20 Ways to Improve the Family Dinner

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We asked our teachers here on The Heights Forum how to improve the family dinner. They came up with 20 great ways to foster culture and family over a meal.

The Idea of the Family Dinner

Dinners provide a window into the soul of the family. Consistent, quality dinners–not necessarily the food per se (though that can be a great means to the end), but the feel, conversation, presence, and tone–indicate a family growing together in virtue.  This moment of our day is far too important to take casually.  We should take a minute (or many) to think about our family’s dinners. Are they happening?  Are they happening well?  Are the conversations substantive and positively formational for our children?  Are we growing closer to each other as a family because of our time spent breaking bread?

In a way, the family dinner is to the home what the Mass is to the Church.  As a colleague reminded me, Jesus chose to give Himself to His Church in the Blessed Sacrament during a meal.  Family dinners are sacred; opened and closed with prayer, affording us as parents a brief moment during which to gently direct the culture of our home.  It is no small wonder that the Communists did their utmost in Poland and other places to disrupt the family’s time together in the evening.  To displace mores and culture, destroy the dinner table.  Much as Karol Wojtyla chose to defend Poland by protecting its culture, so too can we protect our family’s culture by defending our time together at table.  How would Karol Wojtyla direct a meal in my home were he to take my place as father of this family?  Certainly our culture presents risks to children–sometimes even more dangerous than those presented to the people of post-WWII Poland insofar as they are insidious.  How can we fight back?  With knife, fork, prayer, wit, candlelight, and, yes, the fruit of the vine.

How to Improve the Family Dinner

Here at The Forum, we asked our faculty for some pointers about best practices for the family feast. Here is what they came back with. Enjoy, and bon appetit!

  1. If you and your spouse are enjoying a glass of wine before (or during) dinner, pour the kids a special drink as well–juice, soda, whatever!
  2. Make dinner prep part of the ritual; make it fun.  If you are barking at begrudging youngsters to set the table, step back and do it together for a few weeks.
  3. Require manners every night, not just on big holidays.
  4. Serve ladies first.
  5. Always start with grace.
  6. After grace, invoke the name of the Saint for that day and ask for his intercession. This leads oftentimes to a natural discussions of the saint’s life and how we can learn from it.
  7. For larger families, observe the “three minute rule”: dinner starts with three minutes where everyone is silent (1 or 2 year olds are exempt) while Mom and Dad have a conversation. This keeps things orderly, gives parents control of the conversation. It works well when things are hectic right before dinner.
  8. Make all announcements–major and minor–at the dinner table: vacations, engagements, etc.
  9. Keep didacticism pretty much off the table–the whole thing should be marked by a relaxed yet well-mannered tone.
  10. Stories are great, whether old or new.  Have everyone in the family speak about what they have done with their day.  Many a story about school will be narrated this way.  Some of your children will develop really sharp story-telling techniques; some will speak briefly and concisely, happily letting other take their turn.  It’s all good!
  11. If you are struggling for conversation at dinner time, cut out a few pieces of paper, and write random topics on each one from, say, “Walmart” to “the priesthood.”  At each dinner, have your kids pull out a piece of paper and the topic it brings with it is the discussion for dinner.  If the topic is exhausted before dinner is over, pick out another one!
  12. Make Sunday dinners something special.
  13. In some homes, if you help cook, you don’t have to help with cleaning up!
  14. In other homes, everybody prays the rosary together while cleaning.
  15. Another idea, give each child their own plate and cup (each one a different color) that they’re  responsible for cleaning after dinner.
  16. And remember, it’s not all about the here and now. One faculty member writes, “The family dinner is a tradition that can continue well beyond the years when the nest is full.  My parents went from having a packed house to just them and a dog, but every Sunday my mom hosts family dinner to get all the siblings together.  It’s awesome because it’s a guaranteed opportunity to see nieces, nephews, brothers, sisters, and parents at least once a week to catch up on how everything is going for everyone.  If my Mom can get 17+ people together and feed them all, then anyone can do it.  And we all love and appreciate it.”
  17. Recite grace or a prayer of thanks after meals and, to the extent possible, aim for everyone to be at the table from grace to grace.  The bookends help mark the time as important.
  18. Read something out loud after dinner, or recite a poem.
  19. Have your children play their musical instruments for the family after dinner.  Lead the way and do it yourself first!
  20. Afterwards go for a walk in the neighborhood to visit neighbors, or get together in the living room and read a story by candlelight.

What are some practices that help your family make the most of dinner time? Let us know in the comments section below!

Rich Moss

About the author:

Rich Moss

Rich earned his B.A. and J.D. degrees, both Magna Cum Laude, from the University of Notre Dame, in 2005 and 2008 respectively. Prior to returning to his alma mater to lead its Admissions Office in 2010, Rich was an associate attorney in the Energy and Trial Practice groups of Jones Day in Washington D.C. While working as an attorney, Rich was also the vice-president of The Heights Alumni Association. During law school, Rich was an Article Editor for the Notre Dame Law Review. Rich graduated from The Heights in 2001. In addition to his work in the Admissions Office, Rich teaches AP US Government and is the faculty advisor to the Rock Climbing Club. He resides in Wheaton, Maryland and is a parishioner at St. Andrew Apostle in Silver Spring. When he’s not introducing new families to The Heights, you might spot Mr. Moss biking around Wheaton with his awesome wife and four youngsters, or climbing Carderock with his fellow Heights alumni climbing partners!