When I was growing up, my mom served us a mouth-watering dinner every night at 6:30. Sitting around our sturdy dining room table was usually the only time the five of us were all in one place during the day, and it gave us a chance to detach for a while from friends, work, homework, and the television, and connect with each other.
In my own family, we’ve made it a priority to have a similar dinner ritual, but I have also realized that getting dinner on the table isn’t as easy as my mom made it seem. Most of us know intuitively and intellectually that family dinners are vital for healthy families, but it’s the practical matters that get in the way; challenges like how do I get my kids to eat what I make, how do we manage family dinners when the kids have sports practices at dinnertime, when both parents work late, or when there’s only one parent at home?
Fortunately, film producer and environmental educator Laurie David has come to our rescue with The Family Dinner: Great Ways to Connect with Your Kids, One Meal at a Time, a fantastic how-to guide for families who want to eat dinner together more often. With contributor and chef Kirstin Uhrenholdt, David gives us luscious recipes such as the Maple-Soy Salmon recipe below that will lure our families to the table. But David also gives us the whys, and even more importantly, the hows we need to succeed in all aspects of our families’ food life from setting the table, to engaging kids in the shopping and cooking, to expressing gratitude for the food and finally to savoring dessert.
I’m grateful that David took time out of her hectic schedule to share with Kitchen Explorers some insights from her own experience raising and feeding two daughters who have learned to love lingering around the family dinner table.
Laurie, why do you believe family dinners are so important, and what results have you seen in your own home from your family’s dinner ritual?
I see the power of regular family meals every time I sit down to dinner. My kids are teenagers now and as any mom of teenagers knows, it gets harder and harder to find connecting time. But because I started this ritual with them when they were young and have continued it with them throughout the years, it’s really non-negotiable. I can’t urge you enough if you have young kids, to start the ritual as soon as possible and to continue it as your children grow. Also, I have to mention that the research on this topic is really mind blowing. Basically, the more meals you eat with your kids, the healthier that child will be. Do we need any more impetus than that?
You suggest playing games and using conversation starters at the table as a way to keep the dinner dialogue flowing. What are some of the games your daughters have loved the most over the years?
There are two reasons for playing games at the table. One is to get great conversation going. The other is to make mealtime fun. If everyone is having fun, they’re going to look forward to coming back to the table tomorrow. For some people, coming up with conversation is just as difficult as figuring out what to make for dinner. So I include all of my family’s favorites in the family dinner book. I particularly like verbal games that give you an insight into your child’s minds. When my girls were young, we always played things like “What do you like about you?”, “What do you like about me?”, and “What are you afraid of?”, “What makes you laugh?” As they grew older, the table became the perfect place to talk about current events and debate issues. To that end, every Friday on the Huffington post, you can subscribe (for free) to The Family Dinner Download. It’s a short, snappy synopsis of a major news story with a great, age appropriate question for the table. These Dinner Downloads are fantastic fodder for any dinner table.
I know you’re extremely eco-conscious, as am I. What are a few practical, hands on ways we can we teach our kids “green values” in the kitchen?
It goes without saying that this is one of my favorite topics! There are so many easy ways for us to practice and teach green values to our families. Just the simple act of banning plastic water bottles in the kitchen is a good first step. Filtered water should be served in a glass. In fact, we should be trying to reduce the amount of plastic we use in our kitchens in general. Glass is the healthiest and most environmental way to store leftovers, drink out of, eat off of. Of course, composting is a fantastic science lesson you can teach your kids and it’s darn fulfilling to boot. Buying local and in season and even growing a few simple herbs or greens on your windowsill or backyard is not only green, it tastes best and is rewarding too.
In your book you talk about taking family field trips to the grocery store, farmer’s market, and fish market. Why do you think it’s important that kids accompany us on these outings?
Unfortunately we are at a point in time where there is a huge disconnect between where our food comes from and how it ends up on our table. These family field trips will help connect the dots. Also, ethnic food stores are really fun to visit and inspiring as well.
One thing I love about your book is that you advocate family dinners for all kinds of families, including families like yours where the parents are divorced. That’s a practical challenge that we don’t hear enough about, even though so many families are in this situation. What suggestions do you have for single parents to make family dinners easier?
I’ve got tons of suggestions and many of them are in the book. Buddy up is suggestion number one. This means that you share the duties of dinner with friends or family. Split the weeks, double your recipe for your friends and get her doubles back for a meal for your family on another night. And when your family is going through a crisis, reach out to others. I could never have gotten through those first few difficult months of divorce without all the friends and family who came for dinner and helped elevate the mood at the table. Ease up on what your requirements are for dinner. You can scramble some eggs and throw in some broccoli or have soup and a salad. The most important part of family dinner is sitting down together.