Ethics, Civil Discourse and the Family Meal

Photo: GranniesKitchen/Flickr

Civil discourse and roasted chicken wouldn’t seem to go together at first blush. Nor would a conversation about ethics and, say, a summer salad. Yet the connection is more direct than you think.

The critical issue here is not the food itself, but the sharing of meals and conversation in community, specifically at the dinner hour.

PRK has featured in previous posts the writings of Dr. Anne Fishel, an Associate Clinical Professor of Psychology at Harvard Medical School and Director of the Family and Couples Therapy Program at Mass General Hospital (Roll Reversal and Family Dinners).

Today, however, we delve into the newest initiative Anne’s involved with, The Family Dinner Project. It’s team-led, based here in Boston, and it aims to support individual families and communities in making mealtime more meaningful. Not perfect, mind you. But certainly more fun, more frequent, more nutritious and therefore more effective in promoting wellness — mental, emotional and physical.

The Family Dinner Project started with Shelly London who, as a fellow at Harvard’s Advanced Leadership Initiative, developed several projects to promote conversations about ethics. She reasoned that family dinners are the main time of day when families get together, and so this would be an ideal time to have meaningful conversation. First, of course, you have to get families to the table…
– Anne Fishel

Important social norms (e.g., civil discourse) are learned at the table. And the health benefits of communal meals are unequivocal, statistically proven.

Anne speaks with us, below, about the ways in which The Family Dinner Project helps make family diners more do-able and rewarding.

How would you describe The Family Dinner Project to people unfamiliar with it?
The Family Dinner Project is a start-up grassroots effort to promote great eating, meaningful conversation and fun. Families of all types can come together in person and online to share their experiences and insights, helping each other realize the benefits of family dinners.

The Family Dinner Project website, which will continue to expand, has many resources –- a family blog, easy, nutritious recipes, fun activities and interesting conversation topics. There are also tips for engaging kids of different ages in meaningful conversation and for overcoming obstacles such as conflicting schedules and picky eaters.

Our team is ready to help families, organizations and communities of all types join The Family Dinner Project.

What prompted you to launch it?
The Family Dinner Project started with Shelly London who, as a fellow at Harvard’s Advanced Leadership Initiative, developed several projects to promote conversations about ethics. She reasoned that family dinners are the main time of day when families get together, and so this would be an ideal time to have meaningful conversation. First, of course, you have to get families to the table.

She formed an initial team to start working with families and developing the resources they’d find helpful. This team included me, a family therapist; Lynn Barendsen and Wendy Fischman from the GoodWork Project at Harvard; Laura Chasin and Bob Stains from The Public Conversations Project; Ashley Sandvi, a recent graduate student of Harvard’s Ed School and Jono Reduker, a web designer. Mary Reilly was our resident chef, although she has recently left to open a restaurant.

All of us on The Family Dinner Project team share the conviction that family dinners are good for the spirit, the brain and the health of all family members. By reclaiming nightly dinners, families can connect, recharge and have a good time together. Dramatic research findings show that family dinners can also inoculate us against a host of ills, such as substance abuse, depression, teenage pregnancy, eating disorders and low achievement scores. Studies show that dinner conversation is a more potent vocabulary booster than reading, and the stories we tell around the kitchen table allow our children to build resilience and self-esteem. Could there be a better use of an hour a day?

If the Project has one overarching goal, what is it?
We want to make rewarding family dinners an easier goal to reach. By helping families share their own experiences in groups and online, we hope to inspire new conversations at the table and offer solutions to families struggling to get dinner on the table every night. One size does not fit all –- we hope that families will use this project to experience the benefits of dinners in a way that works best for them.

Families have told us about a variety of barriers, including money, family tension, and the burden of planning, shopping and cooking. But…[f]amily dinners are really such an efficient use of time when you think of the benefits they provide now and in the future.
– Anne Fishel

Who do you think would benefit most from participating, and why?
Everyone seems to know that family dinners are a good idea. But, families are so pressed for time that they often feel overwhelmed to make them happen. And they sometimes don’t know what they’ll talk about or how to make dinner fun. Dinners don’t need to be perfect, but they can be more frequent, more nutritious and more meaningful. This project is meant to help families who want to improve their family dinners but need some extra help and support.

We have enjoyed reading the “Family Blog” entries. What do you look for in them?
We look for stories of authentic family dinners – the challenges, the breakthroughs, the simple tips and the poignant memories. So far, we’ve posted a variety from adults and kids, including a blog from a father of a special needs son, a video from a young teen making his favorite decadent dessert, reflections on family conversations, ideas on table games and more. If you’d like to share a story, please contact us.

If there is one barrier to families eating dinners together these days, what, in your opinion, is it? Do you feel America is unique in this regard?
Families have told us about a variety of barriers, including money, family tension, and the burden of planning, shopping and cooking. But everyone –- parents and kids alike –- seems to complain about lack of time. While we’re not experts in other cultures, we understand that people in many other countries have a firm tradition of taking time for family meals. Family dinners are really such an efficient use of time when you think of the benefits they provide now and in the future.

Tell us more about the projects now running at the Pingree School and Southern Vermont College: ups, downs, goals, progress?
With both these projects, the communities are using The Family Dinner Project framework to work on their own goals. Southern Vermont College launched a series of dinners for their college students (who were trained as dinner conversationalists) and families in the community with high school-aged children; the dinners promoted conversations about the college experience, the value of education, and food preparation and healthy eating. This program is continuing and, under SVC’s guidance, it is expanding to two other college campuses in the coming academic year. The Pingree School offered a course this year on food writing, and that class wanted to expand their interest in food to engage the school community. We’re working with them to help make that happen when school begins in September.

How do you hope to grow The Family Dinner Project?
We hope to grow The Family Dinner Project by working with existing communities, such as schools, pediatric practices, PTOs, civic and religious organizations and online groups, whose members want more frequent and satisfying family meals. We can help them with techniques, tools and even training– in person or online – to have the kinds of family meals that they want.

Can family meals change the world?
We like to dream big. Kids can learn so much from family meals – teamwork in preparing meals together, empowerment from having their voices heard, empathy in discussing important ethical issues and tolerance in understanding multiple points of view. In addition to all the nutritional and psychological benefits, civil discourse — a building block of a just society — can really start at the dinner table.

3 thoughts on “Ethics, Civil Discourse and the Family Meal

  1. Pingback: Context is Everything: The ‘Where’ of Family Dinners | Public Radio Kitchen

  2. Pingback: Meeting Your Child’s Sweetheart: 12 Tips For A Successful Meal | Public Radio Kitchen

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