Besides being the place where you can comment on how juicy the baked chicken turned out, mealtimes offer the opportunity to share new ideas, insights, and anecdotes that will help your family bond.
What better way to connect with your children than by learning together? Try these six activities at your next meals to get everyone using their noodles instead of just eating them.
1. Eliminate Distractions
Play Phone Stack. It’s a game restaurant-goers use to encourage conversation at meals. Everyone stacks their cell phones face down on the table. The first member of the family to check her device during mealtime has to wash the dishes, or pay a dollar.
You’ll be surprised to find out who is the most anxious to check her phone. Maybe it’ll be you!
This is geared towards adults and teenagers, especially those of us glued to our phones. Teaching your family to tune in to each other, rather than technology, instills the idea that those in your presence deserve your attention. And if you bring up intriguing topics and create insightful debate around the table, your family will be too busy sharing to even think about texting.
While you’re at it, turn off the television. There’s no conversation killer like a TV getting all the attention.
2. Share the News
Discuss current events, both in the world and in your life. Each person can talk about an article she read, or about one thing she learned at school or work.
The idea is to teach family members to not only share their opinions, but to encourage polite debate around important topics.
Make it age appropriate. Elementary school children are likely to share different news items than middle and high schoolers.
On a deeper level, creating openness and encouraging sharing at the dinner table resists what researchers call the spiral of silence. Human behavior patterns indicate that when individuals do not feel like they have shared views with others, they are less likely to speak out in public when it really matters.
3. Create a Symposium
In ancient Greece, philosophers such as Socrates and Plato would have elaborate dinners to discuss important ideas like love and justice.
You don’t have to serve an opulent dinner, nor do participants need to wear a chiton, but take a page from these philosophers when it comes to sparking intellectual debate around the table.
The idea is to pose a thoughtful question and hear everyone’s answers. If you’re having difficulty coming up with questions, there are resources available to generate discussion points, but it really can be as simple as asking, “What does love mean to you?” or “What two things would you change about your workplace or school?”
There are a few books that offer superb conversation starters. If you want to get really philosophical, read Marietta McCarty’s “Little Big Minds”. It’s written to help educators teach philosophy to children, and it’s chock full of ideas to jump start conversation, either at the dinner table or on the playground.
Children under six may have a more difficult time dealing with weightier issues, but you can still create an engaging symposium for this group by tapping into younger children’s innate curiosity about the world around them; show them that sometimes the question is more important than the answer.
4. Extend the Conversation With Ritual
Research about family communication at the dinner table has given us clues about the positive and negative messages we convey when we share ideas.
If your family conversation consists only of “Put your napkin down,” or “Sit up straight,” it’s possible you’re doing a good job managing your child’s manners, but you could be missing out on an opportunity to teach kids how to share ideas at the dinner table.
If you find yourself only performing behavior-monitoring talk, turn the conversation into something more.
One way to do this is to ritualize the mealtime experience. Have special foods on certain days, share common stories, and tap into your cherished religious traditions — like saying grace before meals or setting up a memorable Shabbat dinner. This will transform mealtime from a way to modify behavior to a sacred time, similar to reading a book before bedtime.
5. Build Vocabulary
It is not always obvious to parents that mealtime can help children do better in school. However, research has shown that when parents use new words around the table, they can help build vocabulary for school-age children and give them a knowledge of language they haven’t acquired in the classroom.
Researchers recorded families at dinnertime and found that conversations like the one below, between three-year-old Emily and her parents, can help with early language acquisition:
EMILY: Me need butter on this! FATHER: Yes, you do need butter on that corn. MOTHER: Yeah, here’s the butter, you twirl it over the top of the big cube of butter. EMILY: Oh. MOTHER: Dad’ll show you how. EMILY: Me? FATHER: Um, I don’t want your fingers all over it, though. FATHER: There we go.
The mom in the example used twirl in a natural way. Getting kids accustomed to new words is easy to do at dinnertime. Don’t define words and make it a dictionary exercise. If it feels like homework, it will weaken the spontaneity of the conversation. Instead, use new vocabulary in context and work it into the natural flow of what you are saying.
6. Plan Ahead
Using mealtimes to plan the next day’s activities has more educational benefits than you may realize.
Younger children will learn how to think into the future. Older children will have a chance to express their interests and negotiate with members of the family to participate in planning the event.
Whether it’s a trip to a museum, park, or to a concert, planning events together fosters a sense of shared responsibility in family decision-making.
Ely, R., Gleason, J. B., MacGibbon, A., & Zaretsky, E. (2001). Attention to language: Lessons learned at the dinner table. Social Development, 10(3), 355-373.
Hall, E., Hall, P. S., & Hall, N. D. (2010). Dinner talk: 365 engaging conversation starters to help you and your family connect. Avon, Mass: Adams Media.
Hamption, K., Rainie, L., Lu, W., Dwyer, M, Shin, I. and Purcell, K. (2014, August 26). Social Media and the ‘Spiral of Silence.’ Retrieved online from the Pew Research Center.
McCarty, M. (2006). Little big minds: Sharing philosophy with kids. New York: Penguin Group.
Mogg, T. (2012, January 17). Phone Stack restaurant game prevents meal-time interruptions (and could cost you a lot of money). Retrieved online from Digital Trends.
Spagnola, M., & Fiese, B. H. (2007). Family routines and rituals: A context for development in the lives of young children. Infants & Young Children, 20(4), 284-299.