5 Tips for Better Dinner Conversations

You’ve just put the finishing touches on supper. It’s nutritious, delicious, and artistically presented in attractive dishes. Your spouse and all the kids are ready to share another wonderful family meal. You know how important family meals are, after all, and you want the best for your children. So, you sit down to dinner ready for wonderful conversation and family bonding time.

“So Johnny, how was school today?” You ask your son brightly.

“Ok.” Johnny says, shoveling another mouthful of mashed potatoes into his face.

Not a very interesting answer, but you try to take comfort in the fact that at least he obviously likes the meal you prepared.

“How did your classes go, Jenny?” You ask your teenage daughter.

“I have a paper due tomorrow. Can I go?”

You nod, sighing internally.

Finally, you turn to your husband. “How was work?”

“It was fine.” He says. “Can you pass the salt?”

“Mom,” your younger daughter interrupts, just as you’re about to pick up the salt. “Johnny just kicked me under the table. Can you make him stop?”

You sigh… family dinners are supposed to be great bonding time…after all, studies show that more family dinners means healthier, more successful, happier children and teens. But aside from good healthy home cooked food, what really makes or breaks the family dinner is the conversation that goes with it. If the conversation goes well, you will likely have a happy family experience overall. If the conversation is a disaster, you likely have other problems in your family.

Here are five tips that should make your family meal conversations more satisfying and enjoyable.

 

Ask open ended questions

Yes or no questions are good for some things, but dinner conversation is not one of them. If you want to get a conversation going, you have to ask a question that requires your conversation partner to bring some information to the table. If you ask, “How was school today?” “Fine” is a perfectly legitimate answer, but it gives you nothing to talk about.

Instead of asking how school went, or if it was ok, try asking questions like, “What was something interesting that happened at school/work/home today?” Then your conversation partner has to actually introduce some information into the conversation.

 

Ask followup questions

You sit down to dinner. “Johnny, what was something interesting that happened at school today?”

“We played a new game at recess.” Johnny says.

“That’s interesting.” You say…and the conversation dies.

Conversation is like a game of tennis. You serve the ball to get in into play–this is like the preliminary question. Your partner returns it, by adding something new. And you need to return it again, once again by adding something of your own, or by asking a follow up question.

If Johnny tells you he played a new game at recess, you should ask, “What game was it?”

Then, when he tells you what game it is, you now have a real topic of conversation. Your whole family could get involved. You could share stories of when you played that game, discuss the rules, and eventually end up going on glorious tangents about ball manufacture, game theory, and the Olympics… which brings me to the next tip.

 

Bring up interesting topics.

You are probably very busy, but try to spend at least a few minutes each week learning  or doing something interesting just so that you can share it with your family and broaden your and their horizons a little. I think most of what I learned as a child, and much of my joy in learning, came from conversations around the dining room table. My parents read, my brother read, I read; and we discussed all of it over our meals. We almost always had something new and interesting to talk about.

It doesn’t really matter what the topic is–as long as you are interested in it, you can probably get your family interested too… with a few exceptions.

 

Avoid depressing topics.

Many families have some topics that are banned for discussion during meals. Common forbidden topics include snakes, worms, and anything gross or gory. Besides your own family’s forbidden topics, I would suggest avoiding any topic that is likely to result in a sense of hopelessness or fear. This would include conspiracy theories, the end of the world, the three days of darkness, and probably about half of what was in the latest newspaper…

Conspiracy theories are sort of fun–you get a perverse sort of thrill from discussing how “they” –depending on your political affiliation and interests, “they” might stand for the Illuminati, Big Business, The Government, the Communists, the Jews, the Freemasons, the Democrats, the Republicans, the Left, the Right, the Far Left, or the Far Right–are controlling everything, and have been controlling everything for the last few decades/centuries. Discussing conspiracy theories gives you the feeling that you are special, you are not deceived like the rest of men, you have the secret knowledge that will make you powerful–except that in practice it does nothing but make you fearful and hopeless.

If “they,” whoever they might be, really have as much power as your theory says they do, then there isn’t really much point in trying to make the world a better place–and that is the message your children will imbibe with their spaghetti and meatballs.

