She had her epiphany at the dinner table. It was just a year and a half ago now. Dessert was long gone, but her kids were still at the table talking. She sat back in her chair, and realized: oh my gosh, this is the one thing I've done right as a parent. She reflected how it hadn't happened by itself. It had been a conscious effort to create family dinner rituals at home. Perhaps, she wondered, she could share this with other people...
Laurie David, producer of the Academy Award-winning documentary An Inconvenient Truth, and author of The Down-to-Earth Guide to Global Warming, is fired up about family dinners. She's used her epiphany to write a wonderfully inspiring, and deeply enlightening, book that demonstrates how family dinners have the potential -- if we embrace them -- to be so much more than just, "Hey Mom, what's for dinner?"
The Family Dinner reveals that parents face immense challenges in reaching their kids today, and yet the daily ritual of family dinner, the simple act of eating, talking and sharing at the dinner table, can help bridge the divide. Chock full of great ways to connect with your kids, one meal at a time, it uses recipes, fun table games, the advice of renowned experts, Laurie's own lessons learned with former husband Larry David and their two daughters, and a whole lot of love, it makes the case that you should stay at the dinner table sharing with your kids, and not just run off to see another rerun of, well, Seinfeld...
Chris Elam: One of your contributors, physician Dean Ornish, writes this book is a 'recipe for joy, health and healing.' Did you set out to write such a recipe?
Laurie David: I love that quote, I think it's true in retrospect. But no, I didn't write with that lofty purpose. I did, however, hope to share what I've learned as a parent. There's so much in our culture today that separates us, that tears at the family fabric: the TV, the computer, the cellphone. It's getting harder and harder to connect with our kids. Luckily, family rituals can come to the rescue.
CE: What does the ritual of dinner mean, why is it so important?
LD: Well, dinner isn't just about the food. It's just as much about the conversation. It's about gratitude. It's about laughter. It's about learning.
Studies show that the dinner table is the number one place where we learn about family history and lore. It's also the place where we get civilized. And where we civilize our children. Where they learn to form and air their opinions, and to listen, and to reform their opinions. Where we teach kids the things they need to become productive members of their community.
I didn't understood this at first -- it only came to me in the process of writing the book. I discovered the staggering research that everything a parent is concerned with, or worries about -- alcohol, drugs, nutrition, promiscuity, grades -- can be improved by sitting down for family dinner. By eating and sharing together.
CE: Did you start early with your own kids?
LD; As soon as they could sit in their high chairs. At first, I was just desperate for some happy family moments. I keyed in on the dinner hour as the time to grab them.
Listen, parenting is hard. It's challenging. You need to grab happy moments. You can't wait for them. You need to create them!
I'm very grateful for this realization. Because when kids get older, it gets much harder. And when kids enter their teens, that's when most people stop their family rituals. Which is exactly when they need them more than ever! Dinner is love.
CE: So what can parents do to encourage family dinner rituals?
LD: Start small. It's all there in the book. Begin by slowing down. Turn off the distractions. Encourage everyone to pitch in. Try conversation starters. Listen, air opinions, ask follow-ups. Make it fun with games and laughter. Don't miss a teaching opportunity. Repeat tomorrow.
CE: Was Larry down with all this?
LD: Larry didn't have great role models growing up, which I talk about in the book. He didn't have many happy dinner memories. His family ate to refuel, then back out the door. But yes, he did go along with it. I'm sort of a strong presence -- he didn't have much choice! But Larry needed to be educated too. He didn't see the value of dinner conversation at first. There were many nights when I'd kick him under the table -- participate, participate!
CE: How were your own childhood dinner memories?
LD: Well, I think that's the reason I place so much importance on this ritual. Family dinners for me weren't so happy. It was like, who's going to cry first? Who's going to fight whom? How do I get rid of the peas in my mouth. How quickly can I get from this table, out the door and on my bike.
I didn't want to repeat history. My hope was to gradually create, through trial-and-error, my own ideal of what family dinners could be.
CE: Family dinners invariably involve food. You have delicious-looking recipes in your book, tell us about them.
LD: All the recipes were developed by Kirstin Uhrenholdt, who grew up on a fruit farm in Denmark. When dinner was falling by the wayside, Larry and I working full time, long long hours, I was fortunate that he gave me the gift of hiring somebody to help us cook. We got lucky -- Kirstin turned out to be this incredibly gifted, loving person. Everything she touches turns beautiful. She taught me what I never learned from my mother.
One of the important concepts of this book is you cook for the family. These are all family recipes. This is family food -- not kid food. Leading from that, the second major food concept is participation. Ideally, everyone at the table should help prepare the table in some way. Everyone benefits when we have a more personal relationship with the food we eat.
For example, at our house, when we make soup, we take the chicken out, and then chop up fresh vegetables. Then we put everything on the Lazy Susan, pour out the broth into individual bowls, and everyone makes their own soup. That way we all participate in the meal. We all feel we've helped make it. Which means we'll ultimately eat more (and waste less), and take greater pride in the meal.
CE: Let me ask, are we facing a food-quality crisis in this country?
LD: Once you become aware of how we produce the great majority of food in the U.S. and you're feeding your kids -- well, you're forced to wake up fast. You find yourself asking, is this really healthy? As a responsible parent, and even as a responsible human being, you have to say this may not be the best choice.
When it comes to meat, I don't think it's about labels, about either-or. You don't have to be a vegetarian. You might just want to consider being a meat-reducer. In the old days, it was a once-a-week special. Now we're eating meat literally 3 times a day. That's incredibly unhealthy, and totally unsustainable.
Which is why I really like the Meatless Monday idea. What I find so exciting is it's something everyone can do. It's an easy ask, that benefits you and the planet. Plus, I think if you eat less meat, you're going to enjoy it more. It's sort of like when I was a kid. You had to wait for the right season to get a particular fresh fruit or fresh vegetables. How amazing that first strawberry tasted in June! Everything just tastes better when it's eaten in season and hasn't been trucked 1,500 miles.
Next week, Laurie talks about divorce food, the importance of laughter, the perfect chicken nugget, and the Huffington Post Family Dinner Downloads.