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Family Starts with Two

Creating a Dinner Ritual

Dr. Anne Fishel is an Associate Clinical Professor of Psychology at the Harvard Medical School and the Director of the Family and Couples Therapy Program at Massachusetts General Hospital. She has lectured and written about the benefits of family meals. Her book about family dinners, Home for Dinner: Mixing Food, Fun and Conversation for Happier Families and Healthier Kids, is available through Amazon.

Family therapists have a joke (which may not be all that funny) that there are six people in the marital bed – the couple, plus their two sets of parents. If that’s true, then there is probably twice that number at the dinner table, since each person brings along their experiences with their own siblings as well as their parents when they begin to create a dinner ritual for two.

When I meet with a new couple in therapy, I always ask them about dinner, because that question is a pipeline into their childhoods. One person might describe a boisterous scene filled with political arguments and everyone free to interrupt one another. The other member of the couple might tell about dinners where family members ate as quickly as possible with little conversation, except for parents correcting table manners.

You can imagine that when two such different people put their snapshots of childhood family dinners side by side, they have a lot to figure out, starting with what kind of table talk will feel comfortable. The couple can start to ask questions such as: What do you want to carry forward, and what will we leave behind? Will we create a new version of dinnertime, or borrow from what worked in the past? This process of looking back and forward is the biggest job of a newly committed couple, the process of making decisions together that were previously made separately or by their families. There are lots of things to figure out – how to fight, spend or save money, make friends, use time, choose a place to live. But I think that developing a dinner ritual is a great place to start.

Why? First of all, a nightly dinner can be a comforting daily ritual that offers a predictable time of the day to connect with each other, and disconnect from work and technology. Also, we all need rituals to feel a sense of belonging and meaning. But dinner has some particular advantages. It’s a time to connect past, present, and future. You can learn about your partner’s childhood, what happened at work today, and talk about plans for the weekend. Beginning a dinner ritual, however infrequent or rushed, can be modified and altered as the years go on. Dinner just keeps offering up more chances to experiment.

To create your own unique dinner ritual as a couple:

Start with discussing your childhood dinners.

  • What was dinner like in your family growing up?
  • What did you like best, and want to carry forward? Is there anything you definitely want to do differently?
  • What do you remember about dinner conversations? What did you enjoy talking about? Was there anything that made you uncomfortable?
  • What was the meaning of food? Was it about love, control, nurture, experimentation, or something else?

Decide how to divvy up the work of meal planning, shopping, cooking, and cleaning up.

  • Think about how your parents handled the division of work. Did the work fall to one person, or was it shared each night or in an alternating way? Did the work feel like a burden?
  • What suits you two best? Do you want to alternate the cooking and the cleaning up? Do you want to do some parts together, like the shopping and meal planning, but then divide up the food preparation and dish washing? Or do you want to take turns, so that each person has an “on” night and an “off” night?

Determine how you’ll make space for dinnertime as a separate part of the day.

  • Choose a regular time and place.
  • Turn off phones and other electronic devices so you won’t be distracted by work intrusions.
  • Light candles or play music to set a tone for the mealtime.
  • Change out of your work clothes.

Don’t worry if it’s infrequent or imperfect!

One of my students, newly married, took to heart the importance of family dinners even though she and her husband worked opposite hospital shifts. Undaunted by their incompatible schedules, she set her alarm for 2 AM every night so she could rouse herself to cook him dinner and have it waiting at 3 AM when he got home! While this was romantic and showed a real commitment to family dinners, I had to wonder, “Wouldn’t a breakfast ritual make more sense?” Many new couples find that balancing schedules to have regular dinners together just isn’t possible. If breakfast is easier than dinner, why not create a morning ritual instead of an evening one? Or plan one meal that marks the end of the work week? Maybe that meal will be Saturday lunch. It doesn’t matter when you sit down together, as much as it matters that you do sit down together.

What’s most important is starting a practice of eating and talking with one another. As a couple, you’ll have dozens of decisions to make about how to share your lives. But once you’ve figured out how to have a dinner ritual – you can eat it, too.