How to Make Dinner Conversation Deeper and More Meaningful

06/25/2015 04:58 pm ET | Updated Jun 25, 2016

I recently read how an Apple Watch has become the latest gadget to distract us from the immediacy of being present with someone. With the constant barrage of laptops, iPads, smart phones, and now "smart watches," being aware and enjoying someone's physical company oftentimes falls on the back burner.

It's not just that we are less present. Incredibly busy lives also mean many of us shy away from cooking or even having a family dinner together. Between our never-ending to-do lists, demanding jobs, children's busy schedules, and perhaps less-than-stellar skills in the kitchen, cooking, or even eating together seems to slide down on our list of priorities.

That's unfortunate, considering the numerous benefits of making a meal or even sitting down together to eat.

Amidst today's go-faster, do-more mentality, I have a radical proposal. I want you not only to reconnect with your kitchen and the bounty of benefits it offers; I also want you to reconnect with each other:  Sit down and have a meal together.

If you have a family, you can bring everyone together for this event. If you live alone, invite friends over. Humans crave togetherness and connecting, and preparing a meal and then enjoying stimulating conversation becomes an energizing situation that plies us away from our laptops, smart phones, and other technological gadgets that serve a purpose but also disconnect us from other people.

It is not just that we are bombarded by toxic news and endless gossip. We also live in a toxic food environment, with its slick combination of sugar, salt, and fat that's pumped into a wide range of packaged food. As a result, our genes (and our jeans) are overwhelmed. Our taste buds have been assaulted. Our tongues and our brains become victim to craving even more of these toxins. Diabesity and all its repercussions have become the price we pay for this toxic-food onslaught.

Slowing down and enjoying healthy food, surrounded by great conversation, becomes one of the most radical things you can do to fight this toxic food environment. If you have kids, you are establishing lasting habits they will carry on.

That becomes especially critical when you consider in less than a decade, the rate of pre-diabetes or diabetes in teenagers has risen from 9 percent to 23 percent. Almost one in four kids has pre-diabetes or Type 2 diabetes.

Even more shocking, 37 percent of kids at a normal weight have pre-diabetes and one or more cardiovascular risk factors such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or high blood sugar. Besides raising the risk for chronic, life-threatening diseases, the sad truth is that obese children will earn less, suffer more, and die younger.

You can reverse this massive problem for yourself and for future generations, and the cure lies in your kitchen. Cooking together and having friendly conversation needn't become time consuming or otherwise burdensome. Start with one night a week. Make it mandatory, require everyone to put away technological gadgets, and make dining together an event.

Cooking real food is a revolutionary act. Sitting down and having stimulating conversation has become a lost art. Our children will grow up without these survival tactics, and their children will face the same fate -- not being able to identify common fruits and vegetables, not realizing where food comes from, and feeling isolated rather than connected with others.

We can change that, one meal at a time.

5 Steps to Disconnect and Reengage

Whether you're preparing food together or passing it around the family table, it's a wonderful time to reconnect, get the day's download, share laughs, and discuss important events. Start your new ritual by making your kitchen as warm and inviting as possible.

I've found these five strategies can help your family gather around the dinner table for a fun, convivial meal: 

  1. Reclaim your kitchen. Throw away any foods with high fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated fats, sugar, or fat listed as the first or second ingredient on the label. Fill your shelves with real, fresh, whole, local foods when possible. And join a community support agriculture network to get a cheaper supply of fresh vegetables weekly or frequent farmers markets.
  2. Learn how to shop and cook. You can make this a family activity, and it does not need to take a ton of time. Keep meals quick and simple.
  3. Make your kitchen inviting. Create a family playlist that puts everyone in a good mood. Invest in terrific lighting. Change your curtains. Open your windows. Put stools by the counter, or pillows on your chairs. Make the kitchen a place you and your family want to gather.
  4. Reinstate the family dinner. Read Laurie David's The Family Dinner. She suggests the following guidelines: Make a set dinnertime, no phones or texting during dinner, everyone eats the same meal, no television, only filtered or tap water, invite friends and family, everyone clean up together.
  5. Eat together. No matter how modest the meal, create a special place to sit down together, and set the table with care and respect. Savor the ritual of the table. Mealtime is a time for empathy and generosity, a time to nourish and communicate.

Don't Let Perfection Derail Your Efforts 

Once you set up your environment for success, let the fun begin! I recommend getting your family involved in the entire process, from prepping ingredients to cooking to sitting down and enjoying the results of your labor.

