On a warm evening in late April, an unmistakable sense of camaraderie filled the air of the Ford School cafeteria, as families gathered for The Family Dinner Project’s last community dinner event. Parents—many of whom hadn’t known each other before the first community meal in December—hugged and shook hands, asking about the latest updates in each other’s lives. As the adults chatted, their children galloped over to the crafts table, where they made centerpieces out of shells, glass stones and Styrofoam birds.
It was an auspicious start to a friendly, easy-going night. Conversation flowed, lasagna bubbled, and meaningful connections occurred—making this one of The Family Dinner Project’s most successful community meals, yet.
After everyone had arrived, the dinner officially kicked off with a round of “What Am I Thankful For?” Some participants said they were grateful “to be together with [their] families,” while others expressed thanks for being “happy and healthy.” It was a moving way to begin the event, and set the stage for deeper conversations later in the evening.
But first, it was time to make the food! Lasagna was the main dish, and families enjoyed layering the spinach, noodles and ricotta cheese. Thanks to the inherent messiness of the meal, no one worried about getting it “right,” which led to more fun and laughter. The kids also mixed homemade Ranch dressing for the vegetable appetizers, demonstrating that it’s easy to involve children in the dinner-making process.
With the lasagna in the oven, families returned to their tables to snack on salad and play a dinner activity. Our resident family therapist, Dr. Anne Fishel, shared a wonderful game called “List-Making.” To play, one person describes a list (“lipstick, nickel, tissues, and car keys”) and everyone else tries to guess its title (in this case, it’s “What’s Inside My Pocketbook”).
Some hilarious and creative lists came out of this activity, including one child’s offering of “stinky, really smells, and drives.” The answer? “Trash Can.” Another child’s list of “fun, awesome, spectacular” turned out to be “Roller World.”
Next came both the silliest and most substantial parts of the evening. To create an atmosphere that would allow parents to have more in-depth conversations, Project Manager Kelley Johnston guided the children to a different side of the cafeteria, where she led them in a dessert-making session. Using plastic shakers, the kids transformed regular cream into whipped cream, much to their delight.
“At first, they didn’t think it was possible,” said Johnston. “So when it turned into whipped cream, they couldn’t believe it. All of the kids were so excited and thrilled by this magic transformation.”
Meanwhile, parents sat down with FDP Director John Sarrouf, Dr. Anne Fishel and the Public Conversation Project’s Robert Stains for an honest discussion about the joys and challenges of raising children. Sitting in a circle, the adults swapped suggestions for how to handle difficult life situations, and offered tips on making time for family dinner.
“Parents are such innovators,” said Sarrouf. “They are constantly having to improvise, and use their intelligence and intuition to find ways to overcome challenges. When parents come together and share their knowledge, it’s a really powerful thing.”
Fishel then lead a discussion on how to make dinner a special time, free of distractions and tension. One parent, Leah, mentioned that she always takes her children’s phones away before dinner. Participants also brainstormed ideas for life events that could be celebrated with fancier meals, aside from standard occasions like birthdays and holidays.
By this time, everyone was ready to eat, and lasagna was served. The room began to hum with casual conversation and good cheer, which continued as the children presented their families with the whipped cream and berry dessert.
As for the future, Sarrouf says he would like to provide community members with tools to hold Ford School dinner events without outside organizers. Hopefully, through hands-on workshops and digital guides, families will be able to hold community meals like this throughout the year.
For now, The Family Dinner Project offers its deep thanks to the families of Lynn, MA.
“Everyone welcomed us into their community in a such an honest way—it felt very meaningful to us,” said Sarrouf. “I have such a deep appreciation for their care and their openness, and am so grateful that we were able to have these experiences together.”
To end this post on a delicious note, please enjoy our recipes for lasagna and berry dessert!
15 ounces ricotta cheese
1/2 cup parmesan cheese, shredded
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
2 tablespoons fresh basil (optional)
3 garlic cloves, minced (optional)
45 ounces tomato and basil pasta sauce
8 ounces no-boil lasagna noodles
3 cups fresh baby spinach
4 cups mozzarella cheese, shredded
- Heat oven to 375°F.
- Combine Ricotta, eggs, parmesan cheese and 1/2 cup of mozzarella cheese, salt, pepper, basil, and garlic in a bowl.
- Spread about 1 cup of tomato sauce at the bottom of a 13×9 pan.
- Arrange a layer of lasagna noodles, probably 4 noodles will cover the pan. It is fine if they overlap.
- Next layer 1/3 ricotta cheese mixture, 1/3 of the spinach (it will shrink, don’t worry!), 1 cup of mozzarella cheese, layer of pasta sauce (about a cup).
- Repeat layers in this order (noodles, ricotta, spinach, cheese, sauce) twice more.
- Top layer is- final layer of noodles, remaining sauce, and remaining mozzarella.
- Bake covered with aluminum foil for 40-50 minutes. Remove foil and bake 5 minutes longer to brown cheese on top.
- Let stand 5 minutes. Serve. Enjoy!
Kid-Made Whipped Cream with Berries
1 “shaker” with agitator ball
1 pint of icy cold whipping cream
1 dash of confectioners sugar (to taste)
- Pour the whipped cream into your container, filling it half way or less. This will ensure enough room for the cream to grow into whipped cream.
- Hand the container to an enthusiastic kid. Encourage jumping, running, singing, dancing, and rolling on the floor while keeping the cream container in motion.
- Take turns shaking container, checking the cream every few minutes.
- Once the cream has reached appropriate loft, add confectioner’s sugar, 1 tablespoon at a time, shaking to mix it in, until it tastes just right.
- Dollop on berries (or whatever fresh fruit you have). Enjoy!