Laurie David brings back the family dinner

“The Family Dinner: Great Ways to Connect With Your Kids, One Meal at a Time” by Laurie David with recipes by Kirstin Uhrenholdt, Grand Central Life and Style, Nov. 3, 2010. 256 pp. $29.99. Available at Bunch of Grapes and Midnight Farm.

“The Family Dinner: Great Ways to Connect with your Kids, One Meal at a Time” by Laurie David, a seasonal Chilmark resident, is a cookbook, but much more. It is a call to action. Ms. David believes that it is essential for families to bond over the preparation, enjoyment, and appreciation of the food we eat.

Her book is an in-depth exploration of the family meal from planting seeds in the garden to setting the table to cleaning up after the meal, composting, of course. Her emphasis is on participation and connection and fun. No aspect of the meal is left out and there are even suggestions for games, poetry, and conversation starters. When we saw the book, we decided reviewing it together was in keeping with the spirit and intent of the book.

Ms. David is recognized for her persistent work as an environmental activist. Dedicated to educating people about global warming, she wrote “Stop Global Warming: the Solution is You” and produced many environmental films, most notably “An Inconvenient Truth.” Not surprisingly, “The Family Dinner” focuses on the importance of being and living “green.” There are plenty of “green” tips about how to conserve energy, buy food responsibly, and overall, eat a more healthy diet.

Usually when we buy a cookbook our hope is to add a few new recipes to our repertoire. We’ve put Post-Its on dozens of recipes we plan to try but we’re also changing some habits as well. This book asks more of you. We eat regularly as a family so that idea is not a radical one for us. But after reading about the impact of plastic water bottles on landfills, the chemicals in the bottles themselves, the expense, and the quality of the water sold, we have committed to no longer buying individual plastic water bottles and we’ve invested in a soda spritzer. In the spirit of play we’ve been trying some of the book’s clever suggestions for making tap water more fun by adding cinnamon sticks, mint leaves, cucumber slices, or wedges of citrus.

Many voices contributed to “The Family Dinner.” We hear from well-known chefs, poets, activists, farmers, and writers, such as Mario Batali, Mark Bittman, Nora Ephron, and our very own Daniel Waters. The book is illustrated with lush, homey photographs, many of which were taken on the Vineyard by local photographer Randi Baird.

Ms. Baird’s photographs made us curious to know how her life on the Vineyard might have impacted Laurie David when she was writing her book. We emailed Ms. David to ask her and were surprised to get a warm and immediate reply. “The Vineyard has had a huge influence on me…The island itself is a constant inspiration with its ebb and flow of seasons, winters that encourage long family dinners by the fire (I was still picking carrots in December!), and beautiful summers, cooking with the bountiful vegetables from my garden and treats from the West Tisbury Farmer’s Market.”

“The Family Dinner” is packed with advice and information. There are cooking tips and health tips. Many of the recipes, contributed by Kirstin Uhrenholdt, include side notes suggesting ways kids can help — for example, by peeling vegetables, crumbling cheese, or squeezing citrus juices. The idea is to get everyone involved. There are helpful suggestions for storing and using leftovers. We particularly like the idea of storing leftovers in Ball jars instead of plastic containers.

At times, the book can feel a little preachy, but the more time we spent reading it and cooking from it, the more we enjoyed and learned from it. We both appreciated the acknowledgement that families are complicated and eating together is not always an easy goal, but attainable.

Ms. David offers in-depth resources to amplify each chapter; there is a wealth of books, websites, games, and statistical information. There is even a website: familydinnerbook.com, extending the book with even more recipes, ideas, and tips.

We wanted to make a meal together. As meat-eaters we were surprised to be especially attracted to the chapter dedicated to vegetarian cuisine, Meatless Mondays. Recipes under the title “Vegetarian dishes so good no one will know what’s missing” include Crispy Black Bean Cakes, Vegetable Enchilada Pie, and Butterfly Pasta with Kale. We decided to make the Butterfly Pasta with Kale. One reason we chose this recipe is because Ms. Uhrenholdt learned the recipe from Ms. David, who said it was a favorite comfort food of her two daughters. Unfortunately, there was only one bunch of wilted kale in the market so we substituted broccoli rabe, which worked very well.

After putting music on, we went to work. I slivered garlic and chopped greens while Mom minced the sun-dried tomatoes. In the time it took to blanch the greens and cook the pasta, we had dinner ready. The recipe was simple, the results pretty and delicious, and cooking it together made all the difference. We look forward to cooking all those other recipes we’ve earmarked, and who knows what other ways “The Family Dinner” may influence us.

Mother and daughter Laura Wainwright and Lila Griswold live on Lambert’s Cove in West Tisbury.