'Family Dinner' Writer Dishes On Getting Kids To Table

Laurie David, climate activist and producer of An Inconvenient Truth, turns her focus toward home — at the dinner table. Her new book, The Family Dinner: Great Ways to Connect with Your Kids, One Meal at a Time, offers a mix of recipes, dinner conversation topics, and tips for engaging kids at the table. Host Michel Martin speaks with David.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Now it's time for our weekly parenting conversation. Every week, we sit down with a diverse group of parents for their common-sense and savvy parenting advice. Today, we hear about how to reconnect over the family dinner table. And we know that Thanksgiving is coming up, but be honest: Apart from the big get-togethers, how often - between work and sports and other after-school activities -does everybody actually sit down at the table together? And are you missing something vital if you don't?

Film producer, activist and author Laurie David thinks we all are. And so she's written a book that aims to draw families back together to the table. The book is called "The Family Dinner: Great Ways to Connect with Your Kids One Meal at a Time." It offers recipes, expert advice, and Ms. David's own personal experience. And Laurie David joins us now from our studios at NPR West. Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

Ms. LAURIE DAVID (Author, "The Family Dinner"): Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Now, I think many people will know you as a climate-change activist. You've written two previous books that are both about climate change, and you were a producer of the Academy Award-winning documentary "An Inconvenient Truth." So how did global warming get to the concern about the family dinner?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DAVID: Well, now I'm focused on the family environment. And the truth is, all the issues I care about do cross the dinner plate. But it was really - this book is from my own, personal experience. A year ago, I was at the table; it was an ordinary school night. There were my two - teenage daughters now, and dessert had long since finished, right? And they were still at the table, and they were talking to me.

And I just had this moment where I was like, okay, I've done something right finally, as a parent, which was to insist on this ritual of family dinner. And now I'm reaping the benefits, now that my kids are older. They're there. We're talking. We're connecting. So I had realized, you know, I had spent a decade coming up with all kinds of ideas. And so I said okay, well, I've got to put it all in a book, and help everyone else grab the gift that each day gives us, which is dinnertime.

MARTIN: How did this start for you?

Ms. DAVID: Well, it's interesting. Growing up, I didn't have great family dinners. We sat down every night, and my mother cooked food, but it was always about who was going to leave the table crying first. So I had kind of stressful...

MARTIN: I'm sorry, because the food was so bad, or...

Ms. DAVID: No, because there was a lot of tension at the table. It's funny. You wouldn't believe how many people I talk to who say, you know, we had regular family dinners but nobody talked. So that's another problem because, you know, dinner is just as much about the conversation as it is about the food. So I think as a parent, I decided, I didn't want to repeat that history. And also, my husband worked seven days a week, and I had a colicky baby. And I just found the whole thing really difficult.

So I said, you know what? I'm not going to make it through this unless I can come up with some happy family moments occasionally, you know, to get through the days. And that's what I did.

MARTIN: How did you - I don't know want to say enforce that, but you just - you pointed out that your husband worked seven days a week so presumably, he was not around as much as he might've been. And you know, the kids, of course, when they get to a certain age, they start having their own social lives - they start having, you know, sports practices and things of that sort. Sometimes, they're pulled in different directions. So how did you manage it?

Ms. DAVID: Yes. Well, this is the challenge we're facing, right? Because everything about our current lifestyle is pulling us apart, not bringing us together - and the computer and the cell phone and the long commutes and the two working parents. But for me, I did it because he came home every night at 6:30. So, you know, consistency and making it a priority.

And the other thing is, you know, if you can't do dinner - and some people just can't - then do lunch, or do before-bedtime tea time, or do a weekend Sunday brunch thing. I mean, the idea is that families need rituals. Kids need rituals. They need the security of them, the bonding time of them. It shouldn't be a moment where we're just refueling ourselves.

MARTIN: You feel very strongly that food needs to be involved. Why is that - and actually gathering like, at a table.

Ms. DAVID: Well, let me ask you this. If we're not sharing meals together, what else are we all doing where we're purposely a family, other than maybe sleeping at the same time? I mean, what other opportunities do we have? And you know, it's so funny. As your kids get older - because I have teenagers now -it's going to get harder and harder to connect with each other. So if you have established this ritual when your kids are younger, there's not going to be a question that everybody's home for dinner - or if it's three nights a week or four nights a week, or how many nights you need.

