The Family Dinner

31 Dec

Dinner in our house usually happens at the table, but sometimes it’s a plates-on-laps and eyes-on-screen affair. For 2011, I’ve vowed to make sitting down to eat together a daily event and to have friends over often to bolster the ranks of our little family.

Some of the inspiration for this resolution came from one of the most original cookbooks of 2010: The Family Dinner: Great Ways to Connect with Your Kids, One Meal at a Time, by Laurie David and Kirstin Uhrenholdt. I love this book! As well as being full of easy, child-friendly recipes, it serves as a kind of manual and manifesto for setting aside time each day, at the table, to make your loved ones the focus.

You’ll find all kinds of fascinating recollections in there: from Robert F. Kennedy Junior’s ones of family meals in the White House to Judge Judy’s on the time an etiquette expert tackled her family’s table manners. And there are dinner-table games, conversation starters, cooking playlists and decorating ideas, not to mention a full chapter on the family dinner after divorce–a time when rituals often take a hit.

I spoke with David on her recent book tour stop in Toronto, so today I’m posting our conversation and following up with one of her ideas for a tasty meal that you assemble at the table.

Tortilla Soup for Amigos is meant to serve six, but when three out of your six are wolves like my nephews, you might want to double the quantities. My sister and I were skeptical about blending whole tortillas into the soup, but they actually make a great, neutral thickener for the silky broth. And the mildly spicy soup had enough goodies like chicken, fresh cilantro and cabbage in it to be seriously nourishing, and just enough convenience items to ensure it wasn’t a whole production to get the thing on the table. Overall, this was a child and grown-up palate-pleaser and the frenzied passing of toppings at the start made sharing it convivial and fun.

I’d love to hear your suggestions for getting kids on board for eating meals and hanging out at the table–so please spill the beans in the comments section below.

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Laurie David on The Family Dinner

Why do fewer families eat regularly at the table nowadays?

The pressures of today’s lifestyle have gotten in the way of this ritual for working parents. And of course, we’re dealing with the horrific intrusion of the computer, cell phone and television. All those things are grabbing the family time—we  need to grab it back.

Why does it matter?
The truth is, children who have regular family meals at the table do better in almost all areas of life. All the things a parent worries about, from drugs to alcohol to promiscuity, when you sit down to dinner with your kids and talk with them, they are less at risk of falling into these problems.

Tortilla Soup for Amigos

How do you make it happen when everybody’s busy?
We need to change our attitude about what dinner is. It doesn’t have to be three courses with a homemade dessert; it can be soup and a salad… a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Take some of the pressure of your shoulders! And if you can’t do a ritual dinner, do a ritual breakfast or tea before bedtime.

What difference does it make to decorate the table?
If you’re only ever bringing home takeout food and eating from plastic containers, that says dinner is just about refuelling. But there are so many easy things you can do to decorate that don’t cost a dime, so the message is loud and clear to everyone at the table that you love them. You can light a candle or put one flower in a jar. Or send the kids outside and say, “Everybody bring back five different shaped leaves for the table.”

What else can you do to make everybody feel special?
Tell family stories. The dinner table is the number one place where you learn the family history, which builds knowledge and self-esteem. Get the grandparents to your table regularly and start telling those family stories.

Your daughters are now in their teens, how has your rule of eating at the table every day helped keep them close?
At least once every day, they are not distracted by their technology, and they are talking to me. I’m getting to hear about their day, about their highs and lows. And they’re getting to hear about mine. It’s also about your kids getting to know who you are.

How can kids get involved with the cooking?
In our book we include a lot of recipes where we suggest two little things kids could do to help cook the dish. And there’s an entire chapter on meals they can make for themselves. If they participate, they eat more and have more fun at the table.

Jobs for boy hands

And how do you convince them to help clear up after dinner?
It’s a rule. Rules are rules. Everybody helps.

Other than eating, what have been your kids’ favourite table activities over the years?
We played all kinds of games when they were very little, like everyone going round the table naming their favourite colour or favourite animal. Or we’d ask, “If you were an animal, what animal would you be?” Now we’re doing more sophisticated things and discussing moral dilemmas and social events. We even go so far as learning SAT words at the table. We’ve done everything I suggest in the book!

Alex prepares some conversation starters. My favourites: If you could duet with any popstar, who would it be? What Harry Potter house do you think you would be in? Which limb do you think you could live without?