If you're new to cooking or your skills have gotten rusty, don't aim for perfection with your first recipe -- aim for experimenting and practicing. Start with one of my more basic recipes with a few ingredients and work your way up to something more complex.

Enlist help from family members -- drag your kids away from their video games and ask them to measure ingredients, pull food from the fridge, or even chop veggies if they're ready to take on this task. Decide on meals together to get everyone excited about what's in store.

I encourage you to start your own family traditions around cooking and enjoying meals together. One of my favorite things to do with my kids is to hang out in the kitchen, chopping vegetables, telling stories, catching up, cooking, and anticipating sharing a great meal together. Once you get in the habit of nourishing your family life in this way, you'll never want to return to solo dining out of plastic containers and take-out boxes.

Choosing Inspired Conversation

"But I have no clue what to talk about with my kids or partner," a patient will occasionally confess when I propose the dinner-conversation idea. We know more about the latest celebrity gossip than we do our own family and friends.

Life coach Lauren Zander (co-founder of The Handel Group and Creator of The Handel Method) has a fantastic mealtime tradition to change that. She calls it "Creating a Conversation."

Here's how it goes. At the start of the meal, your family or dinner guests suggest a potential question to be answered by each person at the table. Everyone must agree on the question.

Once a question is decided upon, everyone at the table must answer the question. The fun is in getting everyone to share about themselves and connect with each other. That's when the magic happens! You will start to get to know your family and friends on a deeper level.

To help you get started, here's a list of some of our favorite dinner conversations:

  • What's your favorite thing about the person sitting to your right? Why?
  • What's something you can confess that nobody at the table knows about you?
  • If you could pick any career in the world, regardless of ability/age, what would it be? Why?
  • What's a city, town, or country you've never seen that you'd like to visit? What draws you to this destination?
  • What's your very first memory of life?
  • Tell the story of your first true love. Who was it? How old were you? What happened? Do you know anything about where that person is right now?
  • If the house were on fire, and you could save just one of your possessions, what would it be? Why?
  • If you could change one thing about yourself what would it be and why?
  • What's the most embarrassing thing that ever happened to you and what did you learn from it?
  • If you could give the person to your left a superpower, what would it be? Why?
  • What's something you have seen, heard, experienced this week that touched you?
  • Tell a story of someone you deeply loved.   Let us know what made that person special.
  • What do you love most about your life? Why?
Diving Deeper into Dinner Discussions

Are you ready for a deeper, yearlong, working-on-your-life dinner experience? Life Coach Lauren Zander has another mealtime project, one that includes bringing your family/community together to inspire and make a difference in each other's lives.

Here's how to play. Keep in mind it's a yearlong event. You have a kickoff dinner where each guest chooses an area of life from the list below and creates a dream in that area. They must dream big while also making the dream inspiring and doable.

Once everyone has expressed their dream, each person at the table must make at least two promises that will help them achieve that dream. Then they choose someone at the table to be their accountability partner who will help them keep those promises.

Every six to eight weeks, schedule a dinner with the same guests so you can meet up, have a great meal, and everyone can give updates on how they are doing with their dreams. You will be amazed at the changes a community can create for each other.

In which area do you choose to dream big?

  • Career -- how is it going? Are you doing what you love?
  • Body -- weight, appearance, how you look
  • Money -- are you happy with what you've earned, saved, or how you manage it?
  • Fun & Adventure -- vacations, self-indulgent time, out-of-the-ordinary events
  • Learning -- is there something you want to learn that interests you? Such as how to fly a plane, play the guitar, or speak Spanish?
I would love to hear from you about your favorite dinner conversation or the dreams you are achieving. You can post your favorite dinner conversations or your progress on your dream below or on my Facebook page.

If you want more help turning your dreams into reality, then please visit Coach Lauren's website to learn more about how she and her team can help you to dream big!

Wishing you health and happiness,
Mark Hyman, M.D.

Mark Hyman, M.D. believes that we all deserve a life of vitality -- and that we have the potential to create it for ourselves. That's why he is dedicated to tackling the root causes of chronic disease by harnessing the power of Functional Medicine to transform healthcare. He is a practicing family physician, a nine-time #1 New York Times bestselling author, and an internationally recognized leader, speaker, educator, and advocate in his field. He is the Director of the Cleveland Clinic Center for Functional Medicine. He is also the founder and medical director of The UltraWellness Center, chairman of the board of the Institute for Functional Medicine, a medical editor of The Huffington Post, and has been a regular medical contributor on many television shows including CBS This Morning, the Today Show, CNN, The View, the Katie Couric show and The Dr. Oz Show.