What I Learned About Priorities from Grandma’s Fine China

Simple changes can free up significant margin

I was flopped on the couch. My sister sat beside me, knitting. A feast of turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, and cranberry jelly would soon need to make room for pie. We had just started A Muppet Christmas Carol, our traditional inauguration of the Christmas season.

In the kitchen, the adults were talking. Leftovers had been transferred to Tupperware containers and packed into the fridge, pies had been placed on the wood stove in the hall to warm, and grandma’s fine china had been cleared from the table and thrown in the trash.

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/scampdesigns

At some point, my grandmother switched to using paper plates for family gatherings. When dinner was over, the “fine china” (her term) went in the trash, and everyone could spend their time together talking instead of washing up. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but my sister has since explained to me that it was a conscious adjustment to change where she spent her time.

So what did I learn about priorities from grandma’s fine china?

  • You decide what’s important to you. Maybe you make family gatherings special by breaking out actual fine china and polishing up the silverware. Maybe you minimize the trappings to spend more time together. Either way, it’s your choice. Decide what will make each day the most memorable. Focus your energy there.
  • Time is money. My grandmother was making a conscious decision to spend a few bucks on paper plates, disposable tumblers, and plastic cutlery. In exchange, she got to spend time talking with loved ones. She traded an activity she didn’t enjoy for one she did.
  • Your priorities shift over time. When I was younger, I do remember having Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner on plates that would need washing. But as we got older and the time together became more precious, the frugality of reusable plates yielded to the convenience of throwing out paper plates. We spent more time talking instead of washing dishes.
  • Traditions are what you make them. Our Thanksgiving dinners have varied a bit over the years. Originally, it was pretty classic—turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, gravy, corn-on-the-cob, and two kinds of cranberry sauce. We’ve had more kinds of pie than I can remember. There were a couple years where Thanksgiving dinner was KFC, Doritos, and A&W root beer. Under my wife’s steadying influence, we have settled into half a dozen of our favorite dishes (yes, including turkey). We don’t worry about what a “traditional” Thanksgiving dinner is. It’s what we make it.
  • Make time for family. I was also touched by the priority my grandmother put on family. We were a big rock in her life. She would do everything she could to schedule the gravel around us.

I recently attended a family reunion. Four generations from three states. We watched fireworks from 500 ft away, fed a baby goat, and learned to share a tricycle. We dined, naturally, on grandma’s fine china.

Question: What simple adjustments can you make to improve the quality of your time? Share your thoughts in the comments, or on Twitter, LinkedIn, or Facebook.


Colter lives in the heart of Silicon Valley with his wife and children. He enjoys golf, sings baritone, and watches mostly British TV shows.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic. For more information, see my comments policy.

  • MarcelPerez

    There is a lot to be said for a good Dishwasher.

    Hi Colter, I have just recently stubbled on to your blog in my quest to improve my skills in Omnifocus. I stayed reading other pieces like this one because I really enjoy your insights and style of writing.

    I really like the takeaway form this, focus on what is really important and find shortcuts for the rest. I think your grandma is one smart cookie, that we can all learn from. Lifehacking is a hobby/way of life that is very under appreciated and something that clearly is not limited to our out-of-time , stressed-out, omnifocused (pun intended) generation.

    That said , what about buying Grandma-Colter a dishwasher ? That way she still might get to use her fine china and still have time to spend with the family. Sure its not as effortless a cleanup as paper plates, but the eco-conscious side of my brain keeps going to images form the Wasteland documentary. We produce tons of waste for our convenience every day, that much like 80’s fashion, our children will contemplate with pity and disgust one day.

    In any case, the point is very valid specially when thinking about work and business , that is probably why outsourcing and VA’s have had such surge in the last few years.

    Keep it up, looking forward to reading more great post like this.

    • colterreed

      Thanks, Marcel, and welcome!

      A dishwasher is certainly another option for some. I hope ours never goes out. It’s wonderfully convenient to let a machine do the heavy lifting after meals, even when we don’t have company over. My grandparents had a smaller kitchen, and a dishwasher may not have worked for them.

      I love how you put this: “Focus on what is really important and find shortcuts for the rest.”

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