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The Cunningham family

Sushi, songs, and bananagrams – creating a sense of family

Background: Forming a new family

Mary Cunningham oversees communications and development at a nonprofit organization. Her partner Andrew runs an online media company. Mary has a 7-year old daughter, Maggie, and they are in the process of forming a new family together. Maggie stays with Mary from Saturday through Tuesday every week, and Andrew lives 2 hours away.  Timing for dinners together is challenging.

Mary and Andrew are from families where dinnertime was valued. For Andrew, dinner was uninterrupted by technology and was a “good, safe time.” Mary’s family dinners were very structured and routine. She recalls special meals in her family such as a parent’s birthday, where her parents would work together to prepare the dinner. She commented that, watching them cook together, she believed “in that moment, they had a happy and secure relationship.” However, Mary’s family only had “surface” conversations at the table, which Mary regrets.

Starting point: Lots of variety

Mary often cooks the meals while Andrew plays with Maggie, and dinners vary greatly, depending on whether Maggie is present or not. Mary and Andrew are more flexible when eating with just each other; they particularly enjoy a mix-and-match buffet based on a German tradition in which they spread out leftovers to eat. With Maggie, there is more rigidity because of her bedtime and schedule.

An ideal meal: Big and healthy, or quick and easy

Mary reports that they achieve a good, ideal family meal every two weeks or so, and estimates that a third of the meals they share with Maggie are successful. In describing a typical meal, Mary said that two of the dinners with Maggie are big, healthy, and ideal and that another two are quick and easy. Maggie dislikes sitting at the table for extended periods of time and keeping her attention is challenging. On Wednesdays Mary eats alone, but spends Thursday and Friday with Andrew.

In terms of conversations at the dinner table, Mary and Andrew agree that conversations should be based on what everyone enjoys and can take part in. Andrew believes that talking about family issues is important but that the dinner table is not the place to do so.

Setting goals: A shared routine, new recipes, and “European-style” dinners

Mary and Andrew value meal time and wish to consciously establish good meal habits. Mary saw The Family Dinner Project as a “good opportunity to make choices about what kind of family we’re going to have and how we want to spend our time.” Mary also hopes that all three of them will be able to work together to prepare dinner and create more of a shared routine.

In thinking about an ideal meal, Mary envisions dinnertime as something that “everyone gets to participate in and have a choice about.” She mentions having drawn out “European-style” dinners, becoming more creative with their menu, and entertains the idea of starting the meal with Andrew’s family song.  While both Mary and Andrew are “pro-food” and consciously try to eat healthily, Mary admits that sometimes their recipes get repetitive.

Success #1: Songs, cooking together and deeper conversation

During their first dinner as part of The Family Dinner Project, the whole family cooked together, and Maggie contributed actively by cutting vegetables for the salad. They sang Andrew’s family’s blessing song, which everyone enjoyed. Mary and Andrew were also able to elicit deeper conversation from Maggie as they asked her specific questions (for example, about what she might like to learn or experience before she entered third grade). During dinner, Maggie said she would like Andrew to be her stepdad.  Neither Mary and Andrew felt prepared to talk openly about this at the table, and they agreed that it would be good, as much as possible, to prepare ahead of time for these tricky questions.  Mary regretted that the dinner was too short.

Success #2: Mixing games and food

During the next dinner, the family reported having a lot of fun. They each picked a game (Bananagrams, Simon Says, and a scavenger hunt) and played one during each course of the meal, and the dinner was long and interactive.

Mary unfortunately had pneumonia this week, so the menu was something quick and easy to prepare. Maggie made sauces for her own dessert, which allowed her a “nice sense of ownership and pride.” While the family enjoyed the sense of fun from the dinner, Mary and Andrew also mentioned that it was difficult to play the games while eating. In the future they might play games that involve taking turns, or play games in between courses.

Success #3: Name your own sushi

In the last dinner, the family made sushi together under Andrew’s guidance. Mary described it a collaborative process throughout: everyone chose ingredients at the grocery store, prepared their food, and cleaned up together. They each named their sushi creations and all of them thoroughly enjoyed dinner.

Room for debate: In-depth dinner conversation

Mary and Andrew both talked about whether particular topics are appropriate during dinner. Andrew believes that the conversation should be deep and explorative, but it shouldn’t be something difficult to discuss (such as drugs or divorce).

He feels strongly about discussing things that “add depth, deepen relationships” but also believes that the nature of the conversation should be dependent upon who is at the table. Andrew feels it is important to be able to deal with conflict at the dinner table in a productive, open way and that modeling this kind of behavior is important.

Andrew and Mary are still thinking through what they believe is appropriate conversation at the table. Andrew believes that tough issues and morals should come up organically instead of establishing rigid rules about what can and can’t be discussed.

Mary agreed that the best way to handle difficult topics, such as Maggie’s behavior, are dependent on the situation. Maggie herself sometimes brings up ethical issues (for example, why God is typically referred to as a man). Mary explains that she doesn’t necessarily have control over where they are when they have these conversations. Andrew suggests that the best time to have ethical, difficult conversations depends, and that very tough questions shouldn’t be addressed at the dinner table.

Looking ahead: More collaboration and creating a “new normal”

Mary and Andrew’s goals for the future include making dinner a more collaborative process: deciding together what they should have, eating together and sharing the cleanup. They would like to establish more of a routine with dinners and to “form what it will look like when things are more normal.” In terms of establishing a routine, Mary has been learning how to be more flexible and to incorporate Maggie’s weekly schedule into her planning.

Both Andrew and Mary describe a successful dinner as one during which there is good, nourishing food, but also a connection with one another. To both of them, dinner means community, building relationships and talking about deeper issues (such as asking Maggie what she wants to achieve in life, discussing trouble with friends, etc).

When asked about their main priorities moving forward, Andrew hoped to establish new traditions together about what a family meal looks like and to teach Maggie the importance of the family meal. Mary also benefited from thinking about and articulating her goals, and being thoughtful about core family values.

Recommending The Family Dinner Project

Mary and Andrew agreed that the project offers great resources (for example, the blog). Mary reported using the conversation starters on the website. The couple also suggested that it would be great if there was a way to get together with other participating families, to make shared meals and talk about their experiences.