The Levine family
Getting an only child more involved in dinner
Background: A small Massachusetts family with a love for cooking
Allison and Ben Levine have one daughter, Amy, who was 16 when they began their involvement with The Family Dinner Project. Both in their 50s, Allison and her husband have been married for 18 years. Allison works part-time as an interior decorator for a company that does senior relocation, and her husband works from home as a financial consultant.
Both Allison and Ben come from “old-fashioned” families where family dinners were an important tradition. Allison really values dinners together and believes having meals as a family has helped her daughter have great conversational and social skills.
Ben loves to cook, and Amy is starting to develop an interest in cooking. Preparing menus and meals in something they enjoy doing as a family.
Starting point: Dinner as a collaborative process
When they started participating in The Family Dinner Project, the Levine family was already very involved in dinner as a group: they all look at cookbooks and choose recipes together.
The family cooks at home about 4 or 5 times a week. Typically, Ben comes up with ideas, Allison and Amy give feedback and offer their own ideas about what to make. Ben does most of the cooking, but Allison helps and Amy is the “taste tester.”
An ideal meal: Laughter, special food, and tranquility
An “ideal” family dinner means that the table is set nicely with an attractive tablecloth, napkins, flowers. There is no clutter, because to Allison clutter “makes your mind cluttered.” The food should also be something special, for example, a spinach lasagna. If everyone loves the food, then they’ll all be happy.
Hopefully, Amy is in a tranquil mood, and maybe a friend of hers joins them. In terms of conversation, the family focuses on positive things going on in Amy’s life. There’s no conversation about things that might put pressure on her, because, as an only child, she is often the focal point.
“Good” conversations mean laughing, having fun, and conversations about things Amy wants to accomplish in life. In turn, Allison and Ben share stories about when they were younger, talk about movies or books, and make plans as a family. They try to make dinners like this happen once or twice a week.
Let’s get specific: Examples of great and not-so-great meals
An example of a good family dinner in their home was a recent birthday celebration, held at her sister-in-law’s home. The decorations were beautiful, the ambience was special, Ben cooked an incredible meal. There was everything from appetizers to wine to music.
Everyone participated in the conversation and they caught up on one another’s lives. Ben and Allison really put in an extra effort and this was noticed and appreciated.
When asked for an example of a recent meal that was not satisfying, Allison mentioned a night where she and Ben had “slaved” over a new recipe on Amy’s behalf. According to Allison, Amy was not grateful.
Appreciation is something that is clearly important to Allison, and it is clear that in these two examples, dinners are considered either successful or not depending upon how appreciated she feels.
Setting goals: Increasing their daughter’s participation and eating new foods
At several points during our first interview with Allison, she mentioned her daughter’s moods, or the fact that they tried to avoid “stressful” conversations during dinner. It became clear that Amy’s moods seem to be a large determinant in whether or not a meal is a success.
One priority in participating in the project was to get Amy even more involved in their family meals. In particular, Allison was hoping to get her daughter more interested in staying at the table, and having fun conversations. Because Amy is an only child, Allison believed they had some unique challenges.
Allison was also hoping to expand the variety of what her family eats, and to find some new recipes that everyone would enjoy.
Allison also said that talking about “values and ethics” is less important during a family dinner. For the most part, Amy knows how to behave, and she has plenty of these types of conversations at other times of day. In fact, Allison wants dinnertime to be more of an “event” for her daughter and her friends — something that’s enjoyable and a reason to stay home, as opposed to something to get out of the way before they head off somewhere else.
Success #1: A relaxed holiday meal
In September, we spoke with Allison right after the Jewish High Holidays, and this celebration was one occasion that was a great success in part because no one was rushed. All participated in the cooking, and rushing to the next thing simply wasn’t an option. They all gave up whatever other obligations they might have had and spent time together as a family.
In fact, the high holidays were different for the Levines in a few ways. They celebrated with Allison’s brother and sister-in-law (and their child), who live close by. Amy’s university-aged cousin also celebrated with them, and as Allison describes it, everyone had fun together. Many of their family members are musical (so they play and sing together), and their views on ethics are similar. Allison’s brother’s family is a little more “strict” with respect to religion, but they are all open and talk about their differences. In fact, Allison pointed out that these differences often inspire interesting conversation.
Success #2: Fun with Grandpa
Another successful meal was also not at home, but at Allison’s father’s house, on a Sunday. Again the whole family worked together to plan the meal, and Amy and Allison shopped together.
The conversation during the meal was a high point: Allison’s father, who is 82, was trying to help guide Amy to think about college AND make it enjoyable. He also told stories about a girlfriend he had when he was in 8th grade, deliberately trying to find topics a teenager might relate to.
They watched a movie together afterwards and had a fire in the fireplace. The only downside to the meal was that they had to leave earlier than they wanted to, to get ready for the busy week ahead of them.
Dinnertime challenges: Making time
During their involvement in The Family Dinner Project, nearly every dinner Allison described was affected by time constraints. Either Amy needed to leave to finish homework or to go somewhere, or Ben had some business to attend to, or they all had to get ready to go somewhere else. On a few occasions, Allison remembered that they seem to spend more time together when they go out to dinner, because there’s more relaxation involved.
There are some topics that they avoid at the table: boyfriend issues, finances (Amy may want to buy something and this can cause arguments) or personal issues between Ben and Allison. Schedules continue to be a challenge for the Levine family.
Reflections on progress: Thinking about food and coming together more
Allison commented that the project has encouraged them to focus more on dinners together. One of the reasons the Levines got involved in The Family Dinner Project was to get Amy more involved, and Allison believes that that’s worked.
The project has also got them thinking about different types of food and the conversations they shared. And they’ve all been made aware of all the “outside annoyances,” like phones and texting.
Ethical conversations are a regular part of their dinner conversation, and they talk about character a lot. Amy is strong and loyal, and will “get into it” with her friends, according to her mother. “She’ll be a great lawyer” because she’s willing to argue with friends and take sides.
Looking ahead: Prioritizing dinner, discussing food costs, and creating calm
Although the Levines have made some progress, and their participation in the Project has renewed their focus on family dinners, they still have some issues they want to work on.
For example, Amy is clearly busy, often has somewhere she wants to go, or something she needs to work on. Allison is also busy, and she acknowledges that Ben is sometimes the last one lingering at the dinner table, sitting alone. Alternatively, there are times when Ben responds to work calls during dinner, which angers Allison. Finding away to prioritize dinners more would be helpful.
Additionally, as Amy gets older, Allison wants to impart an awareness of finances, budgets and dinnertime planning. When she and Amy shopped together recently, Amy was shocked about how much some things cost. Discussing food costs and planning is something the family will to do.
Allison points to her brother and sister-in-law as exemplary in that they are “calmer about things,” and, for example, just ignore calls during dinner. “Toning it down, learning to breathe deeply, take more time” – these are all hopes that Allison has for her family’s future.
Indeed, in the goal sheets they filled out at the end of their months on the project, all three family members highlight working to increase the time they spend at the table. Amy wrote that she was trying to leave her phone in another room and that she’s working hard to make dinner fun instead of “rushing and making it difficult for my parents to relax.” Ben wrote that they will “continue to work together on making dinners flow more easily.”