's also a chance to go Green with your tableware: buy fair-trade crafts from emerging countries; buy china at thrift stores (great vintage finds sometimes); use cloth napkins. It turns out that washing cloth napkins (not ironing, ick! squash 'em flat!) is more eco-friendly than using paper ones. You'll still want paper for Barbecue Night, but cloth ones will last several days if you use personal, distinctive napkin rings to keep each family member's napkin marked. That's why rings were invented. Here's another kid-friendly part of a family meal - shopping for and choosing their own napkin ring and then, very importantly, being in charge of picking the clean napkins (which color? which pattern?) and putting them with the right ring at the right chair. A young child can get a lot of satisfaction out of that job.
- Remember that listening is as important as talking.
- Keep the mood pleasant, loving, often playful.
- Ask questions - and be interested in the answers!
- Be kind and respectful. Try to see the other's point of view. (The picture? Behave NOT LIKE THAT!) Discussion, not argument, right?
- Take turns. Don't let anyone monopolize the talk.
- Make sure the youngest gets their turn.
- Get the "quiet one" started.
- Parents lead and keep order, but save laying down the law for another time. Like the King and Queen, aim to be the first among equals while at the table. (Unless, of course, the talk goes like in the picture!)
Getting Kids to Eat
"No! You can't have fruit roll-up for dinner again."
Toddlers are famously picky eaters. So are teens. So, for that matter, are many adults.
There will, inevitably, be fusses over the food now and then, but the trick is to institute rules about trying foods you're not crazy about YOUNG. Much less fuss at fourteen, if the four year old learned to try everything. (This start-young technique works in almost any arena.) Adults have to show how this is done. Dad uncomplainingly grills squash once in a while because Mom likes it - or Mom cooks fish for Dad ditto. They take turns picking pizza toppings.
Sure you try to plan many meals your children will like, but adults eat too and should have their tastes consulted. The only way kids can learn to like adult food is to eat it. Who invented this "kids' food" nonsense anyway? Resist the impulse to cook separate meals except as required by serious food allergies. It's best to put a variety of food on the table, including one dish you know even your pickiest eater likes. For instance, meatloaf, mashed potatoes, corn, and broccoli. Or maybe bratwurst, rye bread, sauerkraut, and apple sauce. Whatever you cook, in most families green stuff has few fans. But everyone likes spuds. Family rules would require a small serving of green or sauerkraut be EATEN and the pickiest can fill up on potatoes or rye bread. No green? No pudding, or no getting down from the table, or extra dish scraping or whatever.
The very best way to get your kid to eat a food is to get them interested in its cooking. A child takes proprietary interest in carrots he scraped or apples she cored - and will often not just eat them, but advocate for them with their siblings!
Getting Kids to Eat - Picky eaters explored - - -
- "A Guide to the Family Dinner" - Business Week
a good discussion of the "picky eater" problem
- "Family dinner and diet quality among older children and adolescents" - Harvard Medical School
Diet quality and the family meal.
Ask your child what he wants for dinner only if he's buying.
Cooking With Kids
The trick is to know your child and to start out cooking with simple preparation of a foods they like. Start by spreading peanut butter and jelly. Thank them for "cooking" you a sandwich. Go on to simple (careful) cutting - carrots or apples or cheese. Using cookie cutters to make cheese -slice shapes is fun. Making cookies is classic. Mix pancake batter and cook them. Scramble eggs. Make perfect toast. If you think about it, there are many parts of cooking even elaborate recipes that a handy child could help with.
And as you cook together, talk. Discuss the shapes of green peppers as you cut them: diced into green (or red) squares, slices that are slightly wedged, or cross-sectioned into sort of clover shapes. This stuff is important! Chefs and artists pay attention to sights, smells, sounds (green pepper has a juicy crunch as its cut). In fact, at architect Frank Lloyd Wright's studio, apprentices were quizzed on how, most aesthetically, to slice a pepper. Talk about the gooeyness of eggs and how their long-chain DNA molecules make them stringy-sticky and hold together cookie dough. Talk about thumping watermelons. Talk!
Another Horrifying True Story
A friend pushed her baby around the produce department.
"Banana-nanas! Anna wanna banana-nana?" Normal silly Mom-talk. She met a friend also pushing a baby round the fruit - but in stoney silence. The first mother said, "Sounds goofy, huh?"
"What's the point? They can't answer." Mom # 2 trundled silently away.
Maybe her child might be a tad slow to learn to talk?
Please do talk silly with your kids - talk sensibly too. It's all good. Likewise, reading is a worthwhile thing and while stories are absolutely great (a daily dose of fiction!), it can't hurt to demonstrate the usefulness of non-fiction too. Why should kids think it's all textbooks? If several pages of your favorite cookbook aren't glued together by squashed raisins - - - you're missing a lot of fun!
Yes, things will get a lot messier, but it can be a great time for everyone involved. And cooking together can create lessons and topics for family discussion, like:
- What makes "good" food or a "good" meal? Discuss diet and health; define (discourage!) junk food; and what is the ART of cooking? That last topic can last a (very tasty) lifetime.
- Where does food come from? Discuss farming, food preparation, and distribution. This is a perfect time to air your views on conventional versus organic gardening and ethical treatment of animals. Do a little research and the topic leads to all sorts of fascinating world history topics: try researching just, say, "salt." Did you know some salt comes from evaporating seawater and some from mines deep in the earth? That's salt left over from ancient seas. Did you know it used to be very expensive? So valuable that people were sometimes paid their wages in salt? (Where the word "salary" comes from.) It had social importance too - at a medieval lord's table, the fancy, titled folk sat "above the salt" and the just-folks sat below it. This salt would have stood in an elaborate dish - you can see beautiful examples in museums today. There's a field trip! Now look up "pepper"!
