There’s no doubt about it: Family dinners are important. However, one thing we’ve realized through our work in communities across the country is that family dinner doesn’t happen in a vacuum. External factors often influence, in both positive and negative ways, whether or not families can sit down together for shared meals.
In light of that fact, we’re working harder than ever to reach out to people who are at the intersections where families and the outside world collide. Our newly formed Teacher Network is one way in which we’re strengthening connections with professionals whose hands-on work every day can influence the way families interact. Through the Teacher Network, we’ve become familiar with the work of an inspiring educator, Kim DeRose. Kim’s “Common Table Dinner” program at Little Mill Middle School in Georgia encourages families to share a meal together with the guidance and encouragement of school personnel. We asked her to tell us more about the program and its impact on her school community.
Tell us about your program and how you got started.
Common Table Dinner is a series of monthly meet-while-we-eat workshops for families at our school. While doing research to begin our Title I Parent Engagement Program at LMMS, we found information that showed that one of the most enriching home experience for families at home is having meals together as a family. This is where conversations happen about school – both about academics and social experiences that the kids have during the day. With middle school families being so busy with sports, clubs and other extra curricular events, we surveyed our families and found out that there were few opportunities to have dinner together during the week. Additionally, when it did happen, it was a quick meal sandwiched in between activities.
We realized that we needed to give our families a chance to practice sitting around a dinner table without technology and actually practicing having conversation. Using guidance and research from The Family Dinner Project, we printed out conversation starters, put out table cloths and cooked crockpots full of food and – voila!
What are some of the most positive changes you’ve seen as a result of offering the program? What do parents and students say about it?
Since we began our program, we have seen families come together often bringing extended family along with them. We have seen that parents are making an effort to join around the table at least twice a week to catch up on happenings in the lives of their kids. One Dad told me, “Thanks to what I have been getting at Common Table, I finally have something to add to the conversation at dinnertime!”
Overall, parents are surprised to see a school setting that has been made to look like a family dining room. They enjoy that we use a theme each month – sometimes seasonal and sometimes surrounding the topic for the month. We have had families come to school who have never before attended a family event. Parents are especially appreciative that they can feed their families while they learn in a workshop format.
Have there been any challenges in offering Common Table Dinners?
Well, the topics aren’t always as attractive as we hoped and sometimes we only have three families in attendance. Additionally, it’s not always easy to come up with the food for the crowd, though making taco meat for 50 families is an adventure! We would love to be able to have sponsorship for the meals each month to be able to put out a menu for the entire year.
What’s next? Do you have any future plans to expand on the program?
The future of our Common Table series is very promising. We are now hoping to expand to family breakfasts on Saturday mornings as we have had a great group of a dozen or so families who are unable to attend evenings due to work schedules. We are currently exploring how this might work.
The “Common Table” series is a strong example of how schools and communities can work to support families in having more frequent and meaningful meals. We’re proud to be a resource for Kim’s work in her school, and we look forward to seeing how Little Mill Middle School continues to grow in its advocacy for positive family interactions!
Whether you’re a parent, teacher, or school administrator, we invite you to learn more about our Teacher Network and related efforts by joining us for an upcoming Twitter chat on Keeping Kids Healthy at Home and School. The chat will be held on February 19, 2015 at 8 p.m. Eastern Time, using the hashtag #fdpteachers. To learn about joining our Teacher Network to receive regular updates and participate in a community of like-minded educators, or to find out more about how you can start a program to encourage family meals in your school community, contact Paromita De at paromita_de(at)thefamilydinnerproject(dot)org.