If you're like us, the most thought you put into your average dinner is "Should I order the yellowtail scallion roll or the spicy tuna roll?" (hint: yellowtail scallion!), and it's right before you plop down on the couch to catch up on Modern Family. Well, Laurie David (noted environmental activist, An Inconvenient Truth producer, and Larry David ex — so, in other words, one tough lady) has a message for you … and us: Think harder. Her new book is The Family Dinner: Great Ways to Connect with Your Kids, One Meal at a Time, but don't let the title fool you. Her passion for taking time to eat home-cooked meals with the people you care about goes beyond just traditional families.
"Family is anybody you sit down to a meal with — and very often, after college, your family is your friends or the people you work with," David says. "Family dinner is falling by the wayside for everyone, and we shouldn't just be tossing aside this ritual." We talked to David about food, family, and how to get Uncle Earl to stop falling asleep at Thanksgiving dinner.
What was your inspiration for this book? And what's the goal?
Basically, I had an epiphany at dinner one night. We'd been doing dinner pretty much five nights a week for over a decade, but about a year ago, I found myself still sitting at the table, long after dessert was over, and both my teenage daughters were still there. I realized, "Okay, I've done something right as a parent, if nothing else!" But then I started looking into the statistics — everything that you care about in raising kids can be improved by sitting down to dinner with them. So my goal is to get everyone to the dinner table and keep them there.
So family dinners are great for kids — are they good for adults, too?
It's equally as important. The social benefits, the health benefits — they don't change as you get older. If you're cooking at home, you'll eat healthier, and when you add family and friends into the mix, it enriches your social life, too.
What about those of us who don't have kids yet? How can we use some of these concepts even without a family?
Get your friends together, even if it's just once a week or twice a month, and make dinner together. I recommend doing food that requires a little bit of participation — I have recipes in the book for both pho and tacos that involve putting all the ingredients on the table and having everyone pick what they want to put in. You personalize your dish and start a conversation about what you're eating. I also love these simple games that really get fun conversations started, beyond just, "How was your day?" One of my favorites is "Pet Peeves and Idiosyncrasies" — you just go around the table and name one of your pet peeves or idiosyncrasies. It gets everybody comfortable, talking, and laughing, and you never know where the conversation is going to go.
What else do you have to say to us young adults who don't yet have families of our own?
Young adults need to start cooking themselves. First of all, it's economics — it's so much more expensive to eat takeout.
We're all guilty. And the thing is, when you're eating takeout, you do not know what you're eating. All that sugar and salt and fat that you wouldn't be taking in if you had just cooked something simple and healthy at home. Today, most meals last less than 20 minutes, and 25 percent of them are eaten on a couch. We've doubled our spending on buying food away from the house. And, of course, we're eating way too much meat. We have to do something about this — all these things are issues that are affecting everybody, and the family dinner is an antidote to it.
The ultimate family dinner is coming up soon: Thanksgiving. What are your tips for using that dinner to reconnect with relatives you might not see very often?
So many people dread Thanksgiving because they find it traumatic or uncomfortable. My suggestion is to come with a couple of great questions for the table. Know your family, and have an idea of what might work — maybe don't go for the controversial question — but a couple of easy things to bring up. I think people would be surprised by how much fun everybody can have. Or play the pet peeve game!
How do you avoid some of those notorious never-ending family arguments that seem to creep up at Thanksgiving?
One way is to avoid topics you know are going to set it off. But really, I actually kind of like that — I think debate is good and discussion is good as long as it doesn't get too nasty. It makes dinner a little more interesting. Certainly more memorable!
What else are you up to these days?
What I'm up to is talking about this book — because everything I care about crosses the dinner plate. I'm still very concerned about global warming and our lack of response to it, and I'm concerned about the environment, and all those issues cross the dinner plate. And dinner really does spread love. I hope this book will help people grab that moment in the day and enjoy it, because I think we all need to figure out how to slow down and be happy.