You kept family dinners going through your divorce. What are the biggest challenges during such a transition, and how can people overcome them?
Half of all marriages in North America end in divorce. The first thing to go is the rituals—people feel life is broken. Continuing to have family dinners that sometimes included my ex helped me to have a relationship with him too eventually. It doesn’t happen overnight, but it happens after many meals. Children need that stability.

When you’re going through a divorce, lean on your friends and family to come eat with you. Fill your house and table with people, because it will help alleviate the tension. Everybody is always on their best behaviour when you have company. I can’t tell you how many times at 5:15 I was calling people to come to dinner.

You stress the importance of offering thanks; if people don’t have the religious practise of saying grace, how might they go about doing this?
It can be as simple as going round the table and saying what we’re grateful for. Say to your kids that this is your Friday night or Sunday night ritual, and you’ll all get in the habit.  Everyone will start thinking about it during the week—they know they’re going to be asked, so they’re going to be more conscious about things to be grateful for. You get surprising answers.

What are your hopes in putting out this book?
I’m very excited to be starting a dialogue with parents out there. I hope they’ll share all their tips, because we all need some help. Let’s take what worked in the past and bring it into the future. My hope is that this book will become well worn, food-stained and tattered, that it will be used in the kitchen and brought to the table.

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Tortilla Soup for Amigos
Serving Size: 6

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion, sliced into wedges
4 cloves garlic
1 tablespoon ground cumin
2 teaspoons chopped fresh oregano or 1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 1/2 cups of your favorite tomato salsa
8 cups chicken stock, homemade or store-bought
1 pound boneless, skinless organic chicken breasts
1 cup torn corn tortillas

Toppings (Use them all or just a few)
1 cup shredded or crumbled cheese: cheddar, feta, or Cotija
1 cup crumbled tortilla chips (I like the low-fat baked kind — they are just as crunchy, and I promise you will not miss the fried part)
Handful of chopped fresh cilantro
1/2 cup low-fat sour cream or Greek yogurt
1 cup shredded cabbage, white or purple
1–2 chopped avocados
Limes cut in half for squeezing
Hot sauce

1. In a large pot, heat the oil until simmering. Add the onion, garlic and cumin and sauté for 3 or 4 minutes, until fragrant. Add the oregano, salsa, stock and chicken breasts; bring to a gentle simmer over medium heat. Simmer for 15 minutes and then remove the chicken breasts. Add the corn tortillas and simmer until they are soft, about 5 minutes.

2. In a blender, or with a handheld blender, blend the soup until smooth. You might have to do this in a few batches. Shred the chicken. Put it along with all the other toppings into little bowls, or arrange them on a large platter. Pour the soup into each bowl and let everyone add their own favorite garnishes.

What the Kids Can Do:
Crumble the corn tortillas.
Chop the avocados.
Put toppings in bowls.

18 Responses to “The Family Dinner”

  1. Juliet January 1st, 2011 at 8:04 AM #

    We tried the soup- delicious, and it was a meal that everybody in the house ate and really enjoyed. The cookbook sounds great and I’m going to try and track it down and get the children more involved in preparing their own meals.

    • Valerie Howes January 3rd, 2011 at 6:08 AM #

      Thanks to all of you for helping prepare the meal and making the evening so fun… loved all the boys’ questions.

  2. Kathe Lieber January 1st, 2011 at 8:54 AM #

    This is a subject that’s dear to my heart, Valerie. I’ve always believed instinctively that breaking bread together strengthens family ties. I was raised this way, and still have fond memories of family meals, especially Sunday dinners. I’ve continued the tradition with my daughter, who’s now 20 and living in residence (to get the full university experience). On Sundays she comes home for dinner, usually with several friends in tow. I’ve come to know her friends this way, and they say they appreciate my home-style cooking. There’s always lots of laughter around the table.

    Of course, sometimes we order in and watch a DVD while we eat, but that’s the exception rather than the rule. I believe that giving your child a sense of the importance of food and hospitality is one of the greatest gifts that we as parents can provide.

    • Valerie Howes January 3rd, 2011 at 8:40 PM #

      I’m glad to hear family dinners have kept your grown-up daughter close, Kathe.

  3. signe January 1st, 2011 at 9:32 AM #

    As a child I rarely enjoyed family dinners around the table. Mother wasn’t well much of the time, and we kids fended for ourselves. But when my father and I cooked and ate together–fish we caught down at the lake, a huge t-bone he brought home, some stinky kippers full of bones–it was an incredibly special time. It’s when we talked, caught up, it’s one of the ways we came to know each other and become the greatest of friends. It was our glue. It brought us together and held us together until the day he died. Food and sharing a meal with family is the glue, and it’s sad to watch as it disappears, and kids and parents drift apart to their own rooms, own TVs, own worlds.

