Barbara Mayfield, MS, RDN, LD, FAND
Mealtime conversations show you care and make your family stronger
Updated: Dec 2, 2022
Can you recall a great conversation during a meal? Maybe it lasted well past the food was eaten and the dishes were cleared away. You felt heard and appreciated. You felt connected with others.
If family closeness is the #1 reason people value family meals, how do meals cause that to happen? Sitting closer at the table? Eating only foods everyone agrees on? Probably not. Family closeness is the result of meaningful mealtime conversations.
What are mealtime conversations?
Studies show that mealtime conversations consist of about one-third food-related talk, such as “please pass the potatoes” and “the chicken is delicious” and about two-thirds non-food-related talk, which consists of talk that helps families catch up on one another’s lives, discuss upcoming events and schedules, discuss and solve problems, and share family stories.
Mealtime conversations can be deep and explore serious world issues, or they can be light and share knock-knock jokes, or anywhere in between. All types of conversation can help build stronger families and demonstrate how much we care.
What is the recipe for enhancing mealtime conversations?
A few key ingredients ensure that mealtime conversations promote family cohesiveness and avoid family conflict. These are:
1. Thoughtful open-ended questions
2. Active listening
3. Empathy and respect for feelings
4. No put-downs
5. No distractions
Let’s look at how each one contributes to a great conversation…
Conversation starters are quality questions
You likely have experienced how difficult it can be some days to get other family members to talk. Conversation starters to the rescue! A great conversation starter can stimulate a fun exchange and is simply a quality question or prompt.
Here are a few tried and true conversation starters:
High – Low – Buffalo prompts family members to share the high point of their day, the low point of their day, and something random or interesting from their day.
Rose – Thorn – Bud is an alternative prompt that asks for the best and worst parts of someone's day and something they are looking forward to.
Mad – Sad – Glad is a similar prompt with the objective to share something that made us mad, something that made us sad, and something that made us glad.
“Would you rather”? asks family members to pick from two options that can be more serious, such as “Would you rather eat a half-cooked meal or a half-burnt meal?” Or sillier, such as “Would you rather be a mermaid or a unicorn?”
20 Questions is a classic game and has numerous variations, such as “Who did I see today?” where family members take turns asking yes-no questions to determine who a family member saw today. Rule – all family members must know the person. Other versions include guessing a famous person or guessing a well-known book or movie.
Thought-provoking questions such as “What are some ways you are unique and different from your friends or relatives?”
Imaginative questions such as, “If you were a vegetable, which one would you like to be?”
Need ideas? Type conversation starters into your search engine – there are many sources!
Active listening clarifies and reflects
Encouraging others to talk requires we listen well. Listening well means listening with the intent to understand and not simply to hear. It requires that we clarify we understood what was said and how the person feels. It requires that we listen with our ears to the words and tone of voice and with our eyes to interpret nonverbal communication.
To gain clarity, we can respond with “What I hear you saying is…” Or, we can request more information be provided first, “Could you tell me a little more to help me understand better?” The goal is to achieve a mutual understanding of what is being communicated.
Once we have gained clarity, reflection thoughtfully restates the gist of the message, reflecting the thinking and feeling behind the message. For example, after being told about an incident on the playground you reflect, “She made fun of your friend. You thought that was wrong and it made you upset.”
Active listening allows others to feel safe to share feelings. It can even help them discover their feelings and potentially solve their own problems as issues are discussed openly and honestly.
Empathy demonstrates understanding and respect
The goal of being a great listener is to demonstrate empathy – the ability to put yourself into another’s shoes – to feel what they're feeling and to see a situation from their perspective. Of all the ingredients listed, it is the most important.
Empathy avoids judgment. Empathy extends grace. Empathy sees the best in others and draws out the best in others. When we demonstrate empathy, others feel truly understood, connected, loved, and respected.
A no-put-down rule practices kindness and restraint
Nothing closes someone down faster than put-downs, sarcastic hurtful comments, and criticism. Parents don’t appreciate negative comments about the meal. Children don’t like to be told they look or act like hoodlums. Siblings don’t like to be labeled as stupid.
Make the family table a no-put-down zone. Practice speaking with kindness and respect. Demonstrate restraint from being critical or judgmental. If someone dislikes something that is being served, a simple “No, thank you” when offered is preferred over “peas are yucky.”
A no-distraction rule puts people before screens
Another barrier to effective conversation is a device designed for communication – the cell phone. We carry them 24/7, even to the dinner table. However, if mismanaged, they can distract us from communicating with those around the table.
Make the family table a no-distraction zone. Leave electronic devices away from the table or establish a rule they can only be used to enhance a conversation such as looking up the answer to a question or for sharing something meaningful.
Turn off other distractions such as the television except for occasionally sharing a meal while watching a movie or an event together. Make that the exception rather than the rule.
A no-distraction rule communicates to family members they are your number one priority and are more important than something fascinating on your screen.
In honor of Family Meals Month, celebrated every September, we are focusing this month on what makes sharing meals with others something worth celebrating. We have explored what people value most about family meals and how family meals are enjoyed in various cultures around the world. Our last two posts will explore ways to overcome common barriers and provide an update on family meal research.
Looking for resources for promoting family meals? I’ve got you covered!
Read more about becoming an effective conversationalist:
“Some of the most important conversations I’ve ever had occurred at my family’s dinner table.” ~ Bob Ehrlich
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