Harvard Graduate School of Education Logo

Not Fine Dining, but Good Enough

The logistical, culinary, and conversational challenges of navigating the tricky terrain of the family dinner table

November 17, 2014
family dinner

There is the idealized family dinner — laughter, swapped tales of “best parts and worst parts,” nutritious main courses speedily prepared, surprising sides, warm lighting — and then there is the reality. The rushed, bland, cranky, non-scintillating, fluorescent-lit reality.

In our house, we continually aspire to defy the odds and achieve the ideal. This school year, we’ve made family dinner a thing — a nonnegotiable. We’ve become intrepid navigators of the rocky terrain between 5:30 and 7 p.m., when most children (and many adults) are at their very least likely to fill the role of charming table-mate. And we’re not alone; parenting and cooking blogs have been percolating all fall with just-do-it encouragement.

I’ll confess: Most of the time it’s not pretty. Leaving aside the logistical and culinary challenges of getting food and family to the table at the same time, each day, it turns out that conversation is often our biggest stumbling block. Typical table talk follows one of three paths: monologue from child about favorite Star Wars Lego figures, with questions about plot of unseen Star Wars movies; monologue from one parent or other about minor indignity of work day; inquisition from one parent to child about every aspect of child’s school day, met with monosyllables and grunts.

And yet I know that it’s important and good that we are — at the very least — sitting there together. We’re not only creating habits of intimacy, trust-building, and health, but, according to the The Family Dinner Project, we’re also laying the groundwork for success in school and helping to build qualities like resilience and self-esteem in our son. Some research has also linked family meals to lower rates of substance abuse, teen pregnancy, eating disorders, and depression.

But one of the most interesting notions underpinning the work of The Family Dinner Project (FDP), which falls under the Project Zero umbrella at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, is that mealtime can nurture ethical thinking. On its highly usable, parent-friendly website, the FDP offers a series of conversation starters to foster connection on topics big and small, across all stages of childhood. These prompts meet kids where they are, but they also allow (and compel) parents to engage, to flex their own conversational muscles.

A quick sampling of questions that may spark discussion at your table:

  • If you were a teacher and could teach your students anything at all, what would you teach them?
  • If you were free to do anything you wanted all day, what would you do?
  • What is the most difficult transition you’ve experienced in your lifetime?
  • Who is the most generous person you can think of, and why are they generous?
  • Dream up a superhero dedicated to giving. What is his or her name, and what do they do?
  • Can adults be bullies? How?

These simple openers can get to the heart of what matters in kids’ lives. They offer a way to know your children — and to be known yourself — on a new and more neutral ground. They shed light on your children’s aspirations, on who they are and how they operate in the world beyond you. They allow everyone to explore hopes and values, with none of the usual preaching to a decidedly bored choir.

And you might even find a way to get beyond the monosyllables.

Read about the Family Dinner Project’s new #GivingTuesday campaign — an initiative to encourage conversations about giving during the holiday season. On December 2, 2014, take part in the campaign by sharing ideas and photos following at #familydinnerforward.

About the Author

Photo of Bari Walsh
Bari Walsh
Bari Walsh is the senior editor of Usable Knowledge.
See More From This Author
See More In
Parenting and Community Social-Emotional Wellbeing