It is good to discuss politics and history and sociology with your family. But these conversations will form your child’s world view possibly more than anything else, and so be sure that the world you show them is the one you want them to see.

Any since it is important to discuss different topics, it’s inevitable that disagreements will arise, which brings me to my last point.

 

Practice good manners

Talking to people is one of the most important skills you can teach your children. And being polite is a vital part of that skill. So a few ground rules are in order. Here’s a sample list of rules that will help your conversations stay respectful and enjoyable.

 

  1. Listen to the other person’s full thought before answering.
  2. Swallow before talking.
  3. Make sure other people get a turn to talk.
  4. Stay on topic, unless everyone is okay with changing the subject.
  5. If you disagree, respectfully explain your reasons for disagreeing, rather than insulting the other person.
  6. Keep voices at an appropriate indoor volume.

 

Hopefully these five tips will give you what you need to make meal time with your family a relaxing and stimulating experience.

Odds and Ends

When I was growing up my mom had a box labeled “Odds and Ends,” where she stored bits of string and ribbon and cord. And whenever I had a project that required just a little bit of string, I could look through the box and find something that would work. I didn’t have to wait and go to the store to get something. I could just do my project and be done with it.

Now, I could write about thriftiness and reusing things, but I actually thought about my mom’s box for a very different reason.

A friend recently told me that she had improved her productivity and her level of general satisfaction with life by using the “in between” times to get things done, and that got me thinking: how much time do we lose to being in between things, waiting for stuff to happen, and enforced idleness? And so, of course, I googled it, and discovered that according to a survey conducted by Timex, over the course of a lifetime, the average American spends about 6 months waiting for stuff.

So how can we avoid wasting those 6 months?

Now I’m not suggesting that everyone should become frenetic multitaskers, checking emails while taking a shower, or putting makeup on while driving. In fact, I would enthusiastically discourage both of these activities. And I’m also not suggesting shortening leisure activities like sleeping, reading, taking walks, watching movies, or whatever you happen to find recharges you. These activities are important and deserve their time.

What I’m talking about are those moments that you probably haven’t noticed. Like while you’re waiting for your coffee to brew in the morning. Or waiting for supper to cook. Or waiting in line at the grocery store or at a doctor’s office. Or, if you’re a mom, maybe those moments where you’re sitting around breastfeeding, or waiting for a baby to go to sleep. Or waiting for a toddler who wants to do it “all by myself.”

Most of us spend these moments feeling stressed, thinking about all the things we could be doing if we didn’t have to wait. But what if we could turn them into opportunities instead of sources of stress? Instead of stressing about all the things we can’t do, what if we figured out what we can do?

Here are just a few ideas that I’ve come up with for using those in between moments. I’d love to hear other people’s ideas, too.

Waiting for something to cook

Whether it’s your coffee brewing in the morning, or your lasagna baking at night, waiting for things to get done can be really frustrating. But since you’re stuck in the kitchen anyway, there is probably a lot you can actually do.

I happen to have my home command center in the kitchen, so while waiting for stuff in the morning, I can look over my to do list. It only takes a few minutes, but it improves my day by reminding me what I actually want to get done, and in those little moments throughout the day I can check things off as I do them, and feel like I accomplished something, even if it was just eating lunch.

Or you can do those never-ending kitchen chores: sweeping the floor, washing a few dishes, wiping down or tidying counters, setting the table up for the meal, or putting away dishes in cabinets. Even dusting can be done quickly in between other things.

Or maybe you’re too tired to get all the kitchen chores done while you cook. In that case, take that time to relax as effectively as possible. While napping is probably not a good idea unless you’ve perfected the five minute power nap, there are things you can do to use that time to recharge yourself.

Sit down and put your feet up. Catch up on the reading you say you never have time to do. Do a simple mindfulness exercise: just take a couple of deep breaths, close your eyes, and focus on one sound, one sight, or one sensation. Don’t think about it, just experience it, relish it, savor it. Even just a minute spent that way can be surprisingly effective at reducing stress. I have recently started doing this, and it amazed me how different things seem when you try to experience things without thinking about them or judging them.

