Time for dinner!” is a phrase uttered nightly in homes across the country. And in this hurried culture, it’s more important than ever to make time for meals enjoyed together.
When I was a child, it wasn’t a choice; it was an expectation. And we didn’t mind! It was a chance for each of us to be heard, share a story, and talk about our high and our low for the day. My siblings were funny, and my parents were awesome storytellers. So, over a big North Carolina meal, our family bonded night after night.
Dinner isn’t about food – it’s about connecting. When we are seen for who we are, or we listen to someone who needs an ear, or we serve others during the meal, our brain releases a hormone called oxytocin. Commonly called the cuddle hormone, oxytocin is a mood elevator and makes us feel more positive and hopeful. So when we push back our chairs, we are energized to go back into the world again.
How can you make this happen? Here are some ideas:
1. No devices allowed!
Don’t just silence them. Put them in a separate room! Take this time to calmly appreciate the people around the table for who they are, in the moment. You are enough. Each child is enough – as he or she is, without any texts or pings or likes on social media.
2. Begin with a mindful moment.
Don’t jump right into eating. Honor the fact that you treasure being together with a prayer to your Higher Power, a quote or reflection, or simply a moment of silence. This small act of ceasing reminds the family that you are here together, and for this moment, at least, the world is behind the door and this is a safe place.
3. Pass the potatoes and the Gratitude Bowl!
Looking for conversation starters? Set out a bowl in the family area with slips of paper and pen (or crayon) nearby. Invite each family member to drop something in the bowl every day or week for which they are grateful. Keep it simple: a good book, a score in the game, a grade they worked hard for. Little ones can draw a picture of a friend, a toy, or a field trip at school they loved. And don’t forget to model this! Drop in a compliment from the boss, a co-worker who cared, a cup of coffee with a good friend. Then, during dinner, pass the Gratitude Bowl, celebrate the moments, and share the feels.
4. Share a story.
Connecting our kids with our lives growing up gives them history. My dad’s stories of his challenging family taught me about people, perseverance, and faith. And stories about his nutty friend whose mom doted on him so much that he could get away with anything – lying, stealing, cheating – made us laugh as we learned about character and, frankly, what not to do.
5. Teach these four powerful words: “How can I help?”
My brother taught these four magic words to his two boys. When they visited my family, they’d push back their chairs, look around and say, “How can I help?” And clean up would begin. Teach these words consistently. Your children will feel great through serving (remember oxytocin?) and no one will be left alone on clean-up duty.
6. Teach manners.
My mom used to say, “I want you to be able to eat with the Queen of England herself if you get the chance.” We practiced putting the fork on the left and the knife on the right. We pushed with our bread and not our fingers. And we always said thank you for a meal.
Make dinnertime an anchor in the storm of life, when family members can turn to each other and say, “Tell me. We’re all here.” The holiday season is built for enjoying special meals together. I hope you can use some of these strategies to make not only holiday meals, but all family time around the table, special.