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The Shapiro family

Eating out to create more conversation

Background:  A single mother with two children
Melanie Shapiro is a single mother, as she puts it, “by choice.” She very much wanted to have children, and used artificial insemination to have two kids.  Her children are Max, 12, and Alexis, 9.

Starting point: Trader Joe’s, repeated meals and a cluttered kitchen
The family had a few problems getting together for dinner, and usually only ate together twice a week. Melanie might pick something up from Trader Joe’s, and everyone cooked and cleaned up at separate times and in separate places.

Melanie describes her kitchen as full of “stuff” – cluttered – and this is definitely a barrier to the family sitting down to meals together. Melanie is perfectly happy with repeating meals, but the children prefer more variety. Melanie also notes that she tends to have cereal for dinner fairly often.

During the summers, the Shapiros spend a month camping together. Meals work better when they’re away, and they grill a lot. There are fewer distractions, which helps the family be more in sync with one another.

An ideal meal: Fewer dirty dishes, more interesting conversation
An ideal meal would involve no cooking and no clean-up, since the Shapiros like to eat out when they can afford it. Everyone would enjoy the food, which would hopefully be nutritious. There would be no bickering, and perhaps they might even try something new.

The family doesn’t have trouble with conversation, and are always able to find things to talk about.  Typically, conversations involve what they all did during the day.

Melanie wondered if it might be easier for her, as a single parent, because her children can talk freely without competing with an “adult” conversation at the table.  She also suggested that this might be one reason that she enjoys dinners with other families, because the conversation can be more varied in these cases (implying that she herself misses some “adult” conversation).

Sometimes, when they’ve had dinners with another family, they’ve played a game called “High, Low, Grateful.”  Each person has a chance to say what the high and low of their week (or day) was, and also choose something for which they are grateful.  This has often evolved into interesting, reflective conversation.

Setting goals: Decreasing stress while increasing healthy food
When Melanie was growing up, she ate out quite a bit, and she couldn’t discern between the qualities of different foods.  Now she feels that she can really tell the difference, and she is frequently frustrated that she can neither buy nor prepare the kinds of food she really wants to eat with her children.

In terms of what they eat, Melanie feels that her children need more variety in their meals than she does. She would also like to find a way to reduce stress in order to improve the quality of their dinners.

Max, Alexis and Melanie all indicated that they wanted to eat together more often as a result of their participation in the project. They also agreed that sharing the workload was important.  The children both wanted more time free from interruption during their meals.

Success #1: Eating together without distractions
Although they had a bit of a rocky beginning with organizing meals, the Shapiros were able to get on track after a few weeks. Melanie had asked herself why she was able to manage dinners when they were away camping over the summer, and came to the conclusion that it had to do with the lack of distraction:  no phones, no computers, her kids aren’t trying to get going to other places.

So twice a week, the family has been eating out at places that she would consider “a step above fast food,” such as Uno’s, Bertucci’s, or Not Your Average Joe’s.

Success #2: In-depth conversation
They talk about things that are going on at school, or current events, and everyone seems to be enjoying their time together.  Conversation “pretty much just happens.” Either they were listening to something in the car, or they see something in the paper, and they start talking about it.

During the project, the rescue of Chilean miners was a big topic for the family.  The Shapiros don’t own a television, so Melanie doubts that Max and Alexis would have known much about it if they hadn’t talked about it over dinner.  They talked about why people are willing to be miners in the first place, about different levels of poverty – she suggested that it’s likely that these individuals didn’t necessarily want to be miners, but that it may well be something their families have done for generations, or the only employment they could find.

Because they spend a fair amount of the day in the car, Melanie also tries to make use of this time. They listen to NPR together and talk about what they hear, or they read, but they’re not allowed to play video games.

Dinner challenges: Cooking with grandparents
During the warmer months, Melanie’s parents will be in town, and this further complicates dinner.  Her father has Alzheimer’s disease, and although he remembers Max and Alexis’s names, he doesn’t remember that they are his grandchildren.  The meals when they include Melanie’s parents are typically even more difficult because they include all the typical issues of trying to cook a meal at home and add in her father (who is “noise intolerant”). Usually, the kids will become “nudgey” with one another.

Looking ahead: Continuing to find peace and decrease distractions
The Family Dinner Project has helped Melanie in that it has made her think about family dinners as a goal.  But she acknowledges that what she really needs is to bring more overall organization to her household.

According to Melanie, “I don’t know that I had any realistic expectations.  My barriers are different from others.  Not that we don’t sit down or don’t talk.  We do, a lot.  It tends not to be at meals at my house. Now, I’m more aware when we’re at [other] places that we can talk, that I’m not playing on my cell, bringing in my newspaper, my kids aren’t bringing in their electronics. It made me more aware that I always like to be reading or doing something.  I would take my most recent stack of papers and sort through them – now I don’t always do that.”