Make the expression of gratitude part of your family dinner ritual. However you say it — with a prayer or blessing, a question for the table, quotes, stories, a few simple words of thanks — gratitude is a basic ingredient to a healthy life.
Here’s an idea: print out some pre-written “gratitude quotes” and place one under each person’s dinner plate. At an appropriate moment, explain that everyone has a special quote under their plate and go around the table reading them. It’s a great way to get everyone involved in expressing gratitude.
Games to play at the table are a great way to get the conversation going during family dinner. Here’s one we like, the Category Word Game:
Pick a category and everyone lists one thing from that category. Go around as many times as is entertaining. For example, the category is summer. I say watermelon, the next person says flip-flops, the next person says beach blanket, and so on. The classic version of this is to play it as a memory game. The person repeats the answers before theirs and then adds their own. We use this game a lot in restaurants waiting for food.
“Picnic” is another fun variation on this game. The first person starts by saying, “I’m going on a picnic and I am bringing salami.” The next person says, “I’m going on a picnic and I’m bringing salami and crusty bread,” and around the table you go. Trust us—it soon gets hard and makes your mouth water! Next thing you know, you’ll be planning a picnic!
As we all know, dinner isn’t just about the food that’s on the table; it’s also about the conversation and the connections around the table. So tonight, invite your great grandmother to dinner.
Today is the day to open wide your fancy dish cabinet. Find the dainty cups, silver napkin holders and soup terrines that hold stories about your ancestors. Dust them off, gather them on your table and get ready for an evening of storytelling.
Tell your kids about why your grandmother or mother or uncle’s heirlooms are special, what were their lives like, and from where did they come?
Every year for my birthday my mother gives me a few pieces of her mother’s silverware. I use them often and am always reminded of the two of them and the seven years during World War II that silverware spent deep in a hole in the backyard, hidden from harm. And I imagine the first dinner after the war, when it was dug up, polished and set at a peaceful table. Had these stories not been told to me, the silverware would just be cutlery and not a reminder of where I am from.
Emory University’s Sloan Center for the Study of Myth and Ritual has spent over a decade studying the impact of rituals and have concluded that passing on our family stories directly builds resiliency and self esteem in our children. And the best place to tell these stories is around the dinner table!
So light great grandma’s dusty old candelabra (no need to polish it first), stick a few daisies in your uncle’s martini shaker and tell your kids the funniest story about when grandpa…
If you don’t tell them, how will they tell their kids?
In our first book, The Family Dinner, we present “Ten Simple Steps to Successful Family Dinners.” A couple of those rules can be quickly summarized thus: “No Screens!”
No Phones: Do not answer the phone at dinner. Do not allow any cellphones at the table. No ringing, vibrating, answering, or texting allowed. If someone does bring their phone, take it away for as long as you decide to keep it. That will teach them to leave it elsewhere next time.
No Television: Of course, that also includes any electronic device like computers, iPads, Kindles, game devices, etc. Your kids will argue they can do three things at the same time (watch TV, eat, and listen closely to your every word, maybe even IM, too!), but it doesn’t matter.
As with all the rules in Chapter Two, pay no attention to the complaining. It’s just human nature to resist. Your job is to insist! Enforcement must apply to everyone (even Mom and Dad).
It’s important to talk to one another as a family at the table, as it may be one of the few times during the day you are all together. Modern technology may provide great tools for communication, education and entertainment. But at the family dinner table, it’s all just distraction.
Try this for a week or a year, especially if your kids are the kind whose pockets are always spilling with found objects.
Place a bowl in the center of your table. As the week progresses and objects are found, either by chance or on special treasure seeking expeditions, the empty nests, and magical marbles, the rock that looks like uncle Bob’s nose, acorns, perfect pebbles and strange seeds, are all placed in the bowl. At the end of the week let each person explain what he or she has found, and why it is so special.
This not only gives you something to talk about, and perhaps a new appreciation of someone else’s finds, it also makes you look at your world in a different manner as you search for objects that are beautiful, odd or surprisingly meaningful.