The Gupta family
A recipe for more peace and appreciation
Background: A busy family of five
Aditi Gupta is a chemist who works in Cambridge. Her family of five consists of herself, her husband Hasit, her eighteen year-old daughter Ann, fourteen year-old son Dev, and mother-in-law.
Starting point: Good food, but an uneven workload and tense conversations
When we first talked with Aditi, she and her mother-in-law were the default members of the family to cook and clean up. Her husband is busy but always offers to help with everything. Aditi feels that sharing some of the responsibility strengthens their marriage. She would prefer her children to offer to help out more in the kitchen and for this to really become a habit for them.
The Guptas enjoy a variety of types of food: Chinese, Italian, American (maybe sixty percent of the time). They are Indian, so they also cook Indian food a lot of the time (about forty percent of their meals are Indian).
Problems can arise for the Gupta family when everyone is tired and the children are more sensitive as a result. Her husband may say something “small” to her son, he will take it personally, get angry, and leave the table. When Aditi was growing up, her mother made a “no talking at the table” rule, and sometimes she can see the wisdom of this. When people are tired and more sensitive, sometimes conversation can turn into bickering. She believes there shouldn’t be fighting at the dinner table.
Their conversations during dinner were often a discussion about what happened at school or at work. Sometimes Aditi or her husband would tell stories that they think will be useful, instructive, or inspiring in some way.
An ideal meal: Cooperation and relaxation
When asked to describe a recent meal that was particularly satisfying, Aditi said they have many satisfying meals, but highlighted her daughter’s recent high school graduation celebration at the Cheesecake Factory.
Her daughter was relaxed, her son was happy, both were cooperative. Although they teased one another, they did so in a nice way, and everyone enjoyed themselves. Aditi also mentioned dinners that her family enjoys over the summer. When the weather is nice they will occasionally eat outside on the deck, and her children will ask friends to join them.
When we first met the Gupta family, Aditi described sixty to seventy percent of their dinners as successful. The rest of the time, the biggest challenges had to do with sharing the workload, and the unpredictability of her children’s moods. According to Aditi, her children didn’t understand the importance of family dinners, and they have little tolerance for small jokes or comments. She attributed part of this to adolescence, but also said that meals tended to be more successful when family members acknowledge one another in simple ways, by saying “thank you,” for example.
Beyond the dinner table, Aditi works with her children to let them know she’s thinking about them. For example, she said that she used to put post-it notes on her children’s school lunches, saying “I love you.” When they returned from school they would write “I love you too,” on the same note and put it on the refrigerator. She believes little acknowledgements like this do a lot to improve family bonding and understanding of one other.
Setting goals: Manners, jokes, and peaceful conversation
“Family dinner” brings to mind images of a Saturday, when everyone is able to cook together, or reunite at the end of an otherwise busy day and perhaps share a new recipe while sharing the events of the day with one another. Aditi’s goals are simple on the surface: have a pleasant time, friendly joking, smiles, asking someone nicely to pass you something at the table.
Aditi has always believed it is important to find time to eat together, and one of her goals is to work towards more peaceful conversation. She enjoys finding a way to “put a smile” on family members’ faces, and be a positive influence in their lives. Sometimes she thinks it’s easy to take family members for granted, and would like to have more family dinners that are happy and “calm.”
Aditi’s goals are not focused as much on food and setting as much as they are on sitting down together and having a good time. Making dinner together is a plus, but it is most important that everyone help one another, and that they make each other smile. Aditi imagines that parents act as counselors, listening to their children, sharing their thoughts and experiences during dinner. When asked to choose among items that she would most like to work on to improve family dinners, she emphasized “smooth conversation.”
Success #1: Stress-free family bonding
As the Gupta family began their involvement in the project, daughter Ann was just heading off to college. She frequently returns home for a night or for weekends, but during a typical week, family dinners are without Ann. Once when Ann was home from college, she brought along a recipe for tacos that she wanted to try, and they all prepared it together. When she is home, the family makes an effort to try to eat together.