    I gave this book to a friend on mine who has a wee toddler. I’m hoping she and her little family will sit around the table every night, share some good, nutritious food, tell stories, get to know each other, and become the best of friends too.

    • Valerie Howes January 3rd, 2011 at 8:41 PM #

      Thanks for sharing. I’m sure your friend will LOVE the book.

  4. Rebecca LeHeup January 1st, 2011 at 10:20 AM #

    Every meal with my kids is eaten together, at the table. It’s always been that way, and I hope it always will. We cook together. Share our days. Talk about the future. We even play games. Breakfast, lunch and dinner. We don’t have any tricks to entice them to come or to stay. I believe my boys just know that love is shown and shared at the table. It’s my favourite place to be with them!
    My boys are Jack (7) and Liam (5).

    • Valerie Howes January 3rd, 2011 at 8:42 PM #

      Sounds like your family table is a lovely place to be. Lucky boys!

  5. Kate Rowland January 1st, 2011 at 3:18 PM #

    I was reminded, as I read the above, of growing up in a household that was often made up of four parents and eight children. My father or his brother often worked away from home during the week, and when either of them had such a job, both families would move in together. What I remember most about those times wasn’t the long lineup for the bathroom, but rather, the pleasant din of conversation and laughter during the supper meal. When we were younger, all eight kids sat at a naugahyde-covered picnic table in the kitchen, while the four adults ate in the somewhat quieter adjoining dining room. When we were older, the dining room table was stretched to accommodate all 12 of us. We always looked forward to the supper meal, though I can’t for the life of me remember anything we ate in all of those years. What I do remember is the lengthy conversations that inevitably lasted longer than the food did, and often well into the evening, especially when that magic table was extended even further to include family friends.

    As an adult, I moved far away from Ohio, and from my cousins, but I carried the family supper tradition with me into my marriage, and the raising of our children. Our kitchen table (we’ve dispensed with the dining room) is where we gather every night to eat, and to share the stories of our day, an extension of the meal we’ve also prepared together in an open kitchen designed with plenty of counters and workspace.

    And the cousins’ suppers? They are still alive and well. I attended a conference last winter in Cincinnati, where most of those cousins now live. When the youngest of the eight of our close-knit clan found out I’d be there, she arranged for a reunion supper of sorts, even talking her parents into visiting from their home in Georgia. The table that night filled her entire dining room, and I found myself elbow-to-comfortable elbow with my aunt and uncle, three of my four cousins, as well as their spouses and children. We talked, and ate, and talked some more, well into the night. And you know what? I have no idea what we ate. The food is always delicious, but the conversation engendered by sitting down together to eat is the glue that has always kept our family together.

    • Valerie Howes January 3rd, 2011 at 6:17 AM #

      Thanks for sharing… your family dinners sound so cozy!

  6. KB January 1st, 2011 at 4:54 PM #

    This is very timely for us – sitting down to eat a meal as a family more often is one of our resolutions now that the kids are getting older (7 and 9). However, our youngest is a very fussy eater and neither is adventurous, so it’s a bit of a challenge to cook for everyone at once. Right now we consistently manage one daily sit-down meal together: Breakfast (with no distractions allowed – newspapers and laptops are banned!).

    Dinner on school nights is tricky as the kids are hungry and wanting to eat by about 5.30pm, which is too early for their parents. One or both of us sits with them and enjoys a cup of tea as they eat their dinner, so we do all converse around the table. Then we have our meal later, after they’re in bed. Until they are able to eat dinner later, at 6.30 or 7pm, we will probably just aim to sit down and eat meals together at weekends. Christmas dinner was quite successful (although the kids insisted on dipping the turkey in ketchup, eschewing the lovely gravy their dad had made) so we might even attempt to bring back the Sunday roast of my childhood, though perhaps not EVERY week.

    Anyway, great post, and very interesting interview and comments. Is this the same Laurie David who was married to Larry “Curb Your Enthusiasm” David? The book sounds great.

    • Valerie Howes January 3rd, 2011 at 6:16 AM #

      One and the same!

      Yes, we also love our Sunday roasts… a juicy bird, a pile of mash and a big jug of gravy = the secret combination to getting people to linger at the table.

