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The Mullen family

One table, three teenagers and many distractions

Background: A household with three teenagers
Sarah Mullen and her husband John have three children, Amanda age 19, Barry age 16, and Suzanne, age 13. Both parents work, and the kids have jobs as well. The family thrives on routine — when the kids are in school and have a regular schedule, mealtime is “easy;” however, during the summer months, the Mullens sometimes get out of their routine, and things are more difficult.

Starting point: Scattered meals and lots of takeout
Sarah reports that they have not been eating very healthy food. Rather than cooking, the family has been doing a lot of “takeout.” When they do eat in, Sarah takes charge of most of the meal work: preparing, cooking, and cleaning, since everyone else “seems to do their own thing.”

Indeed, the children eat at different times, have different schedules, and eat in separate places. As a result, Sarah feels like she has to clean constantly and dinner is not “quality time” because of the chaos. There are many disruptions at dinner, including the phone, television, and clashing schedules.

Sarah stresses healthy eating, which sometimes frustrates the children, who would like more variety in their meals. Sarah admittedly makes too much food because she “likes leftovers.” On the weekends, the children work, which makes establishing regular weekend dinners difficult.  The family does, however, always try to eat together at the beginning of the week.

Setting goals: Less chaos, more help
Sarah joined the project in hopes of bringing her family together. She would like to have more “traditional” meals for her family — regular, consistent, and peaceful meals (including the process of preparation and clean up). Sarah would also like to try new recipe ideas and to encourage the kids to help in meal preparation. She hopes that there will be more of a shared workload so that her family can work as a team.

As Sarah describes it, “My kids eat at different times — my son will heat up something, then my daughter will want something else…the kids eat in front of the TV, and every time I clean up the kitchen, someone else wants to eat again. There is no organization. I feel like I am cleaning the kitchen ten times per night. I don’t want the TV on or the telephone to ring. It is chaotic and not quality time.”

Growing up, Sarah had most meals with her family, which she feels encouraged a deep connection between family members. She now wishes the same for her family. In her house, there always seems to be “lots of moving parts,” and she would like to limit this kind of chaos and disorder around dinnertime.

Success #1: An outdoor meal with a new recipe
During their first dinner, the family ate together outside. The menu was taken from The Family Dinner Project website: teriyaki turkey burgers and angel food cake with lime. Sarah enjoyed that the dinner was healthy and easy to prepare, although her husband John was not a fan of the burger.

Because the meal was easy to set up and clean, the Mullens were able to spend more time with each other. Conversations were enjoyable — they used the story game from the website and reported many laughs. Unfortunately, due to the bugs and the cold, the outside experience was not as pleasant as it could have been.

Success #2: Board games with extended family
The next dinner was Suzanne’s birthday, and the whole family came together, including the grandparents. The dinner was relaxing and the family played the game Apples to Apples, which they all enjoyed.

There was much laughter and no interruptions throughout the dinner. However, there were some disagreements about the food: Amanda disliked her mother’s healthy food, and Sarah disliked the unhealthy desserts.

Success #3: A relaxed Sunday meal
On an early Sunday night, everyone helped to prepare the meal, and they all enjoyed it. The fact that it was Sunday made dinner more relaxed and less rushed. The Mullens again used games from the website and reported fun, peaceful conversations.

However, there was disagreement about the amount of food. While Sarah thoroughly enjoyed the meal and family time they had, John and Amanda commented that there was too much food left over.

Dinner challenges: Healthy food vs. junk food
In another instance, the Mullens invited over their in-laws, as it was Sarah’s father-in-law’s birthday. Again, Sarah disliked having junk food dessert at the table, as she is concerned about healthy food choices. Amanda disagreed with her mother’s concern, disliking that her mother is “Miss Healthy.”

However, they enjoyed time with their extended family, and John commented that it was nice that “my parents got to be a part of it.” They played a story telling game, about which Suzanne especially was enthusiastic.

For the final dinner, the family had Mexican food — beef tacos with black beans or shrimp tacos. The response to the food was varied: Sarah liked that the meal was easy and different and that everyone could customize their own tacos, but Amanda disliked Mexican food. Barry and John also enjoyed the Mexican food since they do not have it often. However, everyone agreed that the salad bowl game from the website was a great success. Sarah wrote that there were “so many laughs and [everyone was] out of control in a positive way! [Everyone seems] to have fun at the dinners.”

Reflecting on progress: More routine and meal choices
Whereas at the beginning of the project dinners were disorganized and the family felt disjointed, they now have more of an established routine around family dinners.

During the week, the family has dinner together at least three times. On nights when everyone is not able to sit together they organize “help yourself” dinners. On weekends, the children pick the meals and menus for the upcoming week.

Similarly, there is another rule for family dinner: to create more variety and encourage individual choice. They have worked to meet this goal by asking each person to pick a meal that they would like to make for the family. The children also help with clean up and set up.

Sarah also tries to incorporate different recipes and different tastes. For example, she makes stir-fry because she can “customize what everyone wants.” Although Sarah still struggles with having too many leftovers, she says that, recently, they’ve been eating healthier and spending less money on take-out.

Room for debate: Conversations that “go with the flow”
The topics they cover as a family during dinner range greatly, but Sarah reports that in general, conversation and connection has improved. They discuss school, friends, driving, homework, work, and world issues.

Sarah feels that dinnertime now brings the family together and helps her to get a better sense and understanding of her children. As a parent, Sarah does not pre-plan conversations she would like to have as a family, she lets important discussions come up on their own, and she and her husband “go with the flow.”

Looking ahead: Creating stronger connections and healthier meals
At the beginning of the project, Sarah hoped for more orderly and peaceful dinners. Now, she reports that dinners are more organized, there is more of a team effort, and that through this experience, we are all “getting to re-know” our family.

She reflects back to where her family started three months ago and is happy with their progress in becoming more connected. As she states, “You can’t buy this time.”

However, Sarah also recognizes that this is hard work and that they still have a ways to go. In the future, Sarah would like to work on conversation at the table and continue helping her family to eat healthier meals. She says that it is okay to take “baby steps,” in this work and that so far, she believes her family has been successful in changing their habits.

In all, the family enjoys the dinners (although sometimes Suzanne would rather listen to music in her room), and they hope to continue the dinners without distractions. For the Mullens, dinner has become a valued part of their weekly routine and one that will be practiced even after their formal involvement with the project ends.