You Can Hate to Cook and Still Love Family Dinner

The many documented benefits of the family dinner don't derive from how many hours you spend cooking the dinner, it's the conversation around the table .

Of course, it’s food that gets everyone to the table, but isn’t it the conversation and the stories that keeps us there? The many documented benefits of family dinners — lower rates of depression, substance abuse and stress, and higher achievement scores, positive mood, and self-esteem — don’t derive from how many hours you spend cooking the dinner and it doesn’t matter if you use heirloom parsnips. No, it’s almost certainly the conversation around the table that we have to thank for all those benefits to our health and wellbeing.

Conversation comes in several different flavors: Questions that ask about the day, story-telling, and games.

Questions about the Day

A steady diet of “how was your day” questions can be tedious for both asker and responder, like being served chicken night after night. Just as it’s interesting to switch up your menu, here are a few questions to add some variety to dinner talk.

  • Rose, thorn, and bud—Ask each family member to share something positive or funny (the rose), something negative or challenging (the thorn), and something they hope will happen tomorrow (the bud).
  • Two Truths and a Lie, (or a Wish)—Ask each family member to share two things that actually happened during the day, and one that either didn’t happen or that they wish had happened. The other family members try to guess the one that isn’t true.
  • Conversation jar—On slips of paper, write a whole slew of questions. Then stuff them in a jar that sits in the middle of the table. Each person can pull one out and answer it. Other family members may want to answer the same question or pull out another slip. Here are some examples to get you started: What character in a book or movie would you like as a friend? What are two things you feel grateful for today? If you are feeling sad, what can someone do to make you feel better? If you had three wishes what would they be? What is your favorite thing to do outside? If you could be one age for the rest of your life, what age would that be?

For many more examples check out The Family Dinner Project.

Telling Stories

No matter what age we are, telling stories, often with the input of others, is the primary way we make sense of the world. Families used to have lots of opportunities to tell stories—around the fire, while doing needlepoint, or in long letters. But, in twenty first century America, the primary place where families get to share their stories is at the dinner table. According to several studies, storytelling has a positive connection to children’s well-being– kids who know stories about their family history have higher self esteem and a greater capacity to bounce back from the slings and arrows of everyday life. Kids who know family stories feel connected to something bigger than themselves.

You can tell stories about:

  • How you chose your child’s name
  • A holiday or celebration
  • When you were the same age as your child
  • A pet’s mischief or “humanness”
  • Overcoming a challenge A first job, a mishap at an interview, a work success
  • How your family first came to this country, city, or neighborhood
  • A love affair, or where and how your parents met
  • Something funny or ridiculous
  • When you learned an important life lesson
  • How you learned a family recipe

Don’t be afraid to tell stories about failures and mishaps, especially if they were ultimately overcome. These making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, or lemonade out of lemons are often the most powerful family stories.

Playing Games at the Table

The point of playing games at the table is to help stretch the time at dinner for more laughs and conversation. These games are fun to play in their own right, but they can also jumpstart discussions at the table.

  • Twenty Questions about a Family Memory: Have one family member think of a family memory, like the time our dog ate 49 chocolate chip cookies. Then, everyone else asks Yes/No questions to try to guess the memory. Did it happen during a holiday? Was everyone in the family there? Were we laughing, scared, sad? Did it involve food? Whoever guesses the right answer first gets to go next. This is a great game for finding out what experiences your kids are holding on to.
  • Would you Rather? Take turns asking each person “Would you rather…” and then finish the sentence with a ridiculous or thought-provoking choice like, “…. eat a bowl of worms or a bowl of crickets? …. live in the future or in the past…speak every language or play every musical instrument? … be able to fly or be invisible?” Once you get started on this one, kids will usually make up their own silly questions.
  • Guess the Title: Each person lists a bunch of items, tangible or abstract and then the rest of the family has to guess what the intended title of the list might be. For example: Sleeping late, sand in my sheets, no TV, outdoor shower, losing my sunglasses, riding waves. The title is “My beach vacation.”
  • Name that tune: Hum a few bars of a popular tune and see who can guess the tune first. You can use ad jingles, holiday songs, popular songs from the radio, family favorites sung on car rides, or any other song that everyone will know.
  • Higglety-Pigglety: One person (the leader) thinks of two rhyming words like “funny bunny” and then gives the other players synonyms as clues, like “”hilarious furry mammal” to see who can guess the rhyming words first. The leader also says whether the words are a one-syllable, “hig pig, like “red bed” or a two-syllable higgy piggy, like “crazy daisy”, or a full-fledged three syllable higglety pigglety like “greenery scenery.”
  • Fruit and Vegetable Game: I can play this game by the hour (and have). One family member (the leader of the round) thinks of a person known by everyone at the table. Then, others ask the leader metaphorical questions to try to guess the person. For example, “If this person were a vegetable, what vegetable would he or she be?” or “If he or she were a fruit, or an animal, or a color, which would he or she be?” The idea is to stick to figurative rather than literal thinking, In other words the leader will answer in terms of how the individual’s personality might be manifested in another form rather than answering in terms of the person’s actual favorite vegetable to eat or color to wear. Whoever guesses the person first goes next as the leader.

Love Family Dinner

With all of these table talk suggestions, the point is to have fun and encourage conversation, so that dinnertime is a relaxing time when everyone talks. As a bonus, perhaps your kids will linger longer or you will discover something new about each other.

For more games, conversation starters, and tips on how to get your kids talking, check out my new book: Home for Dinner: Mixing Food, Fun, and Conversation for a Happier Family and Healthier Kids (Amacom 2015)

Published on: May 31, 2015
About the Author
Photo of Anne Fishel PhD
Anne Fishel, Ph.D. is a family therapist, clinical psychologist, and Associate Clinical Professor of Psychology at the Harvard Medical School. She is the co-author of Eat, Laugh, Talk: The Family Dinner Playbook and the author of Home for Dinner: Mixing Food, Fun, and Conversation for a Happier Family and Healthier Kids.
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Recent Comments

Love these ideas. Especially now that my son is an adult, the conversation ranges widely, however the rose, thorn, and bud offers great promise. It will keep any one of us from dumping on the others!