“Family Dinners’ “Secret Sauce”: An Interview with Dr. Anne Fishel

 Families dinners have declined 30% over the past 20 years—something The Family Dinner Project is working hard to change. Family therapist Anne Fishel, PhD, is a co-founder of The Family Dinner Project and author of the well-received Home for Dinner, Mixing Food, Fun, and Conversation for a Happier Family (Amacom Press, 2014).  Fishel is also a clinical psychologist, an associate clinical professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School, and the director of a family and couples therapy program at Massachusetts General Hospital. (In fact, she has recently published a new book on couples therapy, A Lifecycle Approach to Treating Couples: From Dating to Death. ) She lectures widely at medical Grand Rounds and academic conferences and to parent groups around the country. 

Despite her heavy workload, Fishel still finds time to blog for The Family Dinner Project. In addition, she is the mother of two young adult sons who, she says, “now make dinner for themselves, their friends (and occasionally for their parents), and are better and more adventurous cooks than their mother.” She recently took time out of her busy schedule to talk with Stress Health.

How did you come to co-found The Family Dinner Project?

I think whenever someone has a great passion for something, as I do for family dinners, they’ve probably come to it through several pathways. For me, the most immediate one was an epiphany I had during a meeting in my home office, which sat right below my kitchen. I had my own two teenage sons upstairs and just before the session I had popped a roast chicken in the oven. The father and son were very tense and didn’t want to talk with one another – it was a very uncomfortable hour – and as we neared the end, the smell of lemon garlic chicken became overpowering.

I was embarrassed because I knew they smelled it — it was such a boundary-crossing — and to make things worse, the teenager was hungry and asked whether they could stay for dinner!

It was all I could do not to say, ‘Let’s just stop this hour — go home and make dinner together!’ The research bore me out: 25 years of research on the benefits of family dinners show it’s one of the best places to connect with one another, laugh, relax, enjoy each other, even negotiate conflicts. I thought, isn’t this exactly what I’m trying to do as a therapist? I wanted to make these benefits more accessible, especially since fewer families were eating together. How could I help more families have more family dinners, and make them more doable, more fun and more interesting? That was part of the genesis of The Family Dinner Project.

You’ve joked that if everyone ate family dinners together, you might be out of business as a family therapist.

Yes, and I’m only half-joking (laughs). Research shows kids with regular family dinners have higher self-esteem. There’s a greater sense of connection between kids and their parents. We also see lower rates of substance abuse and lower rates of depression,  eating disorders and anxiety.

I’m curious: Did the son and father you mentioned ever make a dinner together?

Yes, they did. I asked them at one point if they liked to cook, and it turned out the son was a vegetarian and the father was not. I asked the boy if he would be willing to teach a vegetarian recipe and cook together – that way his father could get to know him better. They did make a meal together, and the intervention was a success. Considering that they rarely ever spoke to each other, spending an hour in the kitchen together was important.

 What are some of the most important benefits of family dinners?

Twenty-five years of research has shown that family dinners are good for the body, the brain, the spirit and the health of family members. Family dinners tend to have fewer calories and smaller portions, less sugar and fried foods; in addition, the meal is less likely to be washed down with a soft drink. All that adds up to a lower risk of obesity and better cardiovascular health for young teens. And the benefits extend into adulthood – young adults tend to eat more healthfully if they’ve had family dinners.

The emotional benefits, which I touched on earlier, include less anxiety and less risk of depression, smoking, and substance abuse. Having family dinners 5 times a week is more predictive of high school achievement than doing homework, playing sports, or taking art classes.

For young children, conversation at the dinner table is also great vocabulary booster — even better than reading aloud. That’s because when parents recount their days, there are ten times as many advanced words used compared to the vocabulary in picture books. Kids who know more words tend to learn to read more easily than kids with slimmer vocabularies.

How could dinner do all that? It’s a ritual, which is part of the secret sauce of family dinners. In 21st century America we have so few chances to connect face to face – family dinners are the most reliable way we have to connect. Car rides come in second, but it’s a distant second.

Could you talk about the special benefits for children with ACEs?

One of the extra benefits for children who’ve experienced ACEs is the importance of ritual. I think the ritual of family dinners is so tremendously important and comforting for both adults and children, especially for those who have lived through a chaotic, volatile or traumatic childhood. It’s a time when we’re going to turn off screens, sit down and talk, it’s something we can count on. We’re going to have something to eat, we’re going to sit in our regular seats – there’s a sense of predictability. What we talk about each night may be different — the food may be different — but the ritual is really healing, especially for children with ACES.

