Making the Family Dinner More Fun
Sometimes, if everyone’s got to get to soccer on time … or the toddler is whining, “I don’t liiiike this”… or the kids are especially squirrely … you might wonder if the family dinner is worth it.
Enter Laurie David and her new book, The Family Dinner, to tell you why eating together can help improve “all the things people worry about with their kids” – and to give you a toolkit of tips and recipes for how to make it work. David, mom of two teens, is best known for her work fighting global warming (she helped produce An Inconvenient Truth) and for her former marriage (her ex is comedian Larry David), but she says, “every issue I care about crosses the dinner plate.”
A few of David’s tips: Set a regular time for dinner each night. Don’t let, “I’m not hungry” be an excuse to avoid the table. “Even if you don’t eat, you still have to participate,” she says. Make friends welcome. Go on family “food adventures” such as exploring a new ethnic market or taking a cooking class. If conversation devolves to “pass the potatoes,” jump-start it with starter questions like, “Tell me one thing that made you happy today,” or “What is the grossest thing you have ever eaten?”
Seattle’s Child chatted with her about Taco Tuesdays, screen time, and how to do dinner even after divorce.
SC: My takeaway message from the book is that being together over food is more important than what food you're eating. Is it too strong to say that McDonald’s takeout together is better than homemade minestrone apart?
DAVID: I hate to have it be either/or, but I would say that the conversation is just as important as the food. It’s about the opportunity to connect with each other.
SC: Any thoughts on why more of us aren't already doing a family dinner, and how we can make it workable?
DAVID: We’re not doing it, obviously, because of all the pressures that are uniquely 21st century and uniquely ours. They include the fact there are two working, overwhelmed parents instead of one, the microwave oven and the trillion dollar processed food industry, which encourages everyone to eat fast and eat alone. We shifted our priorities, and we’ve got to shift them back.
SC: Was family dinner actually pleasant when your kids were little?
DAVID: I was definitely disappointed when I was first a mom that it wasn’t really living up to all I thought it was going to be. And also, my husband worked seven days a week. I thought, “Why isn’t this more fun?” I realized very early on that I had to create the fun, and that’s what this book is really about. One way was to split the week up with friends. Or, just by naming the night, my kids would wake up and say, “Oh, it’s Taco Tuesday! Yay!” It’s having dinner be the activity while you’re talking about a whole host of other things.
SC: How can we deal with screen time invading meals?
DAVID: I cannot tell you how I feel for parents dealing with this issue, because I dealt with it myself every single day, but at family dinner, guess what, you put your foot down. This is not for screen time. Sorry. Done. If you don’t do that at dinnertime, you’re in danger of not having any time at all when your kids aren’t distracted – and parents, too. We need a break.
SC: I don’t mean to be rude, but – you had a cook at one point. Didn’t that take away all the hard part of family dinner?
DAVID: Here’s the thing. My philosophy is about sitting down at the table, regardless of who makes the food. And, by the way, if you’re doing takeout, someone else is cooking the food, too.
SC: How and why did you manage to keep doing family dinners with your husband after you were divorced?
DAVID: I felt the most important thing was to keep the rituals going. I wanted to send a message to my kids that the family is changing, but we’re still a family. At first we did the Chinese food thing – “If it’s Sunday, it must be Chinese food.” He came and picked up the Chinese food, and we didn’t eat at the table, which I think was a good thing. Then I just kept inviting him. The guy was hungry, and he missed the feelings we had at the table and the fun we had at the table, and he started eating with us again. Now I’d say it’s once a week, once every other week.
Because, guess what. You’re still co-parenting these kids. All the personal stuff gets put aside. And, by the way, dinner should be like this no matter what. Put the worries away for the course of the meal. Obviously, for people who are going through a very bitter and nasty divorce, it’s going to be a heck of a lot harder, but we were both motivated to do the best we could do for our kids, and we both cared about each other.
(Interview condensed and edited for readability)
– Rebekah Denn is steeling herself to ask her kids about the grossest thing they have ever