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Podcast Episode 1: Home for the Holidays?

Posted on: December 13th, 2023 by Bri DeRosa

We’re thrilled to announce the launch of our latest venture: The Family Dinner Project Podcast! In each of our 30-minute episodes, Content Manager Bri DeRosa and Executive Director Dr. Anne Fishel will talk through tough topics related to family meals. Pull up a chair and grab a plate — we’re serving up real talk about family dinner!

In Episode 1, “Home for the Holidays?” we dig into the tricky question of what to do when gathering with family for the holidays feels complicated. Will there be tension at the dinner table? Political or ideological differences that make it hard to stay merry? Does it even feel safe to go home for the holidays?

Dr. Fishel shares strategies and advice from her decades of experience in family therapy. From neutralizing tension with smart ideas for games and conversation starters that distract from differences, to offering wisdom and solace for families who are dealing with estrangement this holiday season, she offers plenty of ways to make the holidays work for you, no matter what your family dynamics look like. She and Bri also delve into pop culture with a discussion of the viral Christmas dinner episode of Hulu’s The Bear. (No wonder Carmy didn’t want to go home for the holidays!) They wrap up the conversation with their recommendations for holiday food (latkes), fun (a holiday dinner scavenger hunt), and conversation (Who do you wish could join us for the holidays, who isn’t present this year?). Whether you’re looking forward to a family holiday celebration this year, or just trying to survive a complicated season, we’ve got ideas you can use.

Episode Transcript:

Episode 1: Home for the Holidays?

Anne Fishel: Welcome to the Family Dinner Project podcast, produced by the Family Dinner Project, a non profit program based at Massachusetts General Hospital’s Psychiatry Academy. Decades of research show us why family dinners are important. They’re great for the bodies, the brains, and the mental health of kids and adults.

Bri DeRosa: But they’re not always easy. We’re here to talk about the messy business of how to make family dinners happen. So pull up a chair and grab a plate. We’re serving up real talk about family dinner.

Welcome to the Family Dinner Project podcast. I’m Bri DeRosa, content manager for the Family Dinner Project. 

Anne Fishel: I’m Anne Fishel, the co founder and executive director of The Family Dinner Project, and I’m also a family therapist, which may come in handy today. I head up the family and couples therapy program also, at Mass General Hospital.

Bri DeRosa: I feel like you being a family therapist is definitely going to come in handy today, Annie, given the topics that we have on the table for this episode. I just want to give our listeners a little bit of an overview of why we started this podcast. This is our first episode and we’re so happy to be here.

The Family Dinner Project has been providing online and in person resources to families since. Gosh, 2010. I mean, it’s been a really long time, and we’ve had millions of people come to our website. We’ve helped thousands and thousands of families in person at our community programs. We’ve developed lots of resources, print, online, all kinds of things.

But it’s really limiting sometimes to just be writing or creating graphics and not always be able to really have an honest conversation about some of the things that people really want us to talk about. We hear from folks all the time about things that are bothering them or things that they’d like more help with.

And so this podcast is our way of trying to dig a little bit deeper into some of the things about the how of family dinner that can just be so, so tricky for people. So. Given, given that framing, today is December…December 4th, and we are recording and getting ready for a holiday season coming up. And Annie, you, as a family therapist, know better than anyone that the holidays can be tricky. And family dinner at the holidays can be beyond tricky, I guess is what I want to say.

So, I want to ask you, how do we, when people are trying to gather for big family dinners, holidays, celebrations. How do we keep kind of tension low and keep everyone having fun and feeling engaged, even when maybe not everyone gets along all the time? 

Anne Fishel: Yeah, it’s a challenge. I think expectations run really high at holidays, and we come with so much history usually.

And I think that the familiar trope of feeling that when you go home, you suddenly become a person much younger than your actual age as you kind of fold into your family system. So I think, you know, being aware that it’s, it’s difficult for everybody and what can we do to, as you say, make the fun higher and the conflict lower?

I think keeping in mind what it is that you enjoy most about the holidays and trying to make sure that you get that, whether it’s a favorite food that you make sure is on the holiday table, or a game, or somebody that you’re really looking forward to seeing, because you only see them once a year, and making a beeline for that person so you’re sure to make a connection. And I think if you’re hosting the holidays, there are things that you can do to enhance everybody’s enjoyment. 

