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The Johnson family

From “eat and scatter” to “stay and play”

Background:  A family of three with full schedules
Ronnie Johnson and her eight siblings grew up in Boston and Cambridge.  She now lives in the Fenway area with her husband, Frank, and their 10-year old daughter, Deisha.  Ronnie is a self-employed web developer who works from home, and she also keeps busy with her daughter’s many activities and pageants.  Frank is a foreman and also quite busy.  The three each have their own commitments and schedules, and finding time to be together is challenging.

Starting point: “Eat and scatter”
All three have input about their dinner menus.  Frank and Ronnie take turns cooking, and Deisha usually helps by setting the table.  They eat together almost every day, but they have a tendency to “eat and scatter” because everyone’s schedules are so different.

When they sit down together at dinner, the Johnsons tend to talk most about everyone’s day, and what Deisha did at school.  Ronnie likes to keep the conversation “light,” and thinks it’s more appropriate to talk about family issues one-on-one with Frank and Deisha when they have personal time – for example, when they’re in the car.  During dinner, they’re more likely to plan outings, trips, and other fun things.

An ideal meal: Fun food and something to talk about
During our first interview with Ronnie, it was clear that “food and fun” were of the most importance to her.  When asked to describe an “ideal” dinner, she said that her family would most enjoy having homemade cheeseburgers and fries in front of the television, so that they could eat and talk together about the program they were watching.

As an example of a television program the family enjoyed, Ronnie offered Family Feud. Ronnie’s family enjoys playing along with the game together. Because they are all rushed, and everyone has things to do, Ronnie said they had these “ideal” dinners once a week or so.

Setting goals: Organic food, new recipes, and fewer interruptions
Ronnie was attracted to The Family Dinner Project in part out of a desire to serve her family wholesome, organic food.  Although she felt she did a good job with nutrition during breakfast or lunch, she acknowledged that this was because these meals seem to require less cooking, and saw room for improvement on the dinner front.

Ronnie’s goals in joining the project were mostly focused on eating nutritious food.    She said she favors nutritious and organic food, but her husband “loves junk.”  She says she “pushes nutrients” but doesn’t always win.  She hoped to learn how to avoid going down the junk food aisles in the supermarket, and would like to add more variety to their family meals.

Frank shared Ronnie’s desire to try new recipes, and thought they had no problems with talking about values and ethics at the table.  He also agreed that another area that could use improvement was freedom from interruption.  Deisha, by contrast, said that some foods were “too healthy” and others were “just right,” and hoped for “well balanced meals with a little bit of junk food too.”  She said that “sometimes, interruption just can’t be helped.”

Although Ronnie was open to trying to improve her family’s dinner conversation, she didn’t want to talk about stressful topics, such as finances, during the family meal. And while she acknowledged that rushing to leave the dinner table was a problem (and said she would like to learn how to eliminate distractions), Ronnie was least concerned about staying at the table for a desirable amount of time.

Success #1: A well-balanced first meal
Ronnie told us about three specific dinners during her family’s time on the project.  The first of these dinners was very successful:  it was filled with healthy food that the entire family enjoyed, everyone helped to make the meal and they spent time together engaged in great conversation.  They used a few items from the website (tips about butternut squash and string beans), and there was “nothing” about the dinner they didn’t enjoy.

Success #2: Trying new foods at a lively birthday bash
Another dinner was a birthday celebration for Frank.  A large group of friends and family gathered together for a cookout.  They had a lot of fun, but they started to run out of food, and if they were to do it over again, they would add more food so that the party could last a bit longer.

They used a number of items from The Family Dinner Project website:  a pasta dish, salmon cakes, spinach balls, fruit salad, cupcakes made out of wheat flour.  In addition, they made BBQ chicken, ribs, red beans and rice, vegetable kabobs, shrimp gumbo and fresh string beans.  Ronnie rated this dinner high in all categories (free from interruption, having fun, talking about ethics, sharing the workload, etc.).

Success #3: A delicious contribution from everyone
The third dinner reported was the shortest.  Each family member chose a particular part of the meal:  Frank chose to bake haddock with black bean sauce, Ronnie made some brown rice and unsalted herbs, roasted potatoes and cooked onions, fresh carrots and sliced zucchini, and garlic bread with romano cheese; Deisha wanted banana bread with vanilla ice cream.  The food was a success, everyone helped, and the healthy meal was prepared in less than 45 minutes.  They didn’t choose anything from the website but discussed the menu together beforehand.  Again, Ronnie rated the dinner high in all categories.

Reflecting on progress: Finding time for dinner during a busy week
When we spoke during her family’s participation on the project, Ronnie said she was always on the go. During the weekdays things were especially rushed, but she said that everyone did their part in getting dinner ready.  Sometimes, when they were particularly hurried, they would eat something quick (fast food like Wendy’s, for example).

On the weekends, when everyone was together, they would do something more involved for dinner, and try to make sure that there was something everyone liked.  Conversations during dinner were never a problem, according to Ronnie, they had the “gift of gab” and would talk about how their days went, relax and have fun together.

Final thoughts: “Typical” vs. “family” dinners, and learning to be more relaxed and accepting
In our final interview with Ronnie, we asked her to describe a “typical” dinner night at the Johnson’s, versus a “family dinner” night.  A typical night meant no pressure on anyone besides Ronnie:  everyone decides what he or she wants to eat, makes due with whatever is in the refrigerator, dinner is quick and simple, and Deisha may snack on fruit while Ronnie cooks.

A family dinner night is planned in advance:  Ronnie does research on the website, choosing a night for the dinner, and finds something they’d like to share or participate in.  Frank and Ronnie would cook the meal together, and Deisha would help out with the more simple preparation.  Ronnie told us that for the most part, their dinners were successful:  she got input from her family about what they would eat and the conversation was always lively, and they were able to catch upon what everyone was involved in.  She pointed out that Deisha doesn’t always talk about everything at the table, but prefers to keep some things for more private moments.

In general, she says that her family is happier because they are spending more time together:  they’re more relaxed, have learned to let the small things go and they have become more accepting of one another.

Looking ahead: Continuing family rituals and bringing happiness to the dinner table
In going forward, the Johnsons will continue many habits and rituals they had established before their participation in The Family Dinner Project.  For example, they say a prayer together in the morning, at dinner and at night.

Additionally, Ronnie says that they will continue to try to get together at least four times a week, sit down and share, and bring something positive to the dinner table.  These goals are not new, but she says that The Family Dinner Project has helped her to focus more, and “turn the light bulb on,” to highlight how important it is that they have open discussion together.

Ronnie hopes to continue to try new recipes, especially for Deisha’s sake.  Because she is so young, Ronnie is very focused on trying to shape her tastes.