2011-2012 Speakers Series Report

Author Laurie David Offers Recipe for Family Dinner Success

by Laura Weishaupt

If your goal is to raise children who become responsible, informed adults, there’s one simple thing you can do to help make it happen — and you may be overlooking it.

The secret ingredient in your child’s success is the family dinner, a ritual that’s been around for hundreds of years but is starting to disappear, said author Laurie David. In her book The Family Dinner: Great ways to connect with your kids one meal at time, and on her blog, David offers tips and recipes to help busy families develop a habit for gathering together to share good conversation, healthy eating and fun. In the first event of this year’s Speakers Series in December, David shared a taste of these ideas as well as information on why family mealtime is so important.

Why Dinner Matters

David is best known as an environmentalist – she’s the producer of the Oscar winning film An Inconvenient Truth and a trustee of the National Resources Defense Council — but she said “there are things other than glaciers that are headed for extinction, and family togetherness is one.”

Overwhelmed by busy schedules and distracted by technology devices, many parents are letting the family dinner go by the wayside, she told the crowd of teachers, staff, parents, alumni and friends. Yet multiple research studies from places like Harvard, Columbia and Emory University have shown that sharing a meal together is the single most important thing we can do for our children.

“Basically, everything a parent worries about can be improved by (this) simple act,” she noted. “Name your parental anxiety: drugs, alcohol, smoking, teen pregnancy, eating disorders, depression. According to the research, regular family meals lower all those risks.”

David also cites research by Emory University that found the dinner table is the number one place family stories are passed on. “It’s the knowledge of where Grandma and Grandpa came from and stories about your first job that build resilience in kids,” she said. It’s also the place where we help children learn manners, practice conversation skills, and become interested in the world and each other, she added.

David urges families to recommit to the ritual of family dinner as a time to tune in rather than check out. “Teach your kids that we stop what we’re doing and we connect,” she said. “Don’t talk about the food so much, but play games, expand the conversation and you’ll be amazed at how much kids will love it.”

It doesn’t have to be the last meal of the day – breakfast or a regular afternoon snack will do. And the food doesn’t have to be elaborate – soup and a salad, brown rice and vegetables, or takeout from a healthy restaurant or the freezer require little expertise or preparation. It just has to be that everyone sits down together on a regular basis, David said.

Promoting the benefits of family mealtime became a driving cause for David after she experienced her “own Oprah moment.” As the single mother of two teenage daughters, she often wondered if she was doing a good job as a parent. Then one night she had an epiphany. “I was sitting at the kitchen table and dessert was long since over when I realized that both my daughters were still sitting there and they were talking to me,” she recalled. The scene wasn’t uncommon, and it made her realize it was due in part to the family dinners she and her daughters had enjoyed almost five nights a week for more than a decade. “That night the enormity and the power of it hit me,” she said.

In addition to the social and emotional benefits, David noted the positive effects on our health and our environment that making time for family dinner can bring. “More than half the meals in this country are now purchased outside the home,” she said. “When you do not cook it yourself, you do not know what’s in it. What you can count on is that it’s higher in salt, fat and sugar.”

10 Tips for Family Dinner Success

To help families start or strengthen their family dinner tradition, David offered these tips:

  1. Set a regular time. It’s reassuring for children, especially young children, to have a predictable routine.
  2. Everyone comes to the table at the same time. No excuses (except illness, of course). This goes for the adults, too.
  3. No phones. Let the machine or voicemail answer.
  4. No TV or electronic devices. The exception for TV might be tuning in to events that don’t happen every day, such as a presidential debate, the Olympics, or the final of a big game. On these occasions TV viewing becomes a fun treat.
  5. Everyone has to taste everything. It’s not about cleaning your plate. Taking a taste shows respect to the chef. It also helps children develop their palate, since it can take anywhere from 10 to 15 times before a child develops a liking for a new food.
  6. Name your nights. Taco Tuesday, Thursday Pizza -- naming the night gets kids excited. “All of a sudden you’re having a party in the middle of the week and dinner is something fun,” David said.
  7. Always serve dessert. Whether it’s a piece of fruit, a square of chocolate, or a cup of tea, dessert lets everyone know they’re expected to stay through the meal. And it’s especially valuable if the first part of the meal hasn’t gone well.
  8. Enliven the conversation! Word games, offbeat questions, myth busters, poetry – David keeps books on all these topics near the table. Games help loosen things up and develop the conversation in unexpected and interesting ways. For conversation starters from the news, visit the Huffington Post’s Table Talk, where each week the editors present a compelling topic in their Family Dinner Download.
  9. Drink water. Developing a habit of drinking water with meals pays off when kids are bombarded with ads for sugary drinks that aren’t healthy. Make it interesting by infusing water with cinnamon, mint sprigs or fresh lemon or berries.
  10. Everybody helps clean up!

It’s also important, David said, to involve children in the meal preparation whenever possible. The youngest children can set the table. Older children can help chop vegetables or prepare the salad dressing. When you involve children in the preparation they become more interested in the meal, and they will be better eaters, she noted.

Once children have learned the basics for setting the table, you can send them on a hunt around the house to find items to decorate, David added. There’s no need to buy anything fancy to create a beautiful table. Simple things like freshly picked flowers, a small favorite toy, a beautiful rock, or a candle help create an inviting atmosphere.

“There’s so much that we take for granted that happens at the table,” David concluded. “It’s not just about the food, it’s about the conversation, it’s about modeling, it’s about getting your values out of you and into them.”

That’s a recipe for success we all can use.

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