One thing is maybe to have some conversations up your sleeve that will be inclusive of everybody in the family. Or having a game. I, in 2016, after the dicey election when I, at my holiday table, I didn’t know if everybody was going to feel upset or joyful about the election results. And I thought there could be a lot of conflict at my table. And I designed what I call the hat game. And I put at the door a hat and a bunch of post its, and as people came in, I posed a question, which was, what was– what was, or is, your favorite toy? And write it down, and on another piece of paper, write down a book that changed your life in some way. And then I brought the hat to the table and I pulled out the answers, which were anonymous. And I asked people to guess. Who said slinky? Who said, jacks and a ball? Who said ping pong? And then whoever had made that offering could elaborate on it.

And the conversation would extend, or we would go on to the next person. And that provided a table wide conversation devoid of any political content. And it was surprising. People learned new things about each other. 

Bri DeRosa: I love that so much. And I think what I love about it is, you know, you said right at the, the top there that, you know, getting together with our families brings us back to a different moment in our lives, right?

It kind of rewinds the clock a little bit. And I think we, a lot of us can feel the truth of that. And when you’re bringing it, bringing the conversation to a place about childhood toys or books or, you know, things that, that also kind of build on that memory and, and, you know, different moments in your life, and take it out of kind of the tension and the fraughtness of like whatever’s happening right now in the world.

Yeah, there’s something really nostalgic and wonderful about that. That’s also not too avoidant, I guess, you know? 

Anne Fishel: Right. It’s not just how, how, how is the weather where you came from? You know, it’s a, it’s a little step up from that. 

I think sort of piggybacking on the idea of using the nostalgia and the collective memory that also is around, often is around the family dinner table. It can be really fun and interesting to ask somebody to tell a familiar story. You know Uncle Jack, we haven’t heard that story about how you got fired from your first job that we all, you know, always enjoy so much. Would you mind telling that again? Or, you know, I have a dear friend who always comes to my holiday meals and I like to ask her in front of my kids, to tell some stories about growing up in the South during the civil rights movement, and she’s got some fabulous historical stories about that. And so, kind of, you know, using the family gathering to tell and remember stories, I think is really important. You know, just can be fun. 

Bri DeRosa: Yeah, no, I, I love that. I, I love that idea. And I think, you know, it just makes me think literally last night we were, we had some time as a family. We watched a holiday movie together. We– my teenage boys wanted to rewatch Home Alone. So we were watching Home Alone, and there’s the kind of secondary storyline in there of the older neighbor who is estranged from his son, even though they live in the same town.

And something about that storyline really kind of caught my kids’ attention this year. I think it was just maybe a detail they’d not thought about very much before, and it gave me a great opportunity to say, you know, did you ever hear the story about when your grandfather and your great grandfather, who lived in the same town, didn’t speak to each other for 6 months? And they said, What? Grandpa? And I said, yeah, no, oh my gosh, I can’t believe you didn’t know that story. 

And so we talked about that and it, it allowed me to bring to life for them some people who were really influential in my life as a child that they never had the opportunity to really build relationships with and get to know, and it was just that nice moment of like, hey, this holiday movie out of nowhere provided us this family storytelling opportunity. And, and I think it was really, it was really just kind of like a rich and wonderful moment for them.

Anne Fishel: Love that. Yeah. 

Bri DeRosa: And so speaking of movies and TV and content that kind of brings us through to things that we want to talk about, this goes to the question of tension at the table and bringing forth ideas about our holidays and, and family relationships from popular media.

We don’t do a lot of pop culture at the Family Dinner Project, but when we do, it’s for a reason. And you recently wrote a tremendous blog post for us about your reaction to the hit show, The Bear, and their Christmas dinner episode, Fishes. And if I’ll just say for our listeners, like if you haven’t watched The Bear and you haven’t seen the episode, I think this conversation will still maybe make sense to you, so stick with us. But if you have seen it, you’re going to definitely have your own opinions about this. 

Annie, let’s talk about The Bear. This is a place where people went into this family dinner, this holiday dinner, with maybe the best of intentions, right? But this, this, there’s so much there about, you know, a child who didn’t want to go home for the holidays and didn’t want to– 

Anne Fishel: –Maybe shouldn’t have gone home.

Bri DeRosa: Maybe shouldn’t have gone home, right. And, and definitely was put in that place. You know, when I watched that episode, I see Carmy getting put back into that place of the, the little sibling, right? The little kid. Everybody’s treating him not as this like amazing Michelin starred chef, but as this, you know, very small person in the family unit. And there’s so much drama and conflict and everything going on and certainly different ideologies, certainly different ideas about life and family and holidays and all kinds of different things going on. Talk to us a little bit about all of this. What, what is it… what can people take away from an, an episode like this?