- Cultural or religious dietary restrictions and traditions. Discuss family and ethnic food traditions and the meanings of holidays.
- Physical skills, which can start with how to peel a carrot or how to handle a hot pot or a knife safely and effectively. Talk about safety (and throw in the playing-with-matches talk as you light the barbecue grill). Continue learning kitchen skills and chatting until you're whipping up chocolate souffles together. There's a lot to talk about around a souffle: how beating mixes eggs with air, and why that makes the heated mixture rise; where this cheese we're grating came from (either cow or country!); why we have to be quiet around a rising souffle and the science of sound; or why it's polite for guests to be on time, lest the souffle fall.
- Math skills, like counting and measuring teaspoons or cups; adding or subtracting as you adapt recipe sizes; or converting metric and English measurement units.
- Science skills, like why salt melts ice, how baking soda works, or why that chocolate souffle expands. There's definitely something Mad Scientist-ish about your bread dough rising, "It's alive! It's Aliiiive!!"
- Life skills like comparison shopping and handling money and budgets. Or, for that matter, the social skills of taking turns, sharing, learning self-restraint and being able to say "No." (Or "yes" when the question is, "Who'll take out the trash?") Chores are a life-skill, yes?
Grandma's Mixing Bowls
One of the great joys of family cooking is the link it makes between your child and your own childhood - between all the generations that have made this cookie recipe together, or mixed up Sunday pancake batter, or stirred blueberries into that batter.
What better mixing bowl to use than one of these? Just like generations of cooks have used.
Help Your Child Invent a Recipe
Nothing is going to make your child eat his veggies like preparing a salad he invented himself! Or a veggie-soup she concocted herself. Obviously, parents are helping here some (or it might be chocolate soup.) But maybe not as much as you'd think.
The recipe above is warranted genuine Kid-Created - an attempt to match a favorite in a restaurant we knew. It's a pretty tasty salad/meal, popular with most children. (Think it's the pepperoni? Nah.)
There are lots of variations to standard recipes that a child could successfully invent. For instance, lots of things could get squashed into the center of a grilled cheese sandwich - bits of ham would taste good, bits of tomato might be (sssshhh!) healthy. The world could use another potato salad recipe. Fancy scrambled eggs? Almost anything goes with egg. Experiment.
I am an absolute sucker for animal kitchen tools. I own the hedgehog and octopus scrubbers - the hedgehog is too big for most jobs, but I love his redness best so he lives by the faucet, the octopus is a very useful plate scraper. I smile every time I use him. At the moment, frankly, I'm barely restraining myself from buying the toucan can opener - - -
Our Buddy the Tuna
Make tuna salad together. Move on to tuna melts - tuna salad on a toasted English muffin with cheese on top, melted in the toaster oven or under the broiler. Use basically the same tuna salad mixture added to cooked macaroni to make pasta salad.
Turn this idea into a sort of festival: see how many different recipes you and the kids can find or make using one particular ingredient - eggs or tomatoes are particularly flexible, but any ingredient could work. Choose a seasonal vegetable or fruit; newspapers often feature recipes for in-season produce. You could start your research there, then go on to online and the library, talking about each good (and bad) suggestion you find. More talk at dinner as you present your entry to the on-going food fest.
The food is very important, but it's the talk that can last.
The poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese.
Links to Other Family Dinner Sites
- Families With Purpose
Links to sites on meal planning, conversation starters and more.
- Family Dinner Conversation
Starter questions to get the talk going.
- Family Day Tools
Word games and starter questions
- Susan Stiffelman Column
An interview with Laurie David about family dinners
- Family Discussion Topics
Even more talk topics (150?)
- The Family Dinner Project
A grassroots effort to recognize and support the Family Dinner
- Family Dinner Kit
Materials to jazz up a family conversation time.
- Cooking with Kids
Ideas, recipes, all sorts of good info.
Take Out Your Calendar
Schedule a family meal
Write it in in ink. Red ink.
Start small, just add one firm date to the calendar, one meal when no-matter-what you all sit down together to eat. Keep adding until this becomes the usual. It can seem very hard to make this work, but if you stick with it, you'll find it become routine. Self-perpetuating. You'll even catch your kid on the phone telling a friend, "I have to be home for dinner. How 'bout after? Or - come eat here!" That's a victory.
And if they add, "I'm cooking spaghetti." That's a gold medal!
Other Kitchen Helpers
A favorite silly hot-mitt (perfect for chasing kids round kitchens with, the Lobster Claw o' Doom, Matie!) Plus sensible stools for short cooks and toy stoves for keeping-company.
Dining Table - What single piece of furniture best stands for "family"?
Think of it as a symbol of the togetherness that makes a family - all that nurturing, we're-in-this-together-ness - - - (Hint: what Lens are you reading?)
The family table. Mothers especially can get all sentimental about that table. After all their children grow up at it and they (it's usually Mom) have served that furniture for years, serving one meal after another, taking care of their family. Aren't money-earning parents called "bread-winners"? We talk about working to "put food on the table."
So let's make it a table worthy of the fuss, huh?
Mahogany, antiques, family heirlooms all good. But so is a good, solid, plain - but graceful - pine table like this.
Home Cooking: archaic? or futuristic?
What's your opinion on home cooking? It is a lost art or is it being rediscovered?
I hope this Lens has been helpful. Please let me know what I should add.