Intro and outro written and performed by Dr. Gene Beresin.
When my colleague Kiley told me recently about her Thanksgiving tradition, she gave me some new ideas about family dinners—a subject I think about every night around 7pm, and with every patient I see in family therapy.
As a family therapist, I sometimes feel that I would go out of business if families had regular dinners with one another. Most families would be a lot better off it they just ate together. There are dozens of research studies that show that frequent family dinners promote kids’ mental health—by lowering rates of depression, anxiety, eating disorders and substance abuse, for starters. Family meals also strengthen children’s resilience, self-esteem and sense of connectedness to their parents. Isn’t that exactly what I’m trying to accomplish in therapy? It’s no wonder that I have to stifle the urge to say, ‘Stop wasting your time here. Go home and eat dinner together.’
But, I’m well aware of how hard it is for busy, harried families to find time to sit down to dinner, and I’m always looking for new ways to unlock the benefits without adding any guilt or pressure. So, that is why Kiley’s remarks struck a spark. Here’s what she said:
“My sisters and I love Thanksgiving so much that our father makes a Thanksgiving-like meal throughout the year that he dubs ‘harvest dinner.’ We just can’t get enough of his mashed potatoes!”
She added that she was especially excited this year because he had invited her to be his sous chef.
I love the idea of bringing Thanksgiving dinner to everyday meals. Why not bring some of the spirit (minus the heavy-lifting) of holiday cooking to our regular meals? Two elements in particular could easily translate to everyday dinners—sharing the workload, and focusing on more than the food.
All hands on deck.
Thanksgiving may be the mother of all family dinners, but it’s a meal that fathers, aunts, uncles, grandparents and kids all contribute to.
In my family, Thanksgiving is the only meal my husband takes the lead on. He buys, cooks and carves the turkey, and he recruits our sons to make an old-fashioned stuffing. The side dishes and desserts are my domain, but the cooking is, for once, shared equitably. Each of our guests brings a signature dish—homemade pies from my sisters-in-law, and two types of cranberry sauce from a friend.
However, here are ways you can spread out the work of dinner when it’s just a random weeknight:
Food brings us to the table, but it’s the talk that keeps us there.
At Thanksgiving, there are usually extra people around the table to tell stories and contribute to discussion. Thanksgiving dinner tends to run much longer than the 22 minutes that is average for a nightly family dinner. During the rest of the year, you can help extend time spent at the table by playing games, asking interesting questions and telling stories.
As we all know, some kids, particularly teens, may be reluctant to talk. In fact, they may mutter a few insignificant words, roll their eyes and denounce the conversation altogether. Yet, kids love to hear stories about family history, and want to know about their parents’ lives. It’s kind of like jump-starting a car—it may be hard to turn over initially, but once it gets started, it just keeps on running. So, how can you get the conversation going? Think perhaps about a thought or observance from your day, a past experience, something relevant to the meal served, or any topic you feel would interest or amuse your kids. Then, start the dinner conversation with a story of your own. This modeling behavior can be great at getting the ball rolling.
What NOT to carry forward from Thanksgiving? Hours of cooking.
The many benefits of family dinner do not depend on serving organic arugula or making chicken stock from scratch. In fact, you can hate to cook and still love family dinners.
Like Kiley’s family, you, too, can have ‘harvest dinners’ all year ’round. In addition to those mashed potatoes, just be sure to add a side of story-telling, and everyone pitching in.