Dinnertime can become a distracted conversation while folks check their phones, or a heated conflict that ends in anger and unfinished food. Home for Dinner: Mixing Food, Fun, and Conversation for a Happier Family and Healthier Kids attempts to explain what’s going on at the table and how to transform our family through our meals.
Author Anne Fishel offers plenty of nutrition advice and recipes, but her focus is on the emotional dynamics that arise when we all try to sit down together. Fishel, a practicing family therapist who co-founded the Family Dinner Project movement, introduces us to something we should have known all along: that dinner is a metaphor for how the family works.
According to Fishel, family dinner patterns symbolize the way the family functions. Families who don’t sit down and connect often have unfinished business. As Fishel explains, “As a family therapist for more than twenty-five years, I’ve developed a belief that helping families develop new dinner rituals can be a form of healing.”
The book includes compelling studies that show that eating together improves things like intellectual development and mental health. And, Fishel writes, “According to Columbia University’s National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, adolescents who ate family dinners five to seven times a week were twice as likely to get A’s in school as those who ate dinner with their families fewer than three times a week.”
“When kids are home for dinner,” she explains, “it means they aren’t out roaming the streets and getting into trouble.” And since age is a factor, Fishel describes how to engage toddlers, school-kids, adolescents, and even empty nesters in the process of transforming the meal.
In terms of healthful eating, Fishel draws from the wisdom of Michael Pollan, author of In Defense of Food and other widely praised books on how we eat. Pointing to Pollan’s seven-word maxim — “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants” — Fishel reminds us that eating, like other family rituals, should not get bogged down by the latest fad. She weaves wholesome foods into several simple and tasty recipes that can easily be used to engage and educate children. She also offers tips for kids with allergies, autism, and type-2 diabetes. And in terms of preparing to cook, she offers an exercise called the “Supermarket Scavenger Hunt,” meant to derail the all-too-predictable supermarket tantrum.
For Fishel, food, like life, should be fun. So she devotes an entire section of the book to the idea of playing with food and creating mealtime opportunities for artistic expression. She also suggests games to make dinner an intellectually and creatively stimulating event.
Although the family is its own microcosm, Fishel also reminds us that what happens at our own table affects the rest of the world. She encourages us to bring new cultural experiences to our meals and to teach kids how to compost.
In one moving example, Fishel writes of how she used cooking to raise money for the Dana Farber Cancer Institute, which seemed to help her own children grieve their grandmother’s death. Through “serving up a cure,” her children were able to transform their sadness into action and advocacy — showing, once again, that dinner is more than just a meal.
Home for Dinner: Mixing Food, Fun, and Conversation for a Happier Family and Healthier Kids
American Management Association, January 2015
Paperback, 240 pages