Welcoming Strangers to the Family Table
6 keys to hosting a successful intergenerational dinner
What’s your approach to abundance? While some may choose to savor life’s bounties on their own, others prefer to make their family table a bigger, more inclusive table.
All Our Kids (AOK) founders David Simpson and his wife Kathy Fletcher have chosen the latter, through their long tradition of Thursday Night Dinners, which they share not only with their son, Santiago (when he’s in town), but also with other friends of his generation and of their own.
On an average Thursday, 15 to 25 people gather at chez Simpson/Fletcher in the Washington, D.C. area to share a meal of spicy chicken (the recipe is below), black rice, asparagus, salad and conversation, in an AOK dinner party. But that's not the only thing on the menu: These intergenerational dinners foster deep conversation and good cheer, and offer love and support for kids just finding their way in life. As a New York Times article about AOK noted, the kids who show up have experienced tough times, from homelessness to sexual assault to the death of a parent.
After AOK was featured in The Times and on NBC Nightly News, people across the country and the world wanted to know how they, too, could create something similar. Here’s Simpson’s “recipe” for these dinners that nurture body, mind and spirit and build community, just in time for the spring holidays of Easter and Passover when many families gather.
How to Host an Intergenerational Dinner
Simpson offers these six tips for hosting an intergenerational dinner:
1. All you need is a dining room table and one kid. There may be up to 25 people a week at Simpson's and Fletcher's table, but to get started, all it takes is caring adults and one child. “No matter how many kids are at the table, if you show up for them over time and you show that you’re there for them — that you would do for them what you do for your own child, and for other kids as well — they become recruiters,” Simpson says. “The word spreads, and other kids come. If you start with one, do it right and give it time, your table will grow. I guarantee it.”
2. Don’t do everything yourself — and keep things simple. At the Thursday Night Dinners, kids and adults alike help with food prep; they scrape plates and clear. The menu is simple and decidedly un-fussy; cooking time is never more than an hour. Many hands really do make simple work, and everyone taking some part strengthens the sense of community.
3. Create a structure that can breathe. Thursday Night Dinners at AOK begin with a “toast of welcome” and include a “go-around [the table], so everyone has a chance to be the focus.” Cell phones are banned. For birthdays, Simpson explains, “we offer good wishes and something we really love about the birthday person.” For new people, “we say something new about ourselves or share something we are grateful for and add a wish we have for the new person.” In this way, conversation shifts from informal twosomes to talking to the whole table (great practice for young people and older adults, who all live in a world where social interaction seems ever more virtual).
After dinner, the party moves to another room, where kids and adults play guitar and sing, read poems and share stories. “And typically, the evening wraps up by 9:30,” says Simpson.
Your structure may differ, of course, but look to build something that can be consistent, predictable and flexible enough to accommodate varying numbers of guests, holidays and other events.
4. Commit to the long haul and a role as "extra" family. Becoming a reliable resource for kids isn’t quick work. Actions speak louder than words. “Kids are in various states of readiness to trust; some come and eat, they don’t say much,” notes Simpson. He and Fletcher take a lot of direction from the kids — from the menu and the music to listening to the dreams and ideas the young people bring to the table. “Rather than trying to force them into what we want for them, we really listen,” Simpson says. “We accept them. We believe in them.” Building trust takes time, patience and a deeply stubborn belief in the kids themselves.
“We don’t replace parents or families, we’re ‘extra’ family. We’re the backup," says Simpson. "We would never presume to replace the parents in their kids’ lives or hearts. Our time together is about where the kids are going, not where they’ve been.”
5. Shift your thinking from problem-solving to diamond-mining. “For us, it’s about the kids and the diamonds they have inside of them,” says Simpson. But lots of kids don’t see that diamond in the rough. “A big part of our job is to help kids see and believe in their own potential. These kids are smart and creative and committed to making a difference. We can’t afford to let their potential go to waste — as families, as communities, as a country,” Simpson notes.
6. Invite other adults to help; everybody wins. “We have no shame in asking friends to help,” Simpson says. Other adults bring dessert, provide moral (and occasional material) support, offer a shoulder to cry on or guidance in a possible career path or artistic pursuit. Don’t be shy, Simpson advises. Mine your personal and professional networks. Seek out people who can tolerate ambiguity, a quality in abundance for most teenagers. “People want to help, people are good,” Simpson says. “They want connection, they want to use the fruits of their labor in responsive and positive ways.”
He adds: "Our kids invite me to be my best self about 10 times a day. And I’m a better version of myself because of their influence.” Developing a strong, rich, intergenerational community that supports kids, Simpson says, “releases their potential — and helps grown-ups feel part of something meaningful and deep. That’s a win for everyone."
All Our Kids’ Spicy Chicken Montego Bay
- 8 to 10 bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs
- 1 tablespoon dried basil
- 1 tablespoon coarse salt
- 1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1 tablespoon ground cumin
- 2 tablespoons dried oregano
- 2 tablespoons dried coriander
- 2 tablespoons McCormick’s Perfect Pinch rotisserie chicken seasoning
- 1 bulb garlic, cleaned and broken apart (not peeled)
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
In a shallow bowl combine all dry ingredients.
Toss the garlic bulbs in olive oil and place in bottom of 9 x 13 pan; place chicken on top.
Brush chicken with olive oil, shake off any excess and roll in spices.
Cook uncovered at 400 degrees for an hour or until well-browned. Enjoy!
(Plan on two thighs per serving. David says, “We count how many people are coming and we add four pieces – even if there’s extra left over, it’ll be gone by the end of the night.”)
(AOK DC is a partner organization in the Generation to Generation campaign, powered by Encore.org, which aims to mobilize a million people to help children and young people thrive. You can find it on Facebook at Gen2Gen.)