Technology with attitude

Reclaiming the Family Dinner: an interview with Laurie David

Environmental activist and author Laurie David. Photo: Maryellen Baker.

If you’re already familiar with Laurie David, then you’ll know that she’s one of those rare people who seems to achieve anything she puts her mind to. If you’re not, then you really should be.

Laurie David has already been the producer of the multi-award winning documentary An Inconvenient Truth, the co-founder of the Stop Global Warming Virtual March, and even the Vice President of Development for sitcoms and comedy at 20th Century Fox – but with her new book she turns her gaze on the family dinner.

The Family Dinner: Great Ways to Connect with your Kids, One Meal at a Time is more than simply a recipe book, although it has plenty of those. It’s a blueprint for reclaiming mealtimes as the core of our families, a time when we can not only break bread together, but also share our thoughts, our feelings, and strengthen our bonds.

If the figures are to be believed, then the breakdown of the family unit is at least partly to blame for everything from rising crime rates to drug abuse – and Laurie David may just be the person to turn that around. With the help of celebrity friends Jamie Oliver, Michael Pollan, Nora Ephron, Sheryl Crow and many, many others, David shows us that it’s possible to reclaim family mealtimes from the temptations of cell phones and televisions, and restore the traditional family along the way.

We caught up with Laurie David to ask her a few questions about food, family, and her perfect mealtimes.

Dan Coxon: The Family Dinner places great importance not only on the food, but also on the atmosphere at the dinner table. Where do you and your family eat?

Laurie David: In general, we eat at a large hexagon shaped kitchen table. But I love shaking things up and I also love surprising my family with a new location! So sometimes, we eat sitting around a coffee table or in the dining room or outside when the weather is warm. One of my most favorite ways to eat is a picnic on the floor. That will turn any ordinary Tuesday night into a memorable meal – no matter what you serve!

DC: You also encourage open, creative discussions at mealtimes. What are some of the more bizarre or humorous discussions you’ve had over dinner?

LD: For me, the conversation is just as important as the food. Which is why I have a couple of chapters full of suggestions for table talk. You’d be surprised how challenging it can be for some people to have good conversation. Little games with one question can take all the pressure away. One of my favorites is the name game. All you do is go around the table and have everyone say what they would like to change their name to if they could. This will get a great conversation going about whether or not they like their name in the first place and stories about who they were named after. Try it tonight! It’s often fun to go around the table and everyone rename each other as well. Before you know it, your kids will be sitting at the table longer than you ever thought they could.

DC: Moving on to the food itself, you’re obviously aware of the resistance some children have towards new or unusual foods. How would you advise parents to broaden their eating habits?

The Family Dinner is released on November 3, 2010, by Grand Central Publishing.

LD: My philosophy is that you don’t cook for your kids, you cook for your family. Enjoy the food yourself and eventually, your kids will follow. Two of my dinner “rules” (the other eight are in chapter 2 of the book) address this very point. One is that you should have “One Meal, No Substitutions” so you don’t end up as a short order cook. The other rule is that “Everyone Tries Everything”. This is different from “eat everything on your plate.” Tasting everything is important because it shows respect for whomever prepared the food and it gives your taste buds an opportunity to be pleasantly surprised.

DC: Any particular favorites among the recipes?

LD: I cook all the recipes in this book over and over again and am constantly amazed at how delicious these dishes are. My personal favorites are the ones where you pretty much have a whole meal in one pot. Add a green salad and you’re done. Give me a stew, a casserole, soup, with a little side salad and I’m happy! Also, I’m crazy for leftovers that can stretch to another meal so the big pot concept works well for that also. This past week I made two of my favorites – Danish Yellow Split Pea Soup (page 80) and Oven Grains, Greens and Cheese Please (page 108). Delish!

DC: There are plenty of wonderful tips in the book for restoring mealtimes to the center of family life, including switching off cellphones and TVs. Do you have any tips on enforcing this? How did your own children react to the new rules?

LD: Like most people parenting today, I am dealing with the invasion of technology in my home. I’m not happy about it. I’m the mom of two teenage girls and the cellphone, computer and television are often the bane of my existence. But I put my foot down at dinnertime – their devices are not welcome guests at the table. And… this is not a new rule in our house! It’s part of our dinnertime ritual.

The beauty of rituals is that they work. And it doesn’t take very long doing something over and over until it becomes second nature for everyone. In our house, when it’s dinnertime, everyone now knows to just stop whatever they’re doing, leave their devices behind and come to the table. Of course, having delicious fresh food and having fun things to talk about helps ease their pain of switching off their devices.

DC: If you could give just one tip to parents for reclaiming mealtimes, what would it be?

LD: My most important tip doesn’t have to do so much with the food as it does with the power of just sitting down. So if you’re serving peanut butter and jelly or a three course meal, the single most nutritious thing you can do is to sit and talk. Make that time together sacred no matter whether your ritual is breakfast or dinner or whether its once a week or more frequently. The goal is to connect… one meal at a time.

Laurie David will be appearing at the Sorrento Hotel in Seattle on Wednesday November 10th, 2010, as part of the Kim Ricketts Book Events fall program. Tickets cost $50, which includes wine, appetizers and a signed copy of The Family Dinner. Check the Kim Ricketts website for further details.

‘The Family Dinner: Great Ways to Connect with your Kids, One Meal at a Time’ is available now from Grand Central Publishing, priced $29.99.