What does it tell us about when you maybe shouldn’t go home? When you maybe can’t have that family holiday dinner? When, when the hat game isn’t enough, I guess? 

Anne Fishel: When is the hat game not enough? 

Bri DeRosa: When is the hat game not enough? 

Anne Fishel: Yes. So, oh, there’s so much to talk about with The Bear. I mean, it’s also a family that’s struggling with a lot of mental health challenges.

The matriarch, Donna, clearly has a severe problem with alcohol. She drinks volubly throughout the episode and is sobbing and, spoiler alert, drives her car through the dining room by the end of the episode. So there’s a lot of psychopathology that the family is dealing with, but there’s also lots of tenderness and attempts for connection and, and sweet moments peppered throughout the dinner.

So I guess my takeaways were, were a couple, some that I’ve alluded to. Things really start to devolve around one of the– Mikey, one of the sons, retelling a story for the umpteenth time and another family member getting furious. And I thought, no, let Mikey tell that story. That’s one of the main reasons we gather for holidays, to tell stories so that our children, our grandchildren hear them. So they’re etched in our collective memory, so that we can remember the people who told the stories, even after they’re gone. So let Mikey tell that story. So that that was one kind of take away. 

Another was the way that family members have a just laser like ability to press our buttons. I mean, who knows us better than our parents, our children, our, our nieces, our nephews. And so coming to family holiday meals, just girding ourselves not to let those buttons be punched or pushed. And instead to maybe have, if we know that that’s a family style, to have some comeback. I really would rather not talk about my weight gain this year. I really was hoping to talk to you about a trip I took. Or, that’s something that I only discuss with my therapist and I don’t see a degree next to your name. Or if you’re not feeling that snarky, why do you ask that? Why is that so interesting to you? So sort of being ready for that, maybe to have some, some comebacks.

And then I guess the other takeaway is the pressure not to make a family meal perfect. And the corollary to that is not putting so much pressure on yourself, if you’re the host, that you have to control every morsel that people are going to eat and instead to reach out and ask for help. Even if you don’t love the mashed potatoes that your uncle Sam makes, invite him to make it knowing that’s going to be an hour or two off, you know, that you’re going to get back for your life and you’re not going to be quite as bedraggled and stressed when you come to the table. 

So that, that was another takeaway, because the matriarch tries to make 7 dishes of fishes come out all at the same time. I mean, it is such a recipe for disaster. Who could possibly make that meal happen all by herself? 

Bri DeRosa: And yet, by the way, any Italian-American listener right now is going yeah, no, that’s what you do though. Right? That’s the Feast of the Seven Fishes. And it is, there is something kind of fantastical and improbable about, you know, I think for no matter what your tradition is, the way that we approach holiday meals, right?

And in that, in that episode, even, I can never remember his name. But their cousin’s partner, who is just so sweet when he’s trying to hold everything together by offering his version of some sort of– I think it’s supposed to be Grace, right? But it’s pretty loosely identifiable as Grace. He’s trying to calm everybody down. He’s trying to keep Mikey from throwing a fork. Right. And he kind of alludes to the specialness and the kind of fantastical nature of this holiday meal and what they’re trying to achieve with the food, with the gathering, with the coming together, and what it all really means at this kind of like deeper molecular level. 

Anne Fishel: We’re going to have to chew more and we’re going to have to listen more. 

Bri DeRosa: Chew more and we’re going to have to listen more. Right. It’s amazing. And it’s, you know, and it makes, it does make you think, right. Pete shows up with his tuna casserole. And the first thing they all do is go, No no no!

Right. This is like the eighth fish. We cannot have eight fishes. There are seven fishes and, and everything is perfectly planned. Right. And the tuna casserole is going to set the universe off its axis. Right. This poor, sweet, dope Pete, who’s just trying to help. Right. But he wasn’t asked and it’s, you know, it’s such a high pressure situation.

Anne Fishel: And when people are asked, it not only takes the burden off the host, but it also makes people feel like they’re creating it, too, like this holiday belongs to everybody. And that’s, I think, such an important part of making a holiday fun and reducing conflict all at the same time. It’s probably a lesson for regular meals too, not just holiday meals, that the more we can get our family members to participate, helping to cook, helping to set the table, picking a game, whatever it might be, it makes them all feel like this is ours too. 

Bri DeRosa: Yeah, I love that, that idea of just, we’re co creating an experience together as a family, right?