Waiting in line

I don’t know about you, but waiting in doctor’s offices is one of my least favorite ways to spend time. I spent quite awhile in one particular doctor’s office not too long ago, just waiting for a nurse to call my name. In some waiting rooms people talk to each other, but no one ever seems willing to talk at that office. Everyone is closed up in their own little bubble, texting,  reading, or staring at the TV set, which is invariably playing a vapid quiz show, or sports commentary.

There are magazines, but after I’ve paged through the first several issues of Good Housekeeping, looking at things I couldn’t afford even if I wanted them, I generally feel like I’ve gotten what I can out of the magazines.

But fortunately I’ve discovered that there are plenty of options for productive use of time even while waiting alone for an appointment.

First of all, you can use your phone in a productive way. That friend you haven’t talked to in a couple of months? It would probably be rude to call if there’s other people waiting with you, but why not send your friend a text or an email, just to see how they’re doing. It might make her day.

With a little preparation, your time in the waiting room can become even more effective. If you need to write something, you could consider installing a writing app on your phone, like Google docs, so that you can take it wherever you go. I’ve done a couple of different writing projects while waiting for things to happen. Or if you’re more old school, bring a notebook and catch up on your journaling or letter writing.

Or if you think you might have some time on your hands, bring a book, settle down as comfortably as you can in the waiting room chairs, and catch up on your reading. You might even be able to meditate if you want.

The important thing is to start with the attitude that the time you spend in the waiting room is not automatically wasted. This will leave you free to use it productively. Start thinking of it as special time reserved for your own relaxation, for catching up with your friends, and for doing things that you’re usually too busy to do, and you might even feel disappointed when they call your name.

Breastfeeding

For the first few weeks breastfeeding often takes concentration, but as time goes on and you and your baby get used to each other, it often becomes quite boring and frustrating to sit around for hours every day in unpredictable, 20-minute increments.

I really enjoyed those times, though, because it gave me a perfect excuse to sit down, make myself comfortable, and read a book. I think my baby appreciated it too, because I was more willing to let her linger as long as she wanted, since I was enjoying it, too. Some people instead watch movies, write to friends, or journal.

While transitioning my baby to her own bed in her own room I had to spend a lot of time getting her used to the idea of sleeping in the new place, which basically meant staying in a dark room until she went to sleep. It was unbelievably tedious until I realized I could install Google docs on my phone and write a book while I sat there. It made the process of sleep adjustment much more pleasant for all concerned, and I wrote a book.

Waiting for a child

One of the hardest things to do as a busy parent is to stand back and wait while your child tries to do something for himself. It’s so tempting to just shove the kid into his clothes, carry him out the door, and drop him in the car seat, and sometimes you have to do it that way.

But if you always do everything for your child, he’ll never learn new skills, and you’ll be stuck taking care of everything for him forever.

But I think it’s possible to avoid making the wait too tedious. There’s a few ideas you can try.

One thing I’ve found helpful is to tell my toddler what’s going on and have her get started on getting ready while I’m still getting ready, too. Or, if she’s taking her sweet time going to the potty, I can quickly wipe down the bathroom mirror, or throw in a load of wash.

Depending on your child’s attention span and level of development, this may or may not work. So another technique you can try is to simply think about it in a different way. Instead of viewing your child’s laggardly ways as a frustration, try to view them as quality time you spend with your child teaching him or her new skills. (And if you don’t believe this can work, I was able to get myself to think of diaper changes as quality time with my baby.) You might have to plan ahead and get started on activities a little earlier, but a simple change of focus can turn a source of stress into an enjoyable and productive experience.

 

Even those frustratingly short moments, like the time it takes for a pot to fill with water, can be useful to regain focus.

Try one of these ideas next time you’re waiting for your pot to fill up, the dish water to warm up, or your microwave to finish microwaving.

Take a couple of deep breaths. Close your eyes, straighten your shoulders, relax as many muscles as you can. Then think of one happy thing: maybe something you’re looking forward to this week, something you’re grateful for in your life, or something pleasant you heard or saw in the last few days. Or, take the moment to say a short prayer. Thank God for something you appreciate, praise Him, or ask Him for help in getting through the day.

These are just a few ideas. There are other odds and ends of time during the day that we tend not to use well, and that maybe even make us deeply unhappy. But I think there’s always a good use for time. Have you come up with any good uses for boring time?

