My family is all about food. Whether it’s a big birthday party, a baby shower, or a simple, Sunday get together, everyone comes with the unspoken expectation of eating lots of delicious food. We eat, we laugh, we catch up on what everyone has been up to lately, and then we lounge around – often in silence. Sound familiar?
While it’s easy to prioritize the preparing and consuming of tasty food at family functions, the real ‘meat’ of such events is the gathering itself. It’s about the people who are there and the life’s history and experiences that make them who they are. Whether at a large hall for a special occasion, or around the dining table for family dinner, both mealtimes can be used as a ‘Family Tree Gathering’, a term coined by Elder Quentin L. Cook of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in his General Conference talk titled Roots and Branches.
“This should be a recurring effort,” he said. “Everyone would bring existing family histories, stories, and photos, including cherished possessions of grandparents and parents.”
If that sounds a little daunting, here are three easy ways to implement the idea of Family Tree Gatherings at mealtime to encourage more meaningful family conversations.
Elder Cook said, “Our young people are excited to learn about the lives of family members – where they came from and how they lived.”
Speaking from experience, he’s right.
My kids love to hear stories from my life. They like to know why I got in trouble as a child, what I did when I was on summer break, where I went to school, how I met their dad, and the list goes on and on. Knowing their natural curiosity, my husband and I have decided to use dinnertime as an opportunity to share some of these stories with them.
A fun way to move past the routine questions of “how was your day?” and “what did you do today?” is to create conversation cards that you can use at dinner time. You can get an idea of some easy to use open ended conversation prompts by visiting the FamilySearch Wiki article, Creating Oral Histories. Or you can invite your kids to come up with things they’d like to know about. Questions could include “Tell me about your most embarrassing moment.” “What was your favorite childhood vacation?” “What do you remember most about grandma and grandpa?” Questions my kids have come up with are “Tell me about the day I was born” and “What was I like as a baby?” Store those conversation cards in a jar. At family dinners, take turns picking a “chat card” from the jar and sharing a story associated with the prompt. Share one story a meal, or share many. The point is to share. Over time, the sharing of stories not only creates lasting memories for the whole family, but also provides everyone with a greater sense of identity and a bank of real life examples to draw upon for strength during hard times.
Family Recipe Focus
At most of my family gatherings, we eat the same dishes. And, there’s a reason. Some recipes date back to when my family lived in the Pacific island of Samoa. Others are new family favorites that have evolved as they’ve moved to the states. Think about the dishes you like to make. Think about the stories behind those recipes and share those stories with your family.
If you don’t currently cook recipes with cultural significance, look up a recipe from the area of the world where your ancestors are from. Make that dish for your family and share the story behind it. Use food to share how food, music, and dance are an important part of culture and family traditions.
Something from our Samoan heritage that my kids know about thanks to food is a toona’i. It’s a traditional Sunday feast in which families gather to eat a big meal, often filled with traditional foods. Attending and hosting these traditional dinners today gives me a chance to teach my children about their ancestors. We’re able to talk about why they ate the foods they ate, why coconut and green bananas are such a staple food, and how some foods are unique to the islands and can’t be found in America.
Food with family significance can be a great way to learn about traditions and it lends itself to natural conversation at the dinner table.
Decode Your Decorations
There’s a story behind everything. And, if you look around your house, you’ll likely discover that there’s a story behind every decoration on display.
In my house, we have huge, Styrofoam seashells perched atop our kitchen cabinets. My mom bought them each for a dollar from a store in Florida that was going out of business. She packed them in a large cooler and sent them to us. We talk about those seashells every time people come to our house. And, it serves as a reminder to my family and I of my mother’s giving nature.
Look around your home and decode the stories behind your decorations. Use family dinners as a time to talk about the pictures on the wall. Use the words and quote plaques that are so trendy to display right now as conversation starters. For example, with a sign that says ‘Live, Laugh, Love’, ask your family what made them laugh that day? What made them feel alive? How did they feel loved?
Stories are all around us. All you have to do discover and share them. What better time to do that than when your family is gathered to eat.
Make mealtime more meaningful. Gather with a purpose.