When I was a child, I loved eating dinner at my friends’ homes. The invitation seemed to hold great importance, and there was something about being at the table during someone else’s “family time” that I found both novel and captivating. The conversation was exotic, the rules were unknown, and I saw a different side of my friends as they talked with their parents, observed table manners, or helped clean up the kitchen.

Meals at my own house were fine, but there was very little variation to the structure or the menu, and my friends’ parents usually served dessert.

As an adult, I still get excited about dining in someone else’s home. Since I have two small children, most dinner invitations are from friends with families and with little ones similar in age and energy level to my own. They’re usually chaotic and kid-centered, but there’s still always dessert (even if I’m the one bringing it now).

While there’s the obviously enjoyable social element to these get-togethers, I find that there is another valuable component of these shared meals. Nowadays, I find myself picking up on all sorts of family views, customs, traditions, and even parenting hacks, when I’m a guest in someone else’s home. Normally, our conversations don’t center around parenting. But I pay attention to what’s not being said, to the rhythms of their family life and the details that make up the scenery of the household.

Over time, I’ve accumulated countless ideas, from tiny to large-scale, which I’ve then implemented in my own home. At one friend’s house, the children ate from little wooden bowls, and I thought they were so cute and kid-proof, that I now have several. At another friend’s backyard BBQ, the kids helped chop soft vegetables with butter knives, and now I give my own son prep work to do before meals.

Recently I had dinner with friends and their school-age children. From the start, the conversation between the family was lively and cheerful. The kids, I noticed, were starting conversation threads on their own, without being prompted by their parents. All three of the children took turns bringing up stories from days at school, and by the second kid, I noticed a pattern. They were telling the table one thing they had liked about their day, and one thing they hadn’t liked. The parents even did the same.

Later, when I asked, my friend explained to me that this was a routine at their house. Everyone said one thing about their day that was positive and made them feel good, and one unpleasant or challenging aspect of their day. They’ve been doing it for so long, that it had become a natural part of their dinners.

That was when I realized something about my own family routines. I don’t really notice the distinctive traditions that we have, or separate them in my head as anything noteworthy. We simply do what we do.  

Not long ago, my family hosted a casual dinner at our own house. It was a weeknight, post-work dinner and I hadn’t planned anything special. I gave our guests, and the children, a 5-minute warning before dinner, and that was when my 4-year-old began setting the table with placemats and silverware. I didn’t ask him to that that night, but he had been doing it for so long, that he had internalized the routine, and his place within it. One of my guests complimented him for helping out, but to me, that work was so interwoven in the fabric of our day-t0-day, that it would have been stranger if he hadn’t done it.

My guest brought it up again as we sat down and for a few minutes we all talked about various chores our kids had in our respective households. He and his wife were discussing adding more responsibility to their 3-year-old’s days, and they agreed that setting the table was something he could manage.

I certainly didn’t feel self-satisfied or smug, but I did feel good about offering some sort of parenting advice, though it arose organically and as a matter of course. That truly is an element of visiting my friends for dinner that I find so fulfilling: I get the opportunity to see how other families get through their days. I learn about their individual st‌yles and quirks, and I can identify what I’d like to see more of, or less of, in my own family.

My friends don’t sit me down and wax on about the benefits of their meal planning schedule or of the splatter mats they keep under the table. But I pick up on those things, and file away that wisdom, lofty or mundane, for myself.

When I’m sitting at someone else’s dinner table, I get the strong sensation that I actually am in the proverbial parenting village. We share food, stories, and in silent ways, the insights that have made our own families run a little more smoothly, and a bit more happily. We all have something to learn, and we all definitely have something to offer.