Rearranging the Furniture

So, Christmas vacation is over and we are finally back to a normal routine. (well, as normal as it gets.) It wasn’t my intention to take such a long break from the blog, but I’m back now.

A few days after we got home, we rearranged the furniture in the master bedroom. I’d been having a few issues with the room—like not wanting to spend any non-sleeping time there, and having clothes pile up on a chair as a result. This was bothering me. My husband also stated that he didn’t like being in the room much, except when sleeping. We had our bed and the baby’s crib in the room, and it turned out all that was needed was to move both of them over a few feet so they were against a different wall. Now the room seems spacious, I actually cleaned it, and you know what? Last night I hung up my clothes before I went to bed, instead of just throwing them on a chair.

Now some people make fun of women for rearranging furniture, but this experience, combined with a podcast I listened to lately (highly recommended), made me realize that rearranging the furniture isn’t a frivolous waste of time, but can actually be a fantastic tool for self-control.

Typically, bad habits involve following the path of least resistance. When we feel energetic, enthusiastic, and fresh, we can make all the decisions we want, and make good decisions, but, like water flowing over a surface, humans tend, when they are tired, not paying attention, or depressed, (and most of us are in one of these states most of the time) to seek the lowest point, travel the same well-worn paths, and break no new ground.

Decisions

Making decisions can be exhausting itself. According to Inc.com “It’s said the average person makes 35,000 decisions every day.” Some people react to this by making the more trivial aspects of their lives as routine as possible. Former President Obama was an example of this. He only wears gray or blue suits, so that he doesn’t have to think about that aspect of his life. The way he put it was, “You need to focus your decision-making energy. You need to routinize yourself. You can’t be going through the day distracted by trivia.” Whether or not you agreed with the former president’s politics, this is something that makes sense.

So what does decision fatigue have to do with rearranging the furniture? Well, every time you walk into a familiar room in which everything is the same as it was before, all your routines for that room kick in. Sometimes these routines are helpful. You don’t have to think about turning the light switch up for on and down for off. This is something your brain has routinized; you don’t have to consciously process it.

But sometimes our automatic routines are less useful, like dropping clutter on a particular chair or table, or turning on your TV the moment you walk in. Or just leaving it on all the time. Or wasting time on social media all day long on your phone. We do these things, not because we have consciously chosen to do them, but because they are easy and automatic. So the key to changing these habits is not to use more will-power—we only have a limited amount—but to to make them less easy and less automatic.

Furniture

This is where rearranging the furniture comes in.

Do you have a piece of furniture that collects things? (I used to have this problem with the kitchen table. You can read about how we fixed that problem here) Why do the things go there instead of where they’re supposed to go? Often you will find that the clutter-collector is on the way to the place for the things it collects. Or sometimes the clutter-collector is in a logical place for those things, and should be replaced with something designed to store those things. In the first case, moving the piece of furniture can solve the problem. In the second case, it should be replaced with something else, perhaps some other under-utilized object you already have in the house.

Do you have a habit you want to change? How about constant snacking? Even something as simple as putting your snack food on a higher shelf can make a difference. Or putting healthier snacks in places where they are easier to grab and less healthy snacks in more out of the way spaces.

If you are watching TV more often than you want to, an option is rearranging the furniture in your living room so that it doesn’t center around the TV. If the furniture doesn’t make you face the empty screen, it won’t tempt you to fill it.

But what will you replace your TV watching with? Rearranging furniture into a conversation circle can do wonders for your family social life.

What else can we change?

What I discovered by rearranging my bedroom furniture was that I hadn’t wanted to spend time in that room because the furniture was near the door, and so in order to move into the working space of the room, you had to walk past or around the furniture. It was not difficult except psychologically, but I never wanted to do it. In a book of applied psychology I read that neighbors tend to be more friendly with the neighbors who are on the same side of the street and whose doors or yards face each other. It isn’t hard to cross the street, but people rarely do it if they don’t have to.

How many things could we change in our lives, simply by rearranging the “furniture”? Is there an app you could delete from your phone that would save you time and energy? Would moving a chair or table make you exercise more often? Instead of trying to use your limited will-power to help you make your life better this year, why don’t you think about what furniture your should rearrange in your life?