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Dishing at the dinner table: Meaningful meal traditions

Published on: December 01, 2008

'Tis the season for traditions, those meaningful holiday routines that once a year bring the family into focus. Now, wouldn’t it be nice to have more family traditions the other 11 months of the year?

Kevin Woody thinks so. For the past decade, Woody and his Woodinville family have spent their evening mealtimes sharing their daily stories by playing “High, low and what do you remember?” They do this several times a week as a regular tradition. A recent “high” for 14-year-old Ben was getting straight A’s. His “low” was realizing that some close friendships were changing in ways he had not expected. Ben’s dad reflects, “It’s difficult to know what your kids are upset about when you don’t ask them. 

Dinner candle“There are so many things kids are concerned about, but they don’t have the opportunity to share.”

For many of us, it is tough to imagine pulling this sort of mealtime tradition off when tweens’ busy sports schedules and after-school activities preclude dinners together, let alone slowing down enough to share events of the day over dinner. But experts say creating a regular meal tradition — in whatever form it takes — will go a long way toward strengthening family bonds.

Why meal traditions matter

Meals are as much about the community and the company as they are about the food, says Heidi Kenyon, the co-owner of Culinary Communion cooking school in Seattle’s Beacon Hill neighborhood. “Family mealtime can foster an intimacy, a feeling of closeness and trust that is hard to come by other times of the day,” she says.

Getting involved in the menu choices and meal preparation adds a layer of learning to meals, says Kenyon, who has three children. “If you are working alongside a child in the kitchen, going through the process of making a meal, kids see how simple ingredients are changed into dinner,” she says. “Best of all, it also affords you a chance at different interactions with your kids.”

Jean Tracy, a family counselor in Edmonds, helps families through her private practice as well as in schools and on her website. She believes creating some tradition at meal times can be a “backbone for family members, a place where everyone feels strong and feels a sense of belonging.” Tracy advises parents to keep it light when choosing the family’s tradition or conversation topic. “Save the heavy topics for another time, because you don’t want kids to avoid dinner.

“What you’re doing here is creating trust, and if your kids trust you, then they’ll come talk to you.”

Creating your own meal traditions

Here are some fun suggestions from the pros:

Culture nights. Families with a particular ethnic background have a natural jumping-off point, and the menus can have great personal meaning. But, Tracy suggests, no matter what culture one comes from, all families might try giving each month a theme of exploring a particular country or culture. It doesn’t have to apply to every night of the week, but a family can pick perhaps two nights a week for “around the world” night or “taste of Italy” night. Kids can help pick the menu, depending on their interest; they can get cookbooks with recipes from that region and help prepare the meals. Learning about the culture can kick off conversations that are fun and low-pressure, but still provide a chance for children to express themselves, offering up that rare window into their thinking.

Conversation starters: As the Woody family has found with their “high, low” game, great conversations can start with the simplest of prompts. They can be prepackaged, such as Table Topic card sets, which come in different editions, including the “Family” edition. Questions from that collection range from “What’s the ultimate ice cream sundae?” to “What are the positives and negatives of being competitive?” to “If you had to live with another family for a year, which family would you choose?” (A parent can always throw out that card!) The sets cost about $25, but with a little creativity, families could certainly generate questions of their own.

While the topics can be light, conversation starters can still be meaningful. Heidi Kenyon describes her own upbringing as “not terribly religious,” but says the family always found time to say grace before each meal, as well as what each person was thankful for. She and her husband have continued that with their own children. A recent response from one child: “I’m thankful for my brother, my sister and juice.” Without much doing, a family memory is made.

Meals away from home. With many of us on the go, Jean Tracy suggests picking a favorite restaurant to visit regularly, say, after a sports practice or game. It does not have to be expensive; remember, it’s the tradition that matters here, not the ambiance.

For years, when her son Brian was in his early teen years, Tracy would take him out to a different restaurant in Edmonds every Tuesday night after his guitar lessons. She says she would “put a clamp on my own mouth mentally, so that there could be silence.” Then, Tracy says, her son would begin to talk. Maybe it would be about his favorite music, his favorite band — whatever it was, she would make an effort not to interrogate.

One day, Tracy’s tradition led to the ultimate reward, one that even with her professional training, she could not have hoped for. After one of the meals out, her then 15- year-old son said to her, “Mom, you’re my best friend.” Talk about an incentive to giving meal traditions a go!

Hilary Benson lives in the Seattle area with her three sons who enjoy the kitchen and cooking as much as she does.


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