When I was a kid, my mom used to cook dinner for around ten people almost every night. There was my family of six plus a couple of friends from school or family members like my cousins or grandparents. As teenagers, we didn’t have a lot of rules but there was one that, if broken, was a serious infraction: If we weren’t coming home for dinner, we had to call. Otherwise, we’d better be in the house by 6:30pm every night. It sounds so quaint now, right? It doesn’t have to be.
We’ve all heard about the studies showing that kids who share a family meal do better in school, have a larger vocabulary, etc. etc. Laurie David just published an entire book, The Family Dinner, dedicated to resurrecting the family dinner. I know that for many modern parents, this can be a huge challenge. One or both parents may get home too late to eat with the little ones. When the kids are older, they often have after-school activities that keep them out of the house until just before bed time.
I trust that the data from these studies is accurate. For me, however, the topic of family dinners is so much more personal than statistics. There a lot of things I can now imagine living without as a child – Hebrew school (no problem there), piano lessons (again, easy), sports (much more difficult, I loved them), and countless other things that I can’t even remember now. And that’s the point. In the last couple of decades, it seems as though we’ve prioritized everything but the family dinner – for experiences that will probably end up as hazy memories as adults.
Our family dinners are some of my most vivid childhood memories. It’s where we learned how to converse, debate, learn diplomacy, cope with teasing, navigate controversial topics, tell jokes, serve other people food, share our food, learn manners, and, more than anything, it’s the one place where my siblings and I all had equal footing and access to our parents. What we said during dinner mattered. We mattered, even as just kids. Our family dinners are the reason I now have a career in food. Cooking together with my students and sitting down to eat with them replicates this extraordinary experience every time I teach a class. No matter how technological we get, we are still humans that crave sitting around the fire and sharing our day.
It’s not easy. I get that. This post isn’t meant to make anyone feel bad if they just can’t get the family together throughout the week. Rather, it’s meant to help people re-think how they feed their family beyond nutrients and cooking techniques. Borrow the Jewish tradition of holding a family dinner on Friday nights, connect on the weekends for breakfast, lunch and dinner. It’s challenging, but it’s possible.
It doesn’t need to be some gourmet meal! My mom spent maybe 30 minutes preparing dinner. Here are some quick-n-easy dinner ideas that my lovely Facebook pals shared with me. A few of them are professionals but many of them are home cooks just like you! For other recipe and family dinner ideas, visit a wonderful new website, The Kids Cook Monday or purchase my cookbook, Easy Meals to Cook with kids.
1. Definitely pasta…basically noodles and whatever else I have lying around – usually some kind of vegetable (kale, squash, tomatoes), some kind of protein (usually tofu or white beans), some combination of herbs, a drizzle of olive oil and some cheese. it’s good every time! – Leah Koenig is a write and author of The Hadassah Everyday Cookbook: Daily Meals for the Contemporary Jewish Kitchen
2. I’m a big fan of cook once eat twice (or thrice?). Roast chicken one night becomes the base of a soup or tacos the next. We also like Brinner (breakfast for dinner) – egg white omelets filled with veggies and a quick grating of a good quality hard cheese, low fat quiche, pancakes or french toast made with whole grains and a big fruit salad. I also have a recipe on my blog for a Mediterranean Pasta which is very versatile and can be done in 30 mins or less. -Melissa Marks-Shih, chef and blogger, EveryoneIntoTheKitchen.com
3. Cubed chicken sauteed with honey/garlic/spices and broccoli, mixed with quinoa. All in one meal, in under 30 minutes. – Dr. Maya Shetreat-Klein
4. Quesadillas with whole wheat tortillas and veggie/bean fillings – healthy, crowd pleaser, QUICK and great use of many leftovers. -Naomi Friedman Rabkin
5. We love homemade pizza, I make a big batch of crusts and freeze them. I top them with whatever toppings the kids are into (mostly cheese and olives). Also tacos/enchiladas with soy meat and cheddar cheese. -Cynthia Kravette Gamel
6. Vegetarian chili with quinoa. Kids love “wrap tortillas” (cheese melted on tortilla, rolled up) with it. -Micol Rubin Bayer
7. Chicken breasts or tofu “grilled” on a stove top grill pan, couscous and veggies sauteed in tamari! Kathlyne Jones
8. Tacos- black beans mashed with sauteed onions and bell peppers, topped with a little sharp melted cheddar, sliced avocado, tomatillo salsa wrapped in soft corn tortillas. -Joey Lee, TheKidsCookMonday.com
9. Gluten free pasta, Edens organic pizza and pasta sauce, a little cheese and a heaping helping of broccoli. Easy and yummy! -Sandi Kaplan, www.zingbars.com
10. Who doesn’t love breakfast for dinner? Tonight was french toast, eggs and a smoothie! -Megan Rose Stolber
11. Grilled Chicken Breast with a spinach salad (that has strawberries) and green beans. – Sandra Sarfati Levin
12. Pasta, or tacos and quesadillas. We also like burgers. Our new favorite is the maple glazed chicken from the Easy Meals to Cook with Kids cookbook (we can marinate it the night before and just cook it the night of). -Ilyse Reiter Wagner
Looking for conversation starters for your family dinners? Check out The Family Dinner Downloads via Huffington Post.