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Virtual Gatherings are our New Normal

Posted by Andrea on Apr 3, 2020


Zoom is saving me right now. Over the past several weeks during confinement, I've had numerous virtual happy hours to catch up and stay connected with friends. Chatting virtually through FaceTime and Facebook Messenger is nothing new for me and my family as we are spread out all over the globe, including a brother and his family in New Zealand. However, it's rare that I connect with my friends (especially ones in the same city) through my computer or phone. 

Virtual gatherings are our new normal, at least for now. 

Our typical social outlets - work, dinners out, cookouts at friends' houses, playdates for the kids - have been replaced by working from home and then also spending the evenings at home. Thank god for Netflix. But instead of just binge watching Schitt's Creek (anyone else?), I've been trying to plan my evenings like I would have before this quarantine began, with the company and smiling faces of my friends. As humans, we must have a community and that hasn't changed even though we are currently in isolation. We just have to do it virtually. 

Luckily, we live in an age where there are plenty of tools available at our fingertips, some even for free. Zoom is a virtual meeting platform that is easy to use and has a free version. Typically, the free plan has a 40-minute limit to meetings, but Zoom is currently waiving this limit during the Coronavirus crisis. Google Hangouts, FaceTime, Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp and Skype also work. 

Virtual Book Club

book club

My first virtual gathering I hosted was my book club meeting last week. We had canceled our March meeting due to the virus, but since we meet each month, my group of lovely ladies was missing each other. I suggested a virtual book club meeting to discuss our book (Nine Perfect Strangers by Liane Moriarty) as well as share a glass (or two or three) of wine. I often say my "wine club has a book problem", so you can be the judge on the priority. 

It was a huge success! Although not all members felt comfortable with the technology (we're working to solve that for this month's virtual meeting), everyone else joined in and had a fun time. I was even able to create a custom background with a wall full of books behind me using Canva

Virtual Happy Hour

Girls HH

My next virtual gathering was with a group of local girlfriends who I would normally see several times a month. We met after they put their kids to bed, enjoyed a cocktail together and discussed everything from grocery shopping to Tiger King. Regardless of your drink of choice (“Quarantini,”anyone?), the virtual happy hour is really about finding a new way to connect in a time when our regular lines of communication are cut off.  

Here are some tips for throwing a virtual happy hour:

  • If you want to have a themed-cocktail, provide a recipe to everyone in advance. If you want to drink a particular type of wine together, make it broad since stores may have limited selection right now. Delve into different Pinot Noirs together and share what you like or may not like about each wine.  
  • Collaborate on a playlist in advance. 
  • If using Zoom, choose the grid option so you can all see each other at the same time. 
  • Of course, the subject of Coronavirus is going to come up. It's consuming our lives right now so how could it not? But try to steer the conversation in other directions. The point is to have fun! 
  • Don't share your meeting link with anyone outside of your group, or require a password to enter the meeting. There have been reports of hackers crashing Zoom meetups (typically big public ones) and broadcasting porn to everyone. You definitely don't want that during a family get together! 
  • I personally never set an end time to my virtual gatherings. We usually end up chatting for more than an hour, but if you want to keep it short and sweet, go ahead. It's fun to make plans for another get together at the end of the meeting. 
  • Limit your meeting to 8-10 people. If you have more than that, people tend to talk over each other. If you want a larger group, consider having a moderator to facilitate the conversation. 
  • Come up with a plan to occupy your kids during your happy hour time. Whether that means hosting it after their bedtime or allowing them some screentime, try to limit your distractions during your gathering. 
  • Be ready to listen. Be courteous, and let everyone have a chance to talk.
  • My friends and I always do this at gatherings like Thanksgiving, but now would also be a great time to go around the table and share three things that you are grateful for. 

It's important during this time of social distancing to lessen feelings of isolation. By scheduling an evening "event" you not only give some structure to your day and have something to look forward to, but you get to see some friendly faces. It's also a great way to connect with people you haven't seen or talked to in a while. Tonight, I'm having happy hour with a friend from culinary school who I haven't talked to you in years. He lives in Honduras so I'm interested to hear what's happening in his part of the world.