It’s not one person. I think one of the things in, in The Bear, in that episode Fishes, but also in a lot of the more tense and challenging real life family gatherings that we all have, is that aspect of control, right? And part of where I think even everyday family dinners go awry– and we hear this a lot in different ways from people, from families over the years– there’s always, almost always, this element of needing to control the environment, right? One person is sort of scripting how they think family meals ought to go. And maybe, maybe even there’s another person at the table who has a totally different script for how the family meal ought to go. And that’s where it starts to fall apart because we’re not co creating.

We’re, we’re trying to follow different scripts and different ideas and different rules and different guidelines and structures. And if we’re not all on the same page and we’re not all working together to make the experience, it can really cause challenges, I think. 

Yeah, so what what happens… I mean, you know, we’ve talked about kind of the solvability of some of this, right? But what happens if you just really, to your point about Carmy, shouldn’t go home? Or you can’t, you don’t feel safe going home. I don’t like to should people. Right. But like, you don’t feel safe going home. There are a lot of families out there who unfortunately are in the middle of rupture and they’re not able to repair.

Anne Fishel: Right, or they don’t feel safe because of how their family is going to treat their children, because their children are gay or trans and they don’t want to subject their kids to rough questions or rolling, rolled eyes, or, you know, disparaging comments. And for those families, it may be the, the best idea not to go home for holidays. Maybe to use it as a, as an opportunity to talk to a family about why they don’t feel safe, or maybe not. Maybe even that feels like too much. 

Some families might want to just have a quick phone call to say happy holidays, or zoom and leave it at that. But for families who aren’t going home it’s also a chance to come up with their own ways to create joy or have a celebration with each other or just decide, you know, what would we like to do?

We have a free day. We don’t have to go to work or school. What will, what would we like to do? Maybe it’s taking a hike or watching a family, watching a holiday movie, or making a luscious dessert together. You know, it could be just reinventing the holiday on their own terms. 

Bri DeRosa: Yeah, you know, I think that’s so important.

I think I’ve personally been aware this year of more people in my orbit than probably ever before who are facing a really difficult holiday season. The inability to be with family for one reason or another, a lot of them traumatic reasons. And, you know, we’ve all been brainstorming a little bit about how to help.

You know, what can you do? What could be your new tradition this year? What could you try out with your kids? Or, or, you know, on your own with your friends, your family of choice, right? Maybe you’re going to have a friend based holiday, a community holiday. And some of the, some of the ideas have been really fun.

You know, they’re, one of the things is there’s this Icelandic tradition that makes the rounds every year on the internet of giving books and chocolates to one another and then spending the day reading together and being cozy and eating chocolate. And that might be the vibe for some people, right?

Or another thing was you can get– 

Anne Fishel: –I know, we saw that. And I said to my husband, is it too late to call off our regular holiday celebration? I want to sign up for that one! 

Bri DeRosa: I know, right. Books and chocolate sounds like my vibe. 

Another one that I was loving was, I think a lot of us love to hate on the Hallmark holiday movie. You know, the, the one plot, 82 movies kind of a thing. Don’t, don’t– please don’t write to us, everybody. We, we love Hallmark holiday movies. But the, you can get bingo cards online. Like, this is such a thing now. You can actually print out bingo cards from any number of sites that, and turn the Hallmark holiday movie watching into kind of a game of, you know, Oh, well, there’s the, the overworked woman who’s leaving her city job and going home. And here’s the lumberjack guy who has a Christmas tree farm. And, you know, you can kind of mark your bingo cards. 

And so, you know, fun things like that, silly things like that can, I think, really lighten the mood. But it’s also just really hard. I just want to, like, sit for a minute with the acknowledgement that it’s really hard. If you’re somebody who’s facing grief or loss or estrangement or any kind of, you know, holiday trauma this year, yeah, you can, you can buy some books and some chocolate or you can watch Hallmark movies or you can do whatever you’re going to do. But there’s, there’s real feeling there. And so do you have any kind of, I don’t know, words of wisdom or solace to offer people? Ways to deal with those feelings?

Anne Fishel: Yeah, I mean, I think you’ve, you’ve put it really well, Bri. I think acknowledging it and maybe reaching out to somebody else who’s also having a hard time, who isn’t seeing this as a time of great joy and frivolity and, and so on. And, you know, doing the things that make you feel taken care of, you know, whether it’s sitting and reading a book or taking a walk by yourself, or, you know, making sure to connect with somebody who cares about you and who you feel at home with, you know, home is really not synonymous with family. Home is, is a feeling, it’s a feeling of being comfortable in your own skin when you’re with somebody else. And so reaching out to whoever that might be for you. Could be a therapist. It could be a friend. It could be a, a, a child. It could be you know, whoever it is. 

