Focusing on Family Meals

One of the highlights of this past holiday weekend was having the time to sit down and connect with my family, kids, and their friends over home-cooked meals. Growing up, it was a regular occurrence to eat dinner each night with my parents and brothers around the kitchen table. Now as a parent myself, I feel lucky if we have 3 or 4 meals during the week when everyone is present for the entire meal. Sometimes the meals are home-cooked, more often not. While family dynamics, typical work and school schedules for parents and children alike, the types and frequency of extracurricular activities, how and when we eat our meals, and so much more has changed over the last cecntury… the smiles, laughter, conversations, and empty plates from this past weekend remind me of the enduring importance of family meals.

Why are family meals so important?

Research shows what we have already gleaned from our experiences around the kitchen table – that eating together promotes bonding and greater connection between “family” members (this also includes friends, neighbors, etc.), healthy eating practices and habits, improved social skills and relationships, and a sense of belonging.

What can you do?

As a working mom, I know how difficult it can be to make time to eat together. Here are a few suggestions for gathering the family around the dinner table:

  • Schedule time. Check family member schedules for the week ahead and plan 2-3 meals together. If you can only have one meal together, make it the best meal of the week! Don’t be afraid to start small. Add another meal each week, when possible.
  • Spread the wealth. Have willing family members help you plan, shop for, and cook meals. Involving others in the process will lighten the load and add lots of fun!
  • Stay focused. Remove distractions that might prevent you from connecting with one another during meal time. Turn off televisions, radios, cell phones, iPods, etc. Invest your time in one another. Messages, phone calls and other distractions can wait.
  • Invite others. Family meals aren’t just for our immediate and extended relatives. Invite neighbors, friends, coworkers, and others to dinner. Eating together fosters relationship building and strengthening – something that is good for everyone involved!

Want to learn more?

Here are a few additional resources from around the country that provide practical tips for family mealtime:

Becoming a Skilled Communicator

“I’m every woman, it’s all in me.” Whether you remember the Chaka Khan version or the Whitney Houston version, chances are you’ve heard these divas express that “anything you want done, I‘ll do it naturally.” I don’t know about you, but I beg to differ. I can’t do it all myself, and I don’t want to imagine life without other women with whom and from whom I can learn.

That’s why I love being a part of programming for women in agriculture. We learn from one another. Last week I had the pleasure of experiencing the “AgricultuHER – Finding Your Voice” program in Troy, OH. This was offered through OSU Extension in Champaign and Miami Counties. I was so impressed with the women who presented their stories and insights.

Laura Sutherly (Sutherly Family Farm in Miami County) and Jess Campbell (Carroll Creek Farms in Warren County) both shared insights with the women about how they share their agricultural stories.

Since the theme of the program was finding our voice, I was asked to share some insights for navigating conversations when emotions are strong. Many of us are passionate about the work we do and the lives we lead connected to agriculture. There can be varied opinions when it comes to agricultural practices and philosophies. So how can we be a skilled communicator during conversations with people who may have different opinions than we do?

These strategies I’ll be discussing are from the book Crucial Conversations by Al Switzler, Joseph Grenny, Kerry Patterson, and Ron McMillan.

Have you ever been in a conversation that turned crucial? We can sense and identify that there are obviously opposing opinions and strong emotions. Even though we’ve all been there, we may not have the same physical experiences. For some the hairs stand up on the back of our neck. For others our heart rate increases. Some of us feel flush, our cheeks get hot. Hands get clammy. Mouths become dry.

Why, oh why, does this happen?

Actually it’s because our bodies were designed very well to handle stress. As we experience stress, adrenaline is pumped throughout our bloodstream. Blood is diverted away from our brain to our large muscles to give us more efficiency for either fight or flight. Unfortunately, our brain is not the best at distinguishing stress that could truly be a danger and stress that we simply perceive as a danger.

Ever said or done something during an argument and wondered afterwards, “How could I have said something that dumb?” or “Why in the world did I do that?” With less blood going to our brain, it’s little wonder that we act the way that we do in stressful situations.

That said, we don’t have to be prisoners to this behavior. There is hope. First we need to “Start with Heart.” The problem really isn’t that our behavior begins to degrade during the conversation; it’s that our motive begins to change. Instead of wanting to contribute to dialogue- to share meaning and information and even feelings- our motive changes to winning. We want the other person to agree with us at all costs. Or it may be the complete opposite. Our motive becomes getting away from the situation as quickly as possible.

Can we possibly solve this problem? Yes. We need to reengage our brain. If we can get that blood redirected from our large muscles back to our brains again, then we can think. The best way to reengage our brains is to ask a question. We need to force ourselves to think.

One question we can ask is “What do I really want here?”

Do I want to win? Do I want to save face? Do I want to humiliate this other person for making me feel like I am feeling right now? Are any of these my primary goal? Forcing yourself to think about this will allow you to focus on what you really want to achieve in your dialogue.

When we identify the emotional, physical, and behavior signs in ourselves and those we are talking with, then we know it is time to step back from the conversation and think. Some of us react with violence, but many react with silence. Both of these cases prevent dialogue. In both cases people are not participating in the free-flow of meaning between two people.

Violence can pretty easily be identified. People become controlling, start using labels, or are downright attacking. Silence can be displayed more subtly. Withdrawing is pretty obvious, but avoiding and masking are sometimes harder to spot. When we can learn to look for these behaviors in ourselves and others, we can see that safety is missing.

Safety is essential in dialogue. What if instead of feeling personally attacked or frustrated when people respond with acts of silence or violence, we instead viewed them as acts of fear? Would this affect your attitude toward others?

So the next time you find yourself in a conversation that turns crucial, remember that you don’t have to be ruled by your emotions. Take a step back and ask yourself, “What do I really want here?” If the other person is displaying behaviors that suggest they are feeling unsafe, then reestablish your purpose for dialogue and create safety.

These are skills that require practice. And the better we all become at navigating through these conversations, the better we’ll be able to share our agricultural stories.