In her work as Director of Family and Couples Therapy at Massachusetts General Hospital and co-founder of the Family Dinner Project, she’s learned a few things about building stronger families. One is that families that have dinner together suffer less depression, anxiety, substance abuse and teen pregnancy, among other things.
On that topic, she’s just authored a new book, called Home for Dinner: Mixing Food, Fun, and Conversation for a Happier Family and Healthier Kids. In it she explains how to maximize that time around the dinner table with healthy recipes, tips for dinner conversation, games to play, instructions on storytelling, and how to lead the family through change right at the table.
In her book and our conversation this week, she offers these concrete tips and tools to move beyond the simple “How was your day?” conversation starter at dinner:
- Rose and Thorn – Each family member has to share something positive (the rose) that happened to them during the day, and something negative (the thorn).
- Two Truths and a Lie – Each family member has to share two things that actually happened to them during the day, and one thing that did not. The other family members compete to see who can guess which ones are true and which one is the lie.
- Would You Rather – Take turns asking each person “Would you rather. . . ” and then finish the sentence with an interesting choice like, “. . . be able to fly or be invisible? . . . live in the future or in the past? . . . speak every language or play every instrument?”
- The Storytelling Game – Make up a collective fictional story. One person starts by making up the first few sentences. Then the next person has to make up the next few sentences, and so on. Helps build creativity and imagination.
- Guess that Emotion – Agree on a set of emotions to work with (i.e., happy, sad, surprised, worried, angry, etc.) One person leaves the room for a minute while the others pick which emotion to play with for the round. When the other person returns, the rest of the family has to talk and eat with that feeling in mind but without naming the emotion, while the other person tries to guess which emotion is on display. Helps build empathy.
- Mindfulness Game – Everyone close your eyes and be quiet for one minute. Then describe in detail what you heard, felt, smelled, during that minute. See how different the answers are.
- Guess the Title – Someone starts describing a list of items, tangible or not, and the rest of the family tries to figure out what the intended title of the list would be. So, “loose change, car keys, lipstick, etc.” might be titled “Things in my purse.” First one to guess the right title wins.
- Fruit and Vegetable Game – One person think of someone everyone at the table knows. Then everyone else asks them metaphorical questions to help them guess who the person is. For example, “If they were a vegetable, which one would they be?” Or “if they were a color, what color would they be?” This helps kids think abstractly and metaphorically.
- Higglety-Pigglety – One person thinks of two rhyming words, like “crazy daisy” and then gives the other players synonyms as clues, such as “insane flower” to see who can guess the rhyming words quickest.
- How well do you know me – Agree on a set of interesting questions, like “if you had a tatoo, what would it be?” or “If the house was on fire, what one item would you grab on the way out?” Then each person write down an answer to each question and put the answers together somewhere. Over dinner, read the first question and all the answers that go with it. Then try to guess which answers came from which person.
With all of these games, the objective isn’t just to play the game, but to have a conversation and tell stories that bring about better understanding and better relationships. The games are just the impetus to start that conversation.
You can learn more about Dr. Fishel and her work at www.thefamilydinnerproject.org and annefishel.wordpress.com or on Twitter at @Home4Dinnerbook. Her book provides many more ideas for leveraging family time for dinner, and is available online and in bookstores everywhere.
[You can find 101 character-building stories in my book, Parenting with a Story: Real-life Lessons in Character for Parents and Children to Share. Sign up for my newsletter here to get a story a week delivered to your inbox.]