By Kay Fate
The Post-Bulletin, Rochester MN
Shelly London is one of the founders of the Family Dinner Project, a program that grew out of her desire to help others. A retired corporate executive, London spent a year as a Fellow at Harvard University in a course for people who wanted to live a life of service.
What she learned is there is “a huge amount of research about family dinners, that they lead to a lower risk of diabetes, obesity and asthma,” as well as the “avoidance of bad things, such as drug use, teen pregnancy and poor academic performance.”
Really? By having dinner together as a family?
Absolutely, London said. “It’s about food, fun and conversation that matters. This is all about family health, both physical and social.”
That's the goal of the Family Dinner Project, founded in 2010. The program involves a commitment to attend two community dinners. While preparing a meal together — within each family — the facilitators share recipes, tools and tips about how to have fun and meaningful family dinners.
The project caught the eye of Anne Fishel, who holds a doctorate in clinical psychology, is director of couples and family therapy at Massachusetts General Hospital and is an associate clinical professor at Harvard Medical School.
“I always knew family dinners were really important and transformative,” Fishel said, “but I hadn’t broken it down to make it simple for families. (The family dinner) is often the only time people come together, and there are all these benefits."
So how did a Harvard-based project used on the East Coast end up in West Concord, Minnesota? Enter Mayo Clinic, just down the road.
A partnership had formed between Mayo Clinic Center for Innovation and the Kasson Clinic, with a focus on community health transformation, said Rose Anderson, a senior designer and researcher at the Center.
“We were exploring the concept of health in the community, and the clinic’s role in the future,” Anderson said. “We knew about the (Family Dinner Project) website, and we reached out to their team. We wondered how this would work in the middle of rural Minnesota.”
One of the appeals of the project, Anderson said, “is moving the (community health) discussion out of the clinical setting to a more comfortable, familiar setting.”
Khera Houston, of Kasson, joined the four-week project — other “work” is done at home — on the advice of her dietitian at the Kasson Clinic.
The importance of family dinners is “something my husband and I spoke about before we had kids,” she said. “I was very adamant that family dinners would take place.”
The distractions facing most families are real, she said, but can be managed.
“You’re molding them,” she said of the effect on her children, now age 3½ and 2. “This is something they’ll carry on to their adulthood, and I hope, be fond memories.”
That’s exactly what John Sarrouf, executive director of the project, wants to hear.
The family dinner table, said the professor of mediation from Goucester, Mass., “provides us with our first teachers on how to disagree without being disagreeable. We need to learn how to share opinions, be actively appreciative of differences; and we need to learn how to talk to people about the things we have to or need to talk about.”
For more information, visit thefamilydinnerproject.org.
Mya and Liam Houston, of Kasson, do a quick taste test while making lasagna with their mom, Khera.
(More photos from this story)
Rachael Hamilton carries a freshly made tray of lasagna to the ovens. Hamilton is the innovation coordinator for the Center for Innovation.
(More photos from this story)