Virtual Family Dinner


Just because we can't gather together around the table right now doesn't mean you have to forego family dinners. My friend Ginna and her family have been meeting each Sunday night over Zoom around dinner time. She's in Chicago, her parents are in Buffalo Grove, her brother and family are in Glenview and her other brother and his family are currently living in Costa Rica. So, a Sunday supper together is the perfect way to stay connected. Theirs is pretty informal so sometimes they are cooking at that time and share what they are making. "We all just talked over each other just like a regular family dinner," Ginna said.

If you want to have a little more structure to your family dinner, try this outline:

  • Let everyone say hi and what's currently happening in their world.
  • Share what everyone is eating.
  • Check in with the family pets. 
  • Offer some jokes. Dad jokes accepted!
  • Give yourself a break from the current state of affairs by laughing together over a shared meal.

Other ideas for virtual dinner parties would be to cook a family recipe together, cook different recipes from the same cookbook (a la Cook the Book style), pick one ingredient and challenge everyone to use it in different ways or choose a kitchen appliance or tool that everyone has (such as an Instant Pot) and create a dish using it. Now is the time to get creative!  


Virtual Bachelorette Party


One type of party that could never have been imagined would have to happen virtually is a bachelorette party. The Chopping Block's General Manager Kate Schrager was supposed to get married next month. The wedding has been postponed until the fall, but the bachelorette party that was supposed to have been in March took a different turn. Kate's party involved four parts to the trip - Napa Valley, Las Vegas, Sedona and Palm Springs - and was obviously going to be epic.

Kate initially wanted to push forward with the trip since none of what was planned involved large gatherings. "But once California, Vegas, and Chicago started making shifts in restricting wineries, restaurants, casinos, bars, etc., I started thinking that this plan might not work after all, and hated the idea of putting my friends (and the people they would contact later) at risk. So, I made the decision to cancel," said Kate. Luckily, the guests were able to get vouchers for the majority of their travel/accommodations, and everyone was understanding, supportive and appreciative of making the right decision for everyone.

Instead, they took the party to the Internet. Everyone wore sunglasses, sunglasses, a sun hat, a bathing suit, or an outfit they planned to wear for the bachelorette party. "We laughed, drank, inspected the snacks we were consuming, and made the most of our time apart. It really lifted my spirits!" said Kate.


Virtual Fitness Class

sara yoga

With gyms and yoga studios closed, we've been forced to find other ways to exercise and keep our bodies in motion during quarantine. I attended my first Zoom yoga class a couple of weeks ago with my favorite yoga teacher in Chicago, Sara Strother. I heard about it through Instagram and paid for it on Venmo. All 100+ participants had the option to simultaneously hit play on a Spotify playlist distributed by the teacher. We flowed through sun salutations in real-time. Most people turned their webcams on, and there was time before and after the class to talk to other students in the class. This was a fun way to connect with other yogis! 

I've also been taking advantage of the fitness classes on Peloton's app which is currently free for 90 days. It's a live studio experience in your home with classes for different skill levels, time and areas of the body that you want to focus on. You can also take the class outdoors for a run, walk or bike. 


Virtual Storytime


One of the really fun things I've seen hosted virtually is storytime for kids. Celebrities, parents, and teachers alike are reading books online to keep kids engaged and entertained. My friend Erik Daly reads a couple of children's books with his son live on Facebook each day. The titles range from K-1 through late-elementary level. He says he does it as an opportunity for kids to connect with each other and for parents to have 20-30 minutes to themselves. If you want to find books that support teaching kids about healthy eating, gardening, wellness and more, Common Threads has curated a downloadable Small Bites Reading List.

I hope that even once the pandemic is over, these virtual gatherings will continue. Why on earth hasn’t doing this occurred to us before?

The Chopping Block is currently working on creating virtual cooking and wine classes. We should have something to announce in the next couple of weeks, so please stay tuned for those offerings. In the meantime, join our private Facebook group to be the first to know about them!

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Topics: dinner party, family recipes, cook the book, family night, covid19, virtual, book club

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