Bri DeRosa: I love that, that idea that home is being comfortable in your own skin, right?

And I think we always try to tell people family also doesn’t have to be defined by blood. Family can be the people who give you that feeling of home, right? That feeling of comfort in your own skin and that feeling of value and safety. So thanks for, thanks for that, helping us kind of frame those tricky holiday season emotions.

There’s a lot this time of year that comes up, you know? 

Anne Fishel: I think many of us are relieved when we can turn the page on the calendar. 

Bri DeRosa: Yeah, New Year’s Day is sort of that opportunity for a fresh start, right? 

Well, speaking of turning the page, we are coming to the end of our very first episode of the Family Dinner Project podcast. And I’ve had so much fun talking to you, Annie, and getting your incredibly wise and helpful insights about this very difficult and tricky and also joyful and wonderful time of year. It’s a big mixed bag for families. 

Anne Fishel: It is. 

Bri DeRosa: Yeah, so we wanted to begin our own tradition here on the podcast of ending our episodes with some suggestions for our three pillars of family meals.

We always say that we’re about food, fun, and conversation about things that matter. And so at the end of each episode, Annie and I would like to offer our listeners one idea for food, one for fun, and one for a conversation starter that we think would be great for you to take forward into your family dinner practice for the rest of the season, until we meet again on our next episode in 2024.

So Annie, I’m gonna kick it off with you, asking you about the food aspect. I know you have a special family holiday recipe that you wanna call everybody’s attention to. 

Anne Fishel: Thank you. So December 7th is the 1st night of Hanukkah, and I am part of a interfaith family. And my husband, who was raised in a Christian family, took ownership of the latke recipe, which is the traditional potato pancake recipe. And it’s on our website. It is really quite delicious. It can be scaled up. And for many decades, we hosted a 3 generational chaotic, wonderful, huge Hanukkah party. And I am sure that most of the guests came primarily to get a nibble of those potato latkes, which are really wonderful.

Bri DeRosa: Well, it is a great recipe and it is available on the website at thefamilydinnerproject.org/food, and you can search latke, that’s L A T K E if you don’t know how to spell it, and those, those will come straight up for you. 

Anne Fishel: And Bri, tell us something fun that you want to share about the holiday season.

Bri DeRosa: Thank you. Yeah, I’m so excited about this one. So I got thinking about holiday dinners and about sometimes, we are in a group with people we don’t know very well, because we don’t see them that often or because we’re blending families or traditions or households. And we’re going to be doing that this year. I, my sister is coming from out of town and she’s going to be spending part of the holidays with my brother in law’s family with us, and she hasn’t met all of them. So I thought it might be nice to have a way to get to know each other a little bit better and to kind of find out a little bit more about the traditions and the people you’re surrounded by.

So we came up with a holiday dinner scavenger hunt. This is available on our site at thefamilydinnerproject.org/holidays. It’s a printable or a downloadable. You can just look at it on your phone, or you can print it out and give it to everybody and they can mark their sheets, and see what they can learn about the people and the foods that are being presented at this holiday dinner. So, really, really fun. And I hope everybody checks it out. 

And then our last thing is, Annie, a conversation starter that really strikes you as being the right one for this moment and this podcast episode and conversation that we’ve had. What would you ask people to go forward and talk about? 

Anne Fishel: I thought it might be interesting, and I would like to do this at my holiday dinner, to ask who else would you wish could join us tonight?

It could be a famous person, a celebrity, it could be a family member who’s no longer walking this earth, it could be a friend or a family who just wasn’t available to join us. And if you wouldn’t mind also saying why. What, what you, why you would like that person to be with us tonight. 

Bri DeRosa: Yeah, I think that’s a really valuable one and really speaks to the heart of this conversation. You know, that it’s really about kind of making peace with the holidays that we have, and also thinking aspirationally a little bit, and reflectively a little bit about the holidays that we have had, or that we wish we could create. And just kind of sitting with all of those revelations and feelings, which feels like a heavy way to end this podcast, but also maybe the right note for the holidays in 2023.

And we wish everyone a wonderful season, no matter what your celebrations look like, and a great start to 2024. And we will be back with more family dinner real talk in 2024. So be sure to follow us at the family dinner project.org and on Threads and Instagram and Facebook, and we will see you all next year.