Also, parents who have experienced ACES sometimes find being able to provide their kids with something that is stable and nurturing — and doable and different from their own childhood dinners — is a very concrete way that my family is different from the ones I grew up in. I don’t yell at my children, I listen to them, we tell stories about our day, they know I love and care about them — they can count on me and I can count on myself to show up each day to do this parenting practice.

How important is the food itself?

Home-cooked meals tend to be more nutritious than take-out –there’s less risk of obesity because kids eat more fruits and vegetables and less salt, sugar and fried food. And the dishes being cooked adds all that rich sensory memory.

But it isn’t just about the food; there are quite a few studies showing that what confers the most benefits is the atmosphere at the table. Sitting in stony silence or parents yelling at their kids doesn’t make for a good dinner. The benefits don’t come from a well-cooked lasagna; they come from being able to create a warm atmosphere at the table.

What is one of The Family Dinner Project’s most gratifying experiences in working with families? 

We began by testing our pilot program with a diverse set of families, including thee-generation families, single parents, and those ranging from high-income to low-income. Many families underwent significant transformations. I remember one family I’ll call the Walkers — the father was a professional chef disabled and was home full-time, while the wife was at home during the day but in nursing school at night. The kids hadn’t had a family dinner in many years – they each ate in a room alone in front of their screens. The family didn’t even have a dinner table anymore! The parents signed up to see whether they could get their family having dinners again. And the kids were not happy at the idea of eating together — they bellyached about it a lot.

But the parents told them they were going to be expected to come and sit around a coffee table for dinner, and in short order they had come up with their own innovative ideas. They decided to create their own recipes, with each person choosing an ingredient The father who’d been a professional chief said he would take all the ingredients and make a meal with it. Then the kids decided it would be fun to rate the chef on presentation and to have a singing contest at every dinner, with the parents singing Motown and them doing rap, and so on. And after a few weeks, the parents told us, “We got back what was lost in this family; this gave us back a feeling of closeness and unity.” It was very poignant, and we saw that repeated again and again in the families we worked with.

How have other families found their way back to family dinners?

Research shows families want to eat together – the wish is there –but it’s difficult to do. Still, many families don’t need much to get going on their own path. Some just need an emotional on-ramp, such as a couple of great experiences at their dinner table. They find that they really have a lot to say, that it’s fun to laugh together, and they want to do this again. They have one or two positive experiences, and then it’s off to the races.

Other families have a cognitive on-ramp— learning about the cognitive, health, and psychological benefits of family dinner. And still others favor a behavioral on-ramp: they like to set goals, monitor their progress, and use our tools and programs. Families can sign up with us, for example, and get resources such as hundreds of dinner games for different ages. And in a few weeks we’ll have a new website with an online goal tracker. We’re also coming out with a new book, 52 Weeks of Family Dinners, what I call “cookbook plus”– stories of families who worked with us and 52 weeks’ worth of recipes that take less than 30 minutes to make as well as a table game and conversation starter for each week.

What has the reception been to the Family Dinner Project?

It’s been very positive. We’ve intentionally created a very big tent – we have people who have joined from across the political spectrum.

We’ve spoken to media outlets ranging from National Public Radio, the New York Times, CNN and The Washington Post to conservative talk shows. We’ve had more than a million visitors to our site, and we’ve worked with thousands of families in person and at community dinners we host at military bases, libraries, homeless shelters, schools, after-school programs, and clinics. We also do quite a bit of work with mental health professionals, and I’ve given Grand Rounds to hospitals around the country on harnessing the power of family.

Internationally, The Family Dinner Project has received enthusiastic interest from Australia, Brazil, Greece, China, the UK, the Philippines and many other countries. Families across the globe want to have more family dinners — it’s a global lament.

What advice do you have for working parents who may start worrying they’re messing up by not having family dinners every night?

That meals don’t have to be perfect to yield benefits. Everyone doesn’t have to be there—you could have one parent or an aunt or Grandpa. And you don’t have to have dinner together every night of the week – the research emphasizes 5 night a week – but even one good dinner a week is positive for a family. It could even be take-out, with the caveat that takeout won’t have the same nutritional value – what’s most important is that the family is together and talking.

Having a night-time snack is also a possibility, coming together to have hot chocolate, take a break and talk together. The important thing is that the get-togethers are predictable and enjoyable, something that can be anticipated. It’s not spending hours making a meal that matters, not perfect table manners, not the quantity of dinners a family has. It’s really about sharing food with the focus on providing a warm and engaging atmosphere, and offering an opportunity for everyone to feel connected.

This interview was edited for length. Photo credits: Shutterstock/Getty