Getting Ready to Gather Again – The Family Dinner Project

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Although in many ways, COVID remains present, it seems Summer 2022 is shaping up to be much more open and active than the past two years. For most families, this summer will mark a return to beloved activities like backyard parties, potlucks, playdates and vacations. And with two big dates to celebrate in May – Mother’s Day and Memorial Day – the time seems right to get ready to gather again. But how ready are we to have a “post-COVID” summer?

Recent studies have shown that after all the restrictions of the past two (plus!) years, socializing is more mentally and physically exhausting than it used to be for many of us. We’re lower on social endurance, higher on social anxiety, and frankly, we’re just out of practice at doing things that used to be almost automatic. As Dr. Anne Fishel writes of her recent return to hosting dinners, “I thought: How hard could this be? As it turned out, like trying to walk again when your leg has been casted for two years.”

Does all this awkwardness and anxiety mean we’re doomed to spend another summer avoiding get-togethers and social invitations? Hopefully not! As long as it feels safe for your family to do so, gathering with friends and family is one of life’s great pleasures, and one we’ve all missed too much of in recent years. Here’s how to get back in practice and make the most of this summer’s family time:

  • Keep things simple. Especially if you’re just getting back to having big gatherings now, it can be tempting to want to make things “perfect.” But as we recommended in the “There’s Too Big a Crowd!” chapter of our book Eat, Laugh, Talk: The Family Dinner Playbook, entertaining friends and family can be even more rewarding when you keep things basic and low-stress, so you can focus on enjoying each other’s company. A taco bar is a low-cook crowd-pleaser, or you could try an easy one-pan baked pasta and ask guests to pitch in with bread, salad, and fruit.
  • Take advantage of the outdoors. Not only are outdoor gatherings safer from a public health perspective, but they often make the cleanup much easier. (As one family told us philosophically, “There’s always the hose!” for taking care of messy young eaters.) And when you’re eating outside, you can build in time for fun and active games like Dink, Dink, Dunk or What Can You Do With…? If you need outdoor dinner inspiration, check out our collection of family picnic ideas with summer-ready food, fun, and conversation.
  • Be road trip ready. Gatherings and parties aren’t the only things coming back this summer; many families will be taking their first summer vacations in quite a while. Check out our advice for family dinners on the road to help you get ready to roll out on an adventure or two!
  • Don’t take on too much. It might be tempting to fill up the calendar this summer with every invitation, festival, event, and outing you can imagine. But too much of a good thing is, well, too much. After the fluctuating rules, rhythms and routines we’ve all endured since March 2020, a mad rush to do every possible activity is a likely recipe for burnout. There’s also the day-to-day reality to consider; after all, many parents still have to work full-time during the summer, and piling on too many plans on top of the usual responsibilities won’t help anyone’s stress levels. Maybe instead of hosting a full-on barbecue for the whole neighborhood, a few friends could come over for ice cream and a turn under the sprinklers. Or maybe instead of rushing to fit in a major family outing every weekend, you could alternate with a stay-home activity like a backyard movie night.

In the end, all anyone wants is to make great memories this summer – and no matter where you go or what you do, spending time together will provide plenty of opportunities to do just that. Here’s to a safe, happy, and memorable summer for everyone!

Food

Make your next gathering simple and crowd-pleasing with this Build Your Own Pasta Picnic idea from our friends at GoodCook!

Build Your Own Pasta Picnic

Fun

Nothing says summer like ice cream, and nothing says fun like a dance party! Make dessert a group activity with an unexpected twist.

Ice Cream Dance Party

Conversation

Amidst all the fun of summer gatherings, there are more solemn reasons for some of our backyard barbecues. Use these conversation starters to mark the occasion on Memorial Day.

Talking About Memorial Day



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