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The Gables family

A full plate of responsibilities

Background: Balancing a busy work life with caretaking
Paula Gables is fifty-three years old, lives with her husband, and has three children, two of whom are in college and a son who has just left for college. She also cares for her elderly parents (her father has Alzheimer’s), and a mentally delayed sister.

Paula works three different jobs — one steady full-time job, a night teaching job at a local community college and a position as a substitute social worker on the weekends.

Starting point: 3-4 dinners per week, sometimes with frozen food
She became interested in The Family Dinner Project because she hoped it would give her more ideas and some inspiration for different kinds of meals to provide for her family.

During a “regular” week, she prepares three or four dinners for her family, but she does not always enjoy cooking. And with her work schedule, she really does not have much, if any, time to cook. Though she is satisfied about providing food for her family, she admits that it is not always as healthy as it could be (she often buys frozen foods and store-bought prepared foods).

An ideal dinner: Plenty of conversation
Paula recognizes the importance of conversations at the dinner table, but admits that any kind of discussion is difficult with her parents and her sister. When her kids are home and they have an opportunity to have a meal with just the immediate family, their current “ethical” conversations focus on drug and alcohol usage.

Paula is a counselor and she worries about her older children. They talk constantly about respect and treating people well. She believes that her children are at the core “good kids,” but also believes that everyone can use reminders and reinforcement. Though sustaining conversation with her elderly parents is difficult, Paula believes that family dinners are important because it gives her dad a chance to “reconnect” and gives her mom a “social outlet.”

Setting goals: A stocked pantry, no cell phones, and more open discussions
Ideally, Paula would like dinnertime not to feel rushed and haphazard — she would like all of the “necessary” ingredients in the house already, to have her kids at home for dinner every night and not “rushing off” to go someplace else.

She would also like to eliminate technological distractions, which she admits are “frustrating,” especially when the kids bring their cell phones to the table (although she admits that sometimes there is little to no conversation at the table when her parents are there). As a parent, Paula finds it difficult to “curb” cell phone use at the table, especially with older kids. She hopes to increase the frequency of meals and to make dinners enjoyable and a “real event.”

Though Paula admits that “sharing the workload” for dinner would be nice, this is not a priority. She is focused on having healthy, well-balanced meals (and would like to try some easy, new recipes); she is also focused on gathering the family to talk and spend time together without distractions. Specifically, Paula would like the kids to talk more openly about what is “going on in their lives” and be more forthcoming about their daily struggles and challenges.

Success #1: Inviting friends over
Even with her busy work schedule, Paula managed to have several dinners over the three-month period. She reports on dinners with her immediate family, with her parents, and even with friends and neighbors. Paula not only wanted to share The Family Dinner Project with her community (friends and colleagues), but she also believed that inviting new people “to table” would inspire new and different types of conversation.

She hoped that even if her father couldn’t always contribute to the conversation, that listening to other people talk would make him more lively and “perk up.” For example, during one particular meal, Paula included her friends Sam and Susan, both elderly people in their 90s. They ate sausage on the grill with green peppers and strawberry shortcake, a meal that everyone enjoyed. They had fun and interesting conversations about Sam’s and Susan’s travels, changes in technology, and Al’s recent publication.

Success #2: More healthy food on the table
In general, Paula notes that the project has forced her to plan meals more in advance. She now tries to have a full meal with dessert, bread and vegetables. The Family Dinner Project website was very helpful to Paula in this respect — she got many easy recipes and ideas for food to buy.

During her involvement with The Family Dinner Project, Paula moved her office, and the new location provides many more “healthy” opportunities for inexpensive prepared foods to purchase. This helps Paula tremendously — she can buy a roasted chicken, for example, and at the end of the day, go home and quickly make rice and salad to complete the meal. This was a fortuitous outcome of her move.

Success #3: The surprising benefits of organized meals
More importantly, Paula also noticed that her father, who is usually confused because of his Alzheimer’s, is more talkative and “with it” after a good meal; she realizes the importance of dinner as she sees the changes in her father’s responsiveness.

In one instance, Paula reported that her father told her a story from 20 years ago when he was a police officer and another story from 10 years ago. He is more “clear, more focused, and more alert” when the meal is organized and well balanced.

Room for debate:  Avoiding tension at dinner
Interestingly, though Paula feels that the dinner experience improved in terms of the food and the increased conversation, the actual discussions are not always easy, and sometimes there is palpable tension at the table.

For example, Paula described the first dinner as a “rough” experience. She enjoyed spending time with her son and discussing college with him, but he became “aggravated” when Paula brought up expectations such as not drinking and studying hard.

She also contends that there was “tension” during the final dinner for The Family Dinner Project because the conversation involved “important issues about family and responsibility.” They discussed family rules and expectations, which was hard. In many ways, Paula feels that the conversations that she and her parents share are difficult because her mother only wants to talk about their health issues and money problems.

Reflecting on progress: Planning meals and creating dynamic conversation
Though there are some challenges with family dinner, Paula feels that her involvement in The Family Dinner Project has given her a “responsibility” to feed everyone well and think about how to make conversation more dynamic.

She now tries to plan more proactively: she thinks ahead about meals and what she is going to purchase at the grocery store. As she says, “I treat it like homework, and for me that works…dinner is now always in the back of my mind; I plan my meals better and I think about what we can talk about.”

Looking ahead: Keeping up new habits
Paula plans to continue these dinners, seeing how her parents have benefitted, and she thinks that by continuing this tradition she sets a good example for her children. Paula understands that it is important to listen to her children and talk with them about ethics and respect for others. She reflects that overall, the project has changed her family’s eating habits and that it has “helped me to help [my father].” She finally summarizes her positive experiences with this project: “I just hate for it to be over!”

Organizing and preparing meals is hard for Paula, given her busy work schedule and the time necessary to care for her elderly parents and disabled sister. But Paula feels that even though The Family Dinner Project gave her another “obligation,” it has been helpful.

As she says “The Project has forced me to do it and have meals covered in advance…I already know what I’m having tonight! The Family Dinner Project has forced me to plan more and think about it, whereas I didn’t used to do this before we sat for dinner. Now, I’m part of this project and I’m accountable. I don’t want to report that I’ve given my family McDonald’s every night (just kidding)! This project has improved the quality of meals, the quality of family, and the quality of my life. I will stick with it – has been a light bulb.”