You're going to need these rituals when they get older, trust me. I mean, everything you've heard about teenagers is true, okay. So you're going to need to have in place some rituals.

And also, here's the other really important thing. This is for you. This is like, a moment where everyone slows down. And this is like, one of the joys of life, that we get to share a meal. So you know, the whole concept of this book was to give everyone all the tips and tricks and games that I figured out - with a lot of help from a lot of people over the years - to make this like, the best part of your day, so everyone's looking forward to it.

MARTIN: I hope you're don't mind my asking, but you're candid about the fact -and I think - you're a public figure - it is known that you're divorced. And I think - so some people might have this idea that if you go through kind of a little bit of turmoil in your family, being at the family dinner table together is the last place you're going to want to be. And you mentioned yourself that, you know, a lot of people have grown up with a lot of tension in their household. So the idea of kind of going to your separate corner makes the whole thing tolerable.

Ms. DAVID: Well, it's so much easier, but you're going to pay the price later on. And here's the thing: Half of all marriages end up in divorce. And that is a lot of family rituals in danger. And the truth is, again, your family needs that ritual then more than ever. What I learned, you know, from having gone through this, initially, you know, those first month of meals were not that much fun. But ask your friends and family over.

Like at 5 o'clock, I would be calling everyone I knew, please come to dinner to relieve the tension. But it was, you know, my kids needed to know, look, we're still a family. We're still going to continue our rituals, and we're going to get through this. And the dinner table helped us do it. And the dinner table helped us get my ex-husband, Larry David, back to the table, too. Because you know what? He missed those meals. And eventually, you know, I kept inviting him and inviting him, and finally he came.

We have - one of the great tips I have for dinner, which is to name your nights. So we had a ritual Taco Tuesday and, you know, your kids wake up and it's Tuesday and it's like, it's Taco Tuesday, yay. And we had - if it's Chinese food, it must be Sunday. So we got Larry, finally, to actually come for Chinese food; there's a picture of it in the book. And we started doing that every Sunday, you know, a few months after we split up. And it was great for the kids, and it was great for us.

MARTIN: And finally, there are going to be people who say, well, that's fine because you guys have money, and you've got - probably - a nice table, and probably nice food to eat. And there are people who are going to be working shift work, and bringing home a sack from someplace. And that's the best they're going to do. What's your - what wisdom for these folks?

Ms. DAVID: Well, here's the thing - here's my wisdom. If you're doing takeout, try to get the healthiest takeout you can. And just take it out of the plastic, right? Get your grandma's old china or get a fancy little bowl, and put the takeout in the bowl and light a candle. And sit down together because really, dinner is about talking. It's about sitting down and talking. And you know, we all have to eat anyway; we might as well be getting the great benefits from it. Everything you worry about as a parent can be improved by sitting down regularly with your kids.

MARTIN: You know what I wanted to ask you before I forget? You know, Thanksgiving is next week. Thanksgiving has become like, this huge metaphor for tension and drama and everybody's doing like, stories about all the drama and how to avoid the drama, you know, Thanksgiving.

Ms. DAVID: Right. Right.

MARTIN: So, when you're getting together on a regular basis, how does that affect Thanksgiving? Does it feel less special or more? How does that work?

Ms. DAVID: No, because you always have special guests. But I have a great tip for people for Thanksgiving, something that they can play. At Thanksgiving this year, play the name game - which is, go around the table and have everyone say where their name came from - see if they know that story - and what they would change their name to if they could. And then as this starts getting fun and everyone starts talking, then you can name each other. Oh, you look like this, or you should be that. And next thing you know, you're eating, you're laughing, you're having a great time, and Thanksgiving will be memorable.

MARTIN: Laurie David is the author of "The Family Dinner: Great Ways to Connect with Your Kids One Meal at a Time." She joined us from NPR West. Thanks so much for joining us, and happy Thanksgiving to you.

Ms. DAVID: Happy Thanksgiving to you, too.

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Great Ways to Connect With Your Kids, One Meal at a Time

by Laurie David and Kirstin Uhrenholdt

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