So you’ve finally done it. You’ve made family mealtimes a high priority in your household. But now you have a problem they didn’t tell you about.
Cornell University found that family dinners five times a week prevent disordered eating. Columbia University found that this helps prevent smoking, drinking, and drug use in teens. Purdue University found that eight out of 10 parents highly value mealtime together—but only 33 percent of us actually do it.
Yes, the craziness of modern schedules is one reason this doesn’t happen more often—working moms and dads and activities for kids of all ages. But another reason is that problem no one tells you about: Eating together as a family is not always a pleasant experience.
This is why my wife, April, insists that we not just have a meal plan for dinner—but that we have a conversation plan, too. Before, dinner with our nine children consisted of either shouted exclamations competing for attention or an exercise in absurdist one-upmanship: “What if our dog Lucy could fly?” and “What if you went to McDonalds drive-thru and Lucy handed you your food and barked?”
If we didn’t change something, April would have fled the table.
I recently asked a group of Catholic moms and dads—with families of various sizes—how they structure their dinner conversations. My own family is already enjoying the fruits of their ideas. See if yours can, too.
Why plan at all?
Many parents said a plan for dinner conversation was not their style. Instead they shared informal rules like “no secrets at the table,” “no business at the table” (arrange schedules and do homework checks at some other time), and “no singing at the table” (a rule that takes constant vigilance to enforce)—and even “no jokes at the table” (or often, “Enough already! No more jokes”).
These are, essentially, dinner manners—and dinner manners are a form of family dinner management.
Dino Durando, the director of Family Life at the Kansas City-St. Joseph, Missouri Diocese, says Catholics have more to offer than just manners.
He kicks off his family dinner conversations at home. “I start with a story of how God did something great in my own day and then see where they go with it.”
He identifies a kind of “theology of mealtime” or “spirituality of mealtime.”
“The Catholic Church actually has a very rich theology of ‘breaking bread’ going back to our Jewish/ Hebrew roots and highlighted by religious life—think Compania de Jesus, those who break bread together,” said Durando. “I think a rediscovery of the value of sharing food, life experiences, and faith together would help solve a lot of the family problems we face in our fractured and self-centered culture.”
Yes, a plan helps you to keep conversation from devolving into shouting over each other, general silliness, or side conversations that ignore the rest of the people at the table.
But it can also help you build important virtues—human and spiritual—that serve you well. Three common questions asked of all present at the table help build human virtues:
- Name one thing you learned today (to remind them they should be learning things).
- What did you do this morning? (to help build memory).
- What are your plans for tomorrow? (to build the planning habit).
Jake Frost of St. Paul, Minnesota, found these especially helpful for the six-year-old and four-year-old at his table.
“Sometimes one child might dominate the talking, or the kids’ conversation can devolve into crazy kid talk between themselves—which can sometimes get them a little too wound-up and dinner gets lost as the antics ramp up,” he said. “With the questions, though, everyone stayed at the table a little more and was a little more engaged, and I thought it was a pretty good dinner with those questions to give us a little direction.”
The kids’ answers revealed how large vacation loomed in his six-year-old’s mind and how bad four-year-olds are at remembering what happened eight hours ago.
But they are good at inventing games. In answer to the question about her plans, his four-year-old said she planned on a “toy hunt.”
“When asked what that is, she said that I would hide toys for her, and she would search for them,” said Frost.
Apart from those basic questions, families have many other strategies for dinnertime conversation. Several are impressive efforts at self-improvement.
Charlie Peitsch, a friend of ours in Atchison, Kansas, asks the basic “what did you do today” question but adds a question that puts the day in perspective: “I ask them to tell me how they were the best version of themselves that day,” he said.
The question comes from the approach taken by Matthew Kelly in his book Rediscover Catholicism.
“You were born to become the-best-version-of-yourself,” writes Kelly. “This is your essential purpose and the most important discovery you will ever make. . . . In every situation, simply ask yourself, ‘Which of the options before me will help me become the-best-version-of-myself?’”
Bernie Sotola of Johns Creek, Georgia, has a great weekly tradition: “Every Sunday at dinner we share one thing we are grateful for and place it in a jar,” he said. “At the end of the year we reflect on all our blessings.”
Jeannie Aaron Conley of San Jose, California, does a daily version of that. “We do a take on the sports highlights and call it ‘play of the day.’ We let everyone share his or her favorite part of the day. The little kids eat it up, and the older kids come up with good examples for the younger ones.”
Conley, who has five boys and three girls, said younger children typically identify “when mom picked me up for school” as their play of the day. “We’ve learned to ask, ‘If you had a second play of the day, what would it be?’ And they will say ‘John letting me play with his toy’ or ‘learning about mosquitos’ or ‘visiting the fire station.’”
Dinner conversations are not just important to larger families, though.
Kathryn Brown of Blue Springs, Missouri, was an only child, and she remembers her dad, a medical scientist, leading conversations around the dinner table. “My dad talked about the projects he was working on at work. In order to do so, he had to explain the science behind them,” she said. “I learned most of my science at the dinner table.”
For information . . . or for fun
Some dinner conversation starters are not necessarily designed to improve the participants—but designed for them to get to know each other a little better.
Rachel Clark, a college sophomore from Pearland, Texas, says that at her family dinner table, “We go around and ask each person to tell his or her ‘high and low.’ The high was the best part of the day, while the low was the worst.”
“Becoming an altar boy was a high,” for one brother, she recalls. “Not receiving first Communion when his older brother did was a low. When friends or family visit, the visitor always ends up in the high category—at least so far.”
What was her personal favorite high? “Getting marriage proposals from two boys I babysat for, both under the age of six, in one week was a funny high.”
Several families also use a questioning technique that has become a Hoopes standby: “What’s your favorite thing about the person to your left?”
The Hoopes family uses this as an anti-snark device. We employ it when the conversation gets too negative. It breaks the tension and hits the reset button on the table’s conversation.
Kersti O’Farrell of Birmingham, Alabama, said, “I ask questions like: ‘What would be in your zoo?’ or ‘Where would you build your castle?’ It’s contrived, but it does add some civility to an otherwise barbarous occasion.”
Gwen Grundman in Front Royal, Virginia, said, “We usually talk philosophy, in between teaching basic manners. But when we get stuck, we also love our ‘table talk questions’!” She says her family uses Table Topics Family Edition—one of several products available to promote dinnertime conversation.
Therese Rodriguez of Montgomery Village, Maryland, chooses fun when things get awkward at the dinner table. When her family is stuck for conversation, she and her husband require everyone to share a one-liner from a favorite movie scene.
The answer is “usually Barry Fitzgerald for old movies, or a song from musicals,” she said. “The rest of the family falls right in line, no matter what else is going on.”
“Ultimately,” said Dino Durando, “the laity has a responsibility for making the most of this part of life for their family. How they do this in the particulars is up to them. Families eating together is a valuable and precious time that can be a moment of catechesis and authentic human development.”
Exactly. And that’s much better than a shouting match or an exercise in creative juvenilia.