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The taste of good dinner conversation
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Thanksgiving comes but once a year, but meaningful mealtimes can happen every night of the week. - photo by Tiffany Gee Lewis
Every Thanksgiving, somewhere between the mashed potatoes and the cranberry sauce, we go around the table and ask, What are you grateful for this year?

Its one of my favorite family traditions. We all take time beforehand to think about what were going to say. It gives a reverence and purpose to the meal that extends beyond the festive side dishes.

Studies have shown that family mealtime is one of the most consistent things we can do to strengthen our families. Yes, the shared act is important, but its what were doing at mealtime that makes it crucial.

We are connecting. We are communicating. We are coming together with purpose. And it doesnt have to happen just one day a year around a table laden with pudding and pie.

We can gather with intention every night.

Our family is a family of talkers, so there is never any shortage of noise at mealtime. But sometimes, the conversation devolves into nitpicking with siblings or discussing the latest Minecraft update.

Thats when its time to step in with a conversation prompt. The rule in our home is that everyones ideas are safe no belittling or criticizing another persons questions or opinions. (It doesnt always work out that way, but thats the hope.)

Inspired by one of my husbands aunts, we keep on the table several conversation-starter place mats. They would never win a fashion competition in House Beautiful, but they are great springboards to discussion. Our place mats include a map of the world, the U.S. presidents, the flags of the world, all the state flags and the worlds greatest composers.

We reference these place mats to talk about everything from President Richard Nixons impeachment to the state flower of Georgia. As a family of journalists, we also talk a lot about current events. The kids like to discuss what they learned in school, and well use that as a springboard as well.

When those topics dry up, we keep other ideas in our back pocket. Here are a few that we cycle through regularly:

Your biggest fear. This was the topic last week, and it was surprisingly illuminating. My 10-year-old said his biggest fear is throwing up one of his major organs, such as a kidney. We had great fun discussing this one.

If you could pick a super power, what would it be? This one comes up almost every week. Who doesnt love to talk about flying or being invisible?

Dreams. Whats the scariest dream youve had? The most exciting? The weirdest? Some of my kids have very vivid dreams that give me great insight into their subconsciousnesses.

If you could travel or live in one place in the world, where would it be? My kids have all staked claims on various parts of the world: Denmark (because thats where Legos are created), Finland (because of the gaming company Supercell), England (great soccer team) and Germany (because German is the language my 10-year-old is learning on Duolingo.) Cooking up ideas for world exploration and travel is one of our favorite topics.

What impact you would like to have on the world? Kids are naturally inward-focused. A question like this gets them thinking outward: Its great you want to work for the Lego Group. How is that going to impact others? What can you do, right here at home, to make a difference?

The happiest day of your life. This topic usually finishes with our favorite family experiences: that trip to Texas for Christmas, that time we stayed at Magic Kingdom until 2 a.m. or the 28-day road trip out West. Its so fun, as a family, to reminisce about favorite trips, favorite outings and favorite moments.

Your future career. This one never gets old because its constantly changing. One son has bounced from aspiring lawyer to software engineer to actor to dentist. We also use this time to hone in on our kids interests. Like international living? Have you ever considered the foreign service? Youre always coming up with stories? Maybe you should be an English professor.

If you could change one thing about the world, what would it be? When my kids were younger, the solution to everything bad in the world was just to blow it up. Dont like mosquitoes? Blow them up! Dont like robbers? Blow them up! Discussions like world change help teach kids about nuance and complexity. It helps them learn critical thinking skills would world peace be the perfect solution? At what cost do wars happen? Why is so much of the world in poverty, and what can we do to change it?

These days, with all that is happening in the world, our kids need us more than ever to offer assurance and hope. Giving voice to their worries and fears through shared conversation is one of the most powerful things we can do. Meaningful mealtimes dont have to come once a year with a turkey and a prayer. They can come every day as we create an environment of thoughtful discussion with a hearty amen.
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