Bring Back the Family Dinner Tradition

Cookbook author Laurie David explains how dining with grandparents helps kids thrive.

By Laurie David

Laurie David loves sitting down to dinner with her family. Now, the environmentalist, Academy Award-winning producer, and mother of two is sharing what she's learned in her new cookbook, The Family Dinner: Great Ways to Connect with Your Kids, One Meal at a Time (Grand Central Life & Style). Part recipe collection, part parenting treatise, it's sure to become a kitchen essential. Here, in an essay exclusive to Grandparents.com, David explains why the intergenerational connection is important to a family's health and well-being.

The tradition of family dinners is based on thousands of years of our ancestors sharing food while sitting together around a fire, a dining table, or a kitchen nook. This was a core American value beloved and practiced by everyone. Our grandparents knew instinctually that the healthiest way to raise children was to offer home-cooked simple food, meat in moderation, and ingredients such as lettuce, onions, and carrots, which were often grown in the backyard. Dinner was non-negotiable. You came to the table, you practiced manners, you told stories, you laughed, and everyone helped clean up. Of course, if you were my Grandma Minnie, you also almost always forgot a side dish in the oven or in the fridge! My grandmother's name is now part of a verb in my family — we call it "doing a Minnie."

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So no book about family dinner would be complete, or even make sense for that matter, without a heartfelt homage to our parents and grandparents, who knew the importance of sharing a meal. Grandparents, aunts, and uncles are among our most important natural resources, and we shouldn't take any of them for granted. You have the time, love, patience, and experience that our children need and crave. And you are the keepers of a treasure that is so important to pass on — our family histories.

This is no small thing. The power and importance of retelling family history to children is not to be underestimated. Emory University's Sloan Center for the Study of Myth and Ritual has spent over a decade studying this and the impact of rituals, and has concluded that the passing on of family lore directly builds resiliency and self-esteem in our children.

Where does all this storytelling usually take place? The dinner table, of course. So it shouldn't come as a surprise that with the decline of the family dinner, we have had a decline in knowledge of family lore. All the more reason to recapture the ritual of family dinner and start passing on your family stories! Ignore any eye rolling when retelling that story about Grandpa Joe, and keep talking. Your kids are listening and receiving the message that they come from a line of people whose sacrifices, challenges, and survival have given them the lives they have today.

Anthropologist Margaret Mead once said that connections between the generations are "essential for the mental health and stability of a nation." These days, the grandparents' role is even more important. In busy two-career or single-parent families, an involved grandparent goes a long way toward filling a void for children and creating a sense of stability and belonging.

So, dearest grandparents, aunts, and uncles, never doubt that you are an integral person in your family's life. You can make us feel connected not only to each other, but to something bigger, from the present to the past and to the future.

Pick up the phone and make a date with your family — better yet, make it a ritual! Feature a family recipe, set the table with your grandmother's finest china, and when you sit down at the table, make sure all the phones, TVs, and computers are shut, hushed, or hidden. Then start by saying, "Do I have a story for you!…" and remember it's as important a part of your grandkids' nourishment as the delicious food you serve.

How to Make the Most of Your Family Dinners

Laurie David shares these three tips from her book:

  1. Tell and retell and retell again all your family stories.
  2. Have a regular dinner date with your grandchildren (breakfast or lunch work well too) — no parents allowed.
  3. Write and pass down your family recipes, so future generations can spend time with you in the kitchen even if you aren't there.

 

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