Laurie David, ex-wife of comedian Larry David, recounts the recent “uneventful night” when she lingered at the dinner table, engaged in intimate conversation with her two teenage daughters. The story appears in her new book, The Family Dinner: Great Ways to Connect With Your Kids One Meal at a Time. “We talked about all the stuff that [parents] crave to know about but never get real answers to: what’s really happening in their lives; who’s mean, who’s nice; who’s misunderstood and why.” The conversation’s candidness left her feeling like she’d “done something right as a parent.” It was “a new feeling,” she confesses. “I had succeeded in luring and keeping my family at the dinner table—and talking about real issues they might otherwise have kept silent about.”
From the time her eldest was in a high chair, David insisted the family eat meals together, and now she’s urging parents to institute the same ritual, even if it’s Chinese takeout eaten together on proper plates. Meals don’t have to be pot roasts and side dishes, she says. As one career mom, too busy for dinner, tells David, a hot breakfast is their family meal every morning before work and school.
David’s book comes armed with healthy recipes for quick-to-fix meals, such as the family favourite taco recipe with cucumber salsa. Children, she says, should be encouraged from a young age to get involved. “If the counter is too tall, bring in a stepstool for them to stand on, or perhaps try working at the kitchen table.” Put on some music and, most of all, “Have fun!” she writes.
Among her “ten steps” to a successful meal: “Everyone comes to the table at the same time. No late stragglers, no showing up when you feel like.” And everyone eats the same meal, no substitutions. “I served meals that I thought everyone would like, but they weren’t ‘kid meals.’ They were adult meals with kid-friendly ingredients (crunchy potatoes, green beans with teriyaki sauce). You’re really not doing your kids a favour by making it okay not to eat what’s served.”
Rule No. 3: no phones or BlackBerries at the table. “No ringing, vibrating, answering or texting allowed. If someone accidentally brings their phone to the table and has the misfortune to accidentally glance at it, it’s yours,” she writes, “for as long as you decide to keep it.” Try it, she advises. “Trust me, it works!”
For how to start a conversation and keep it rolling, the book includes a chapter of games and questions. “Don’t assume I had it easier than anyone else just because I had a professional comedian at my table. Believe it or not, my ex-husband wasn’t very good at table talk, and there were many nights when I kicked him (gently of course) under the table to remind him to engage.”
A David household favourite is a game called Pet Peeves and Idiosyncrasies. “We never tire of playing it,” she writes. “Ask each person to name a pet peeve and one of their idiosyncrasies. My daughter Romy wants me to include her pet peeve here. She doesn’t like it when people make dents in their pile of ketchup on their plate. If they dip a fry in it, she feels they should smooth it out to get rid of the holes.”
In a final chapter on how to handle meals in the aftermath of divorce, David writes, “The first months of transition out of my marriage are a complete blur now, but I do remember insisting on dinners as usual every night at six thirty with my daughters. No one felt much like eating, but that didn’t really matter.” Then she “started to ask Larry if he would have dinner with me and the kids. I received quite a few emphatic nos and then, lo and behold, I got a yes.”
“That first dinner was exactly as you can imagine: awkward and miserable, but mercifully quick. The girls downed their food in one gulp and hightailed it out of the kitchen. Larry left pretty quickly, too. Time was on my side, though. One meal turned into several, and soon enough we got back to our old family dinner ritual.” If the ritual had stopped, David writes, “the lesson to my kids would be that we weren’t whole anymore, that something was broken forever. I honestly didn’t believe that to be true. The message I did believe was we are a family that is going to get through this and come out strong and connected.”