  7. Mira January 2nd, 2011 at 6:52 PM #

    One of the most precious things I have learnt from 10 years of working in humanitarian aid is that a “family” is defined as the number of people who regularly come together to share a meal. Whether it be around a wooden table, the Ikea kitchen bench, on a straw mat or a mud-hut floor, sharing a meal is still probably one of the most universally shared habits of mankind.

    • Valerie Howes January 3rd, 2011 at 6:13 AM #

      “Friends-who-are-family” are great for bringing new conversation to the table and making dinner more of an event. Don’t know what we’d do without ours!

  8. Mira January 2nd, 2011 at 6:55 PM #

    And a wonderful post.

  9. Angie Gallop January 3rd, 2011 at 5:21 PM #

    My partner and I have a writing group here in Thessalon, ON. We hold quarterly writing binges at our house. During these weekend-long events, we have a schedule for the preparation and clean-up of meals. We all eat together and, during these meals, discuss how the day’s work is going, the finer points of fiction-writing and, at dinner, we each read a short selection from the day’s work.

    We never consciously set out to have all our meals together. It just happened.

    We’ve been together for almost five years. This year, members have had three successful grant applications totaling close to $20,000 and we’ve just hosted an event with our fourth visiting author in the community.

    Last night was our New Year’s dinner and I had a moment of looking around the table and marvelling at how this group of people — ranging from age 35 – 75 has evolved from that very first meeting.

    I think a lot of our success is due to our habit of breaking bread together.

    Great article. I’m going to try that tortilla soup and our next meeting and am definitely seeking out this book!

    • Valerie Howes January 3rd, 2011 at 8:44 PM #

      Glad to hear that bonding at the table has been so valuable to your community… good luck to you all!

  10. Voula Halliday January 10th, 2011 at 6:18 PM #

    Valerie, this is a great post and a subject that is close to my heart. I really liked that Laurie pointed out the importance of creating rituals in your home life. I recall all too well the dynamic role that the “family table” played in our lives. For one thing, it was where I learned about nourishment and cultural heritage. It’s also where we got to find out very quickly what kind of mood everyone in the family was in. Luckily most of the time it was convivial and jovial. But, if mom was mad at dad, food would be placed in the centre of the table with a strange and quitet stillness . Of course, that suggested we should be very careful and mindful not to add to her upset so that she wouldn’t burst during the meal. Yikes!

    I have always been creative and when I was very young I liked to challenge and provoke my family into discussing with me the exciting discoveries I had come upon; contemporary artists that were controversial and daring; a DADA poem I was memorizing; insane and controversial punk rock bands who’s imports I had just used all my spending money on (I’m dating myself, I know). The family table for me was a great place to test things out while I was growing up and developoing my “voice” as Voula. The family table became where I built my identity with great confidence. It was a safe place to test out the degrees of myself for the first time, or to build on myself day by day. Sometimes what I tested out on my family didn’t work out so well. Other times though, I came away from the table feeling like a supersar.

    The family table satiated me as a child. I was nourished with food, with conversation, with the thrill of approval, with challenge of disappointing but healthy disapporoval, and overall, with the support that made me confident.

    We worship our family table now too. (I think worship is a good word for this)In fact, we got rid of cable about five years ago when our daughter Maxine was five years old. The TV in our house is for family Friday night movie viewing. Our time after school and work is spent in the kitchen talking about our day, preparing our meal, and then eating together. To me this kind of nourshment is the most beautiful way to celebrate our living, and the best part of it is that we get to do it every single day.

    Valerie, thanks for opening this lovely door for me with your blog. I really enjoyed going back in time and recalling dinners with my parents and my siblings.

    I remember too the thrilling experience I had when my grandfather was still alive (years and years ago). Because of his health he had a special diet. When my mom turned her back to get something from the kitchen Grandfather would let me take a stewed prune from his bowl and gobble it up. I was intoxicated with the taste and the texture and the fact that I got to take something special from his bowl was the icing on the cake for me. He let me! And mom didn’t know! Imagine if we were all eating in front of the TV or in our own bedrooms I would never have that everlasting and cherished memory that is so delicious to me and a bit naughty too (my mom still doesn’t know).

    Well, I’ve gone on enough… On that note, must go. My husband is making a lovely turkey risotto tonight from leftovers we froze after the holidays. He’s making it with our homemade turkey broth so the house smells just like Christmas all over again. Nice!

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