Quick & Easy Family Dinner Ideas

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.

thefamilydinnerbookcoverWe’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.

negrin_cover100pxIt 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.

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Are You Smarter than the Food Industry? Quick Quiz

Granola bars are supposed to be healthy, right? Unfortunately, many of the products on the market are not as nutritious as we are led to believe. This is the case for many products that beckon you with their front-of-the-package claims. “Low-fat!” “Zero trans-fat!” or, my favorite “Made with Whole Grains!” The last one should read “Made with Whole Grains that were pulverized, processed, bleached, and mixed with a bunch of additives and sugar.”

The fact is that more claims