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The Baker family

Reconnecting through great food and laughter

Background: Coming together again

When we first met Jackie, her husband Mark was in the process of moving back from Pennsylvania to New York to be with the rest of the family. Jackie and Mark had been separated for a few years, and during that time, Jackie relocated to New York with her two daughters (now ages 12 and 14).

When they all lived in Pennsylvania together, the family would try to have family dinners together regularly, but this became impossible when they were living apart.

Starting point: Haphazard dinners and moody teenagers

As a unit of three, living without her husband, Jackie admits that their current dinners are “haphazard.” Jackie takes some responsibility for this (she does not cook every night) and she also mentions that her kids are “finicky,” and sometimes “cranky” and “hormonal.” As it is, they only have dinner together once per week, with minimal cohesion when they do sit down together.

Jackie talks about two issues that get in the way of experiencing more connectedness at the dinner table. First, she worries about one of her children in particular who can be “over emotional” and also loud and dominating. When her daughter “blows up” about something at the dinner table, the bad mood can often become contagious.

Jackie also believes that an untidy house is not conducive to dinner conversation and finally, when the kids bring technology (e.g. cell phones) to the dinner table, it creates too much distraction.

An ideal dinner: Nutritious food and lots of laughs

Jackie describes that her ideal family dinner would be about nutritious food, but also substantive conversation — a forum to get things “out on the table” in a non-stressful and non-confrontational way. In order for a meal to go well, everyone would like what they are eating (and the food would be nutritious), and everyone would be engaging each other in conversation.

One of her favorite meals as a family was a Christmas meal that had not been planned (they were supposed to go away and their flight was cancelled), but because they ate together by candlelight and “giggled a lot,” (eating lobster and other random things they could find in the store), it was “fun” and “spontaneous.” In addition to fun, Jackie also seeks to have important conversation at the table, so that they can “debrief” their days and also talk more generally about “social texture,” including current events, books, music, etc.

Setting goals: Creative meals, teamwork, and harmony at the table

The Baker family had several goals for their participation in The Family Dinner Project. Every member of the family agreed upon the importance of more creative meals (rather than just simple or already prepared foods), trying new and different recipes.

Jackie and Mark also hope that the meals will be nutritious and well balanced, and that the kids will actively participate in the preparation of the meals (Jackie often feels that she shoulders this responsibility) and in the clean up. They hope that with more involvement from everyone, meals will become more interesting and engaging.

Although Jackie and Mark want to work on having more “ideal” dinners on a regular basis, they also understand some of the realistic constraints: time (to prepare a meal-including planning and shopping) and lack of interest among one of their daughters (who is a “picky” eater and who does not want to spend more than two minutes at the table). They both believe that sitting down together at the table is “really important” and look forward to family dinners helping to create a productive family dynamic.

The hope is that there will be less antagonism, and that one of the daughters who seems to have trouble tempering her anger, will not always feel the need to dominate the mood and conversation at the table. In addition to teaching appropriate dinner manners, Jackie and Mark want to build a ritual of laughter, fun, and enjoyment at the table.

Mapping out a strategy: How to achieve dinner success

In order to achieve their goals over a three-month period, Jackie and Mark established some “guidelines” for the family to follow.

First, dinner became a rotating responsibility — every member of the family took turns being the lead on dinner (e.g. picking out recipes, shopping, preparing) with Jackie’s support. Second, Tuesday night became family dinner night. If the family could add another night over time, this would be a bonus, but at the beginning, they felt that committing one night was reasonable and realistic (Tuesday was chosen because it worked best with everyone’s schedules). Third, the kids would help with clean up at every meal; and lastly, the family agreed that appropriate table manners were important to maintain during the meal.

Success #1: Making dinner an event

After each dinner, the family talked about some of the successes they achieved. In general, after three different family dinners on which the family reported, each of the “guidelines” (shared responsibility for the meals and cleanup, committing one night a week to family dinner, and adhering to table manners) had reportedly been followed. Each of the three dinners had its own “highlights,” but on the whole, each member of the family described more awareness of the importance of family dinner, the opportunity to have fun together as a family during this time, and the value of sharing the responsibility for meal preparation and cleanup among family members.

