Here's the gift that should be under every Christmas tree this year: Laurie David's new book, The Family Dinner: Great Ways to Connect to Your Kids, One Meal at a Time. There is no more precious a gift that a parent could give his kids than the family dinner ritual, and this book gives not only every reason why, but every possible way how.
Researchers are showing that eating dinner as a family not only fosters healthy eating habits, but remarkably also boosts kids' self esteem, grades, confidence, etc. Most of us would agree that today's families face a "time famine." Parents feel they don't have enough time with their kids; kids wish their parents were less stressed and less tired. "Rituals to the rescue," Laurie writes. "Meals are as essential for nurturing as they are for nutrition," she quotes Ellyn Satter, family therapist and nutrition expert. "Meals provide us all with reliable access to food and they provide children with dependable access to their parents."
So what's a family to do? Savor the dinner hour, Laurie commands. Turn off the cell phones, the TV, the computer, come and eat together and talk -- purposely be a family. Kids spend an alarming 7 ½ hours a day on technology. Adults aren't much better. We may all feel time starved and disconnected, but there is time to be mined, and for such a good cause.
Laurie's book has inspired me to put other items on my list of gifts to give this holiday. I'm going to give cooking classes to my two grown sons. They both enjoy cooking but want to learn more. To our friends with younger children, I'm going to give books of poetry and short stories to be read out loud.
For my young nieces and nephews, I'm giving board games, the kind without batteries that you play with a group. And for those who like staying up with current events, the issues of our day, particularly those related to the environment, I'm planning to give subscriptions to OnEarth magazine.
I'm thinking about giving some of my siblings some basic gardening supplies. Honestly, there is nothing I love to do more than garden and nothing my family enjoys more than the meals we make with the vegetables grown just yards away from the kitchen.
And for a good friend of mine, she might enjoy a day kayaking with a birder in New York harbor. She loves birds and there's an astonishing variety in our area.
I'm giving my Dad tomato plants. He's got a big sunny window that is just perfect for potted vegetables. I start them from seed in my own window garden, as store bought plants have had problems with blight. I am also getting him a food mill so that he can prepare some tomatoes for freezing. The puree of fresh tomatoes is perfect for making soups or sauces long after the harvest.
My favorite gift that my Dad gave me was a wonderfully warn flannel shirt of my Mom's, as I wrote about here. My parents were true "materialists" according to Wendell Berry's definition -- they conserved, were thoughtful about resources, mindful of what value they provided and what wasting them cost. Their lives were organized by the old World War II motto: "Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without."
The Family Dinner reminds me of those values. It's really a book about transformation, about shifting consciousness, rethinking what and how we eat, and how we want to spend our time. It's about being grateful for what is most valuable, what's really important -- a happy family, a home-cooked meal, a healthy planet -- and putting our energy into those things. We are living in a culture where everything is immediate, from fast food to instant messaging and twitter, Laurie told me in an interview, and it's changing how we relate to the world and to each other. "We have to be very conscious of this as parents, and continually remind ourselves what is truly important, to nurture those things and to be grateful. "A lot of these values," Laurie realized, "are instilled as part of the family dinner ritual." Her book is a gift to us all.