A 1917 Yale Professor’s Advice for Family Mealtimes

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Not long ago, a teacher friend of mine relayed how she regularly asks grade school students the following question:

“How many of you eat a meal with your family three times a week?”

If she’s lucky, she might have one child raise her hand to break the cricket chirping which accompanies the blank stares of her students. More often than not, she doesn’t get a large response until she drops the threshold down to one meal a week.

With the rise of sports, work, school activities, and broken families, family mealtime seems to be gradually disappearing from the American scene. Such a scenario is unfortunate, particularly as studies suggest that family meals decrease obesity and delinquency, while also increasing healthy eating habits, academic achievement, and psychological well-being.  

But why do family mealtimes encourage better mental, physical, and academic well-being? Judging from the century-old recommendations of Yale professor E. Hershey Sneath, the conversation at mealtimes has a great deal to do with it:

“The table talk may contribute largely to the best of educations. It is as easy here to speak of the things worthwhile as to indulge in the ordinary chitchat over the nothings of thoughtless conversation….”

Perhaps you want to further your child’s education around the dinner table, but are unsure of how to do it? If so, the following topics of “worthwhile” conversation suggested by Dr. Sneath just might point you in the right direction.

1. History
Come to the table prepared with a trivia question on what happened on that particular date in history. (Ex. “What famous Civil War Battle began on July 1st?”) Preparation only takes a minute with History.com. Once you or your children reveal the answer, see how many facts your family can remember about the event or time period. Ask your children what they might have been doing if they had lived at that time and then make up a story placing your family in the thick of that historical event.

2. Current Events
While the daily headlines might be depressing, open and honest discussion about them provides ample opportunity for parents to clarify confusion and present their beliefs and opinions in an honest fashion. Building interest in local, state, and national events will also encourage good citizenship and a desire for children to become better participants in the community.

3. Travel
Ask family members to name states they have visited, and then describe which is their favorite and why. Following this, spend some time finding out which state or country each member would like to travel to, and then discuss what the trip’s itinerary would look like.

4. Science
Science doesn’t have to be restricted to the realm of experiments and formulas. Simply discussing the food on your plates – how the vegetables were grown, how your five senses enable you to enjoy your meal, and even how different ingredient combinations would have made your casserole taste different – provides enough scientific fodder to last for several meal times.

5. Art
Family dinner time doesn’t have to just start at the table! Why not give your children the assignment of finding a work of art and dressing like it for your next meal together? (Having personally seen this done before, I will attest that the results can be amazingly accurate and creative – just make sure you specify that Michelangelo’s “David” is not an option!) When you’re done laughing over the costume creativity, talk about the back story which might be lurking behind the brush strokes of each painting.

6. Religion
One is never supposed to discuss politics or religion in public, but that rule doesn’t apply at home! If your family is religious, talk about events happening at your place of worship, share favorite stories from the Bible or other religious writings, and discuss religious creeds or songs and tease out the meaning behind them. If your family is not religious, ask your children if they have questions about the religions they see being practiced around them.  

7. Civic Philanthropies and Missionary Enterprises
Use meal time to plan ways to serve others in the community. Discuss individuals in need of help or encouragement and plot ways in which your family can bless them through secret missions of giving or serving. And don’t feel like you have to plan big – even a card or a plate of cookies arriving at an unexpected time will long be remembered by the recipient and givers.

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