For example, during one visit home Aditi picked Ann up and they also picked up a few ready-made things for dinner. They cooked the remainder of the meal together and had it ready within a half hour. They talked together about Ann’s school, her new job, and Dev talked about his new school and some of his teachers. The conversation was “quiet” and Aditi described the pleasure she derived out of seeing her children enjoy one another’s company. Afterwards, Dev and Ann cleared the table together, while Aditi and Hasit did the dishes. It was enjoyable and without stress.
Success #2: Bringing everyone to the table
Typically the rest of the family manages to sit down together three or four times during the week; what gets in the way includes their son Dev’s soccer schedule or Aditi’s work schedule (she sometimes has to work in the evenings).
Additionally, Dev wants to eat in his room sometimes, because he’s busy working on something. Aditi and Hasit usually don’t allow this – even if he comes to the table for a short fifteen or twenty minutes, they encourage him to join them.
When asked if she thinks Dev understands why sitting down together is important, Aditi responds that she’s not sure but she thinks so. Dev will say “Mom, I’m in a car with you, that’s family bonding,” and she points out how dinnertime is different. If Dev has had a bad day, he may eat quietly, be less involved in the conversation, want to eat and return to his room. Some days she understands, but if this happens several days in a row, she knows something is bothering him.
A “typical” dinner now means that either Aditi or Hasit will do the cooking, and Dev may set the table. Although the phone usually rings once or twice during dinner, Aditi doesn’t like to answer it.
Success #3: Using the website to find new recipes
Aditi and Hasit do most of the cooking, and when Aditi has to be away working, Hasit and Dev eat together. Aditi said they used The Family Dinner Project website for recipes and found some of the pictures there encouraging: she couldn’t believe how young some of the children were who were helping to cook. She also says that she found the conversation resources useful, although she hadn’t used some of the “fun” activities she wanted to.
Their time at the dinner table goes by so quickly, she feels that there isn’t enough time to do any of the activities.
Room for debate: When to discuss ethical and cultural topics
Aditi and Hasit have different opinions when it comes to raising sensitive issues at the dinner table. She tries to stay away from these topics, and her husband believes it is the ideal time to discuss such things. Aditi doesn’t want anyone to get upset and leave the table, and she again describes how her mother insisted on “no conversation” at the table when she was growing up.
There were six children in her family growing up, and there were no arguments because there was no discussion allowed. She would prefer to discuss difficult topics at other times. For example, on Sundays, they can talk about cultural issues on their way to or from their temple and her children’s “culture class.” In the car, no one is going anywhere, no one has to face one another, and she might bring up a topic then. If there’s something really urgent, they might sit down at some other point to talk, not during dinner.
When asked specifically about ethical topics that are important to her, Aditi says that “every culture has good things,” she wants to teach her children about Indian culture and how to make themselves better human beings from the inside out. It’s also important to her to help them all reduce stress and organize their lives. She says that she is comfortable talking with her children about almost anything but that there are some things she doesn’t discuss.
Reflecting on progress: More quality time, less conflict
Aditi says that she is happily surprised to learn that there are other people who believe that family dinner, and gathering everyone together on a regular basis, is important. Having dinner together gives her family time to relax, reflect on their family and how they can help and support one another. Family dinners can “make your day” – Aditi will forget about unpleasantness at work, and when she sees smiles on her family’s faces, “it makes it all worth it.”
As a result of their involvement in the project, Aditi believes that her family is spending more quality time together, and spending less time in conflict during dinner. She feels she has more help from her family, and the responsibility for the dinner meal and clean-up is more shared. She does feel as though her children are still both too busy with their own activities, and that they “find excuses” to do other things. However, she believes that the project encouraged everyone to pay attention to how important family dinners are.
Looking ahead: Encouraging more positivity and more kid participation
Aditi would still like to see her children take more initiative in finding new recipes to try, showing some energy for trying something new. She would like it if her children could find more positive things to say about one another, their parents, and their meals together.
In general, Aditi believes that we act as role models to our children, and so we have to put forth every effort. As she says, “You can’t tell them something you’re not doing yourself.”