Over time, the weekly family dinner became more of an “event,” than a forced responsibility. Jackie started to make dinner more festive—taking out the wine glasses and candles—which she says “didn’t take much effort and felt like more of an event.”

Success #2: Culinary curiosity

At the third dinner, Mark (who Jackie claims can not “ordinarily boil water!”) made an impromptu dinner for the family one Sunday night. Jackie could not believe it (nor could the kids) because the final meal “tasted like it was something out of a restaurant.”

Jackie suggested that this was a “direct result” of all of the family members getting involved with dinner preparation.  After the success of this meal, Mark expressed an interest in making Sunday night a tradition for family dinner as well.

Success #3: More fun and conversation

Family dinner on Tuesday night also seems helpful for the family dynamics and for conversation among different family members. Each of the kids respond that dinner is “fun” and that the family “laughs a lot” together. The family even started a fun “burp jar” for contributions when someone burps at the dinner table.

Both the parents and the kids acknowledge the importance of informal conversation as a family. As one of the daughters states: “…we got a lot more time to talk about our day and topics that we usually don’t talk about. I also liked how we all were engaged and all talked instead of certain people having a separate conversation.”

Success #4: Peace and harmony

Jackie claims that this time together is also helpful in alleviating tension among the family. At one meal, the kids picked up on Jackie’s bad mood, which she admitted to, but stated that the dinner was instrumental in letting go of her irritation: “my crankiness faded with each delicious bite.”

Although not completely convinced at the beginning about the importance of family dinner, one of the daughters, when asked what about a particular meal she would repeat, says “EVERYTHING! The meal and the conversation, and just everything was so good.”  As for what she would not want to repeat: “cleaning the dishes.”

The Baker family’s main goal of achieving connectedness, fun, and shared responsibility had reportedly been achieved over the three months of their involvement with The Family Dinner Project. The family views family dinner as an opportunity to spend enjoyable time together and Jackie and Mark established clear goals and guidelines to facilitate progress from the “haphazard” dinners from which they reportedly started.

Room for Debate: Touchy subjects at dinner

Interestingly, Jackie and Mark are in some disagreement about whether dinner should be a venue for discussions about ethics, values, and important family issues. Whereas Mark would like to discuss some of these topics in an open environment, Jackie feels that “dinner isn’t always the place to discuss issues that are personal or that may make someone feel vulnerable (e.g. a dating issue, a friendship issue at school).

The girls may want to talk about these things in private one-on-one.” One daughter commented, “I really like not talking about family issues…that would ruin the meal and I do not like my meals ruined.”

Jackie believes that discussion of these issues are more productive when the kids raise them on their own, which may be in the car, while shopping, or in their bedroom before going to bed. In general, the Baker family strived to make dinner enjoyable and did not want to risk this opportunity for peace and happiness.

Looking ahead: Continuing to build routine and family participation

Jackie states that being a part of The Family Dinner Project has “made us feel like we are being held accountable,” and has helped to not only set goals, priorities, and expectations for family dinner, but also establish a routine.

The family intends to continue Tuesday night’s family dinner (and maybe even add Sunday night) and Jackie believes that in the future, their dinners can be a microcosm for family relationships and dynamics—during dinner, through modeling, we can shape, guide, and mold and model good relationships. Jackie states about the future: “I think that we will continue down the positive path that we have started. Like anything else in life, the more you do something, the easier it gets.”

Most notably, Jackie mentions that her husband and kids have become “proactive” with their responsibilities with family dinner: “Everyone is more proactively engaged in the meal…even something as simple as clearing the person’s dish who was next to you. Baby steps can show big improvement.” When kids participate in the preparation of the meal, they appreciated the meal more.”

Jackie recounts an example of this proactive involvement:

“A good example was dinner last night. I had food that needed to be cooked, so I made a meatloaf figuring that if any one was hungry, they could come and get it. Mark came in and took charge— [he] made a side, got Julia to set the table and woke up Melanie [who] was [taking] an impromptu nap. We had an unplanned family dinner replete with good conversation, giggling and help at the end. This was evidence to me that we’ve started to develop this good habit, and it is sticking.”