School is back in session. And if you read my back-to-school post, then you know how I feel about it.
It’s a mixed bag.
For our family, a new school year brings a whole host of exciting things. My kids are always the most excited about new teachers. New friends. New classes. And new supplies. But a new school year also brings a certain level of anxiety. Because each year, we get a new schedule, a new routine, and a new (and heightened) set of expectations.
Paired with the fact that back-to-school happens at the same time as the kick-off of fall extracurricular activities, the average family is in for a busy season filled not just with excitement, but with challenges.
For us, the sheen of a new school year wears off quickly as we settle into the new routine of an old, familiar grind.
This busyness is a threat.
Because it has the potential to squeeze out the most important things. Like spending time with God, investing in our marriages, and nurturing our families. And family mealtime?
Forget about it.
It’s too daunting to think about.
But it’s important.
One of the best books I’ve read on the topic of family is The Secrets of Happy Families by Bruce Feiler. In that book, Feiler cites a recent wave of research showing that children who eat dinner with their families are less likely to drink, smoke, do drugs, get pregnant, commit suicide, and develop eating disorders. Other benefits of family mealtime include larger vocabularies, better manners, healthier diets, and higher self-esteem. (The Secrets of Happy Families, pg. 35.)
Yet more and more, families are eating together less and less. Because getting a meal on the table is challenging enough. To time it perfectly so we all sit down together and break bread?
That’s asking too much.
How in the world do we squeeze family meals in on top of all this crazy?
The answer to that question should look different for every family. Because the only way to succeed with family mealtime is to find something that works within the context of each family’s unique schedule. Though we don’t have this down perfectly, I was inspired by The Secrets of Happy Families to think outside the box to come up with a system that would work within our context.
This requires some planning and coordination, including trading some dinners for breakfasts. And I thought about writing a post to share with you all of our tips for getting regular, hot meals on the table. But the intent of this post is not to give you grocery shopping tutorials and cooking lessons. Because I don’t think the results of the research cited in The Secrets of Happy Families has anything to do with the quality of the food being put on the table.
(Take a deep breath, fellow whole food eaters. I’m with you on the importance of healthy eating. I’m just stating I don’t think the menu is why kids who eat with their families tend to struggle less.)
Instead, I think it has everything to do with what happens after a family sidles up to the dinner table together.
The breaking of bread and building of community.
There’s just something about food, isn’t there?
Kory and I notice it, not just with our kids, but in ministry settings too. The best way to break the ice and lay the groundwork for good conversation is to feed people. To nurture their physical bodies so they can shift focus to their spiritual needs. To share that amazing recipe for turkey and white bean chili and ooey gooey cheese bread to get people talking. To find common ground.
The love of good food begins the makings of connection.
It was true in the Acts 2 church.
It’s true in Bible study.
And it’s true in our families.
Breaking bread together slows us down. It helps us relax. It lowers our defenses. And it draws us out.
Food changes everything.
But I don’t care if you function in the kitchen like a chef at a Michelin five-star restaurant or my four-year-old son. I don’t care if you’re serving PB&J’s or your interpretation of Julia Child’s Beef Bourginon (made only with locally sourced and grass-fed ingredients, of course).
You’re laying the groundwork for magic to happen if you can get your family to the table together.
But what do you do once you get there?
Will the conversation naturally flow?
But other times…
So when the crickets chirp, here are six things we do to get the conversation flowing at the dinner table. Because I’m not going to all this work only to leave the table without good conversation!
Ask Specific Questions
I learned quickly that when my kids jump in the car after school, and I ask them, “How was your day?,” I’m going to get a stock “It was good” response 100% of the time. But if I ask them specific questions, they will usually elaborate. Which often leads to more questions. Which often leads to more elaboration. And then, voila!
We have a
deposition conversation going.
Some of the most fruitful questions I ask include:
What were three highlights from your day?
Did you learn anything new?
Who did you eat lunch with?
What did you do in P.E.?
Did you play with friends during recess?
Is there anything you didn’t understand?
Did you make a new friend?
Did anything funny happen?
Is there anything exciting coming up the rest of the week?
When I take the time to ask specific questions, even if I get a “yes” or “no” response, it’s a start. I can always press in for more details once I know where I can take the conversation. This works equally well at the dinner table, so start with specific questions.
I love conversation cards. Because they work. You can find them geared towards just about any age group and topic. But I love the Faith Edition Family Dinner Box of Questions from Melissa & Doug for mealtime conversation:
These work great with kids. But they also work with adults. In fact, recently, I used these conversation cards with grown women at several women’s ministry dinners I hosted over the summer, and they were a huge hit. The questions are thoughtful, appropriate for any age, and the catalyst for great conversation.
Highs and Lows
This activity is good for any night of the week, but it’s particularly good when you know (or suspect) that someone has had a bad day. All you do is ask each member of the family to take turns sharing one “high” and one “low” about their day and spend a few minutes talking about what each family member shares. My kids will often say they don’t have a “low,” and that’s OK. I don’t want to force them into pessimism. But giving them the opportunity to share what might be going on in their hearts is important. The dinner table should be a safe place for vulnerability, and this is a great way to open the door.
I stumbled on these Dinner Games a few years ago. My kids adore them:
Some of the games are just silly fun. Others involve more of a conversation starter such as sharing things about your family heritage or childhood. But either way, these activities are great ice breakers. And ice breakers lead to good conversation. Almost always. (These are also a great way to regain control of the dinner table when the tribe is getting restless and putting their feet on the table…For those of you who have that problem. Ahem.)
Three Things We’re Thankful For
Similar to Highs and Lows, but with a different focus, three things we’re thankful for is a great conversation starter. The title is pretty descriptive, but for those of you still wiping the sleepy out of your eyes, during this exercise, each member of the family shares three things they’re thankful for. Pretty complicated, eh? Not only will this give you some fodder for conversation, but it also shifts the focus to gratitude. Never a bad thing.
The Affirmation Game
In this exercise, the focus is on “edifying and building up” each member of the family. (1 Thessalonians 5:11). There are various ways in which you can approach this exercise. But the idea is always the same. To get family members to share something (or a few things) they appreciate about another member of the family. You can direct the conversation to include sharing about the person on your left or right, or time permitting, each person can take a few minutes to share something they appreciate about every member of the family. Not only will this lead to conversation, but it will strengthen the bonds of family and build confidence through affirmation.
There are fewer things more important than family mealtime. But don’t beat yourself up if you’re unable to make it happen every night of the week. I think this is nearly impossible in our day and time.
(We certainly don’t reach that benchmark.)
It’s also no reason to throw in the towel.
Instead, assess your family’s schedule, identify the meals where the likelihood is high you can be together, and schedule family meals on the calendar like you would schedule a meeting or important appointment.
Then go for it!
My guess is that you’ll do better than you think once you have a plan in place.
So good luck!
May the conversation flow.
And may the crickets (and feet on the table) be forever banned.