Laurie David hit the nail on the head. “There is one thing I did right as a parent: cultivating the ritual of our family dinner since the children where young,” she said recently at a Climate One event in San Francisco, where she had been invited to discuss her new book The Family Dinner: Great Ways To Connect With Your Kids, One Meal At A Time. She made no bone about what a hard time she’s currently having with her two teenage daughters, Cazzie and Romy. “Everything you’ve ever heard about teenage kids is true, and beyond: it’s horrible!” she said with a laugh. “But they do come to the dinner table every night and that’s my chance to connect with them,” she added.
Her book was born of a simple and obvious premise: the ability of a family to sit down together and connect through shared food and conversation is an essential building block of a child’s formative years. A family meal brings a child not only nutrition but also self-confidence, connection with parents and siblings, and a transmission of family stories and values. It’s also at the dinner table that the child gets to practice empathy and gratitude.
Now, allow me a little confession. I am somewhat perplexed by the American conversation about “The Family Dinner,” this special event that one aspires to and must work towards — unless, more often than not, one ignores it altogether in favor of the “refuel-alone” scenario. Given my own upbringing, it would never occur to me, nor to anyone I know back across the Big Pond, to even talk about “family dinner.” There’s just dinner. As unalterable, undebatable and unavoidable as the advent of night after sunset. As a child living with my parents, when else, where else, what else would I eat but what my parents would put on the kitchen table for the whole family to enjoy?
When I was a child in France, 80 percent of mothers were working outside of the home yet no parents could escape making dinner day in day out — not necessarily anything fancy or even creative, nor always to the liking of the children, but home-cooked nevertheless. In the rush to get through the day’s chores, many opportunities to turn those meals into “family quality time” were undoubtedly lost. Nevertheless, meal after meal, day after day, one grew up in the setting of those relationships, connections and stories woven around food. Then, the festive, elaborate Sunday lunch would usually be a strong reminder that gathering around the table and sharing food prepared with love is a beautiful ritual indeed.
I know, times have changed — and are still changing fast in France as we speak. More mothers work longer hours, parents get caught in commuting nightmares and kids are expected to be involved in every conceivable extra-curricular activity late into the evening. Meanwhile, microwave ovens are the modern hearths and conversation has made way for television and every other screen-based device.
Obviously, we are paying dearly for all this frenzy, busyness, convenience and technology overload. The over-consumption of processed food (as opposed to home-cooked food) is directly linked to the diabetes epidemic that is hitting America. And studies have shown that children deprived of the kind of daily family time provided by a meal are more likely to do poorly at school and, even, to succumb to drug and alcohol (check this great article for more detail).
The good news is, “there is one dirt-cheap, highly effective solution: the family dinner,” in Laurie David’s words.
By no means is the Hollywood-producer and environmentalist solely responsible for launching the public debate about “the family dinner.” Its benefits and the negative impact of its disappearance have been a favorite topic of research for years. Back in 2003, authors Linda Sunshine and Mary Tiegreen glorified it through nostalgic vintage photographs and mini-essays in The Family Dinner: A Celebration of Love, Laughter, and Leftovers.
What Laurie David is bringing to the table, however, was long overdue: a series of tips, tricks and tools, including recipes and games, to help parents create, or re-create, a sacred family time around the dining table.
Laurie David doesn’t mince her words: the task at hand is hard work in the face of all the pressures of modern life. It’s also a matter of setting one’s priorities straight. “The family dinner trumps any extra-curriculum activity, in terms of what will most benefit children in the long-run. So if there’s no time for it, quit whatever else is on the schedule,” she asserts.
Here is something else to keep in mind: the benefits of the family dinner go way beyond the table. When family dinner is sacred, food becomes sacred. From that moment on, the conversation about fresh and wholesome vs. industrially processed food can take place on a whole new plane altogether.
“The family dinner is THE place at the core of the food revolution,” claims Laurie David. Well put. So let’s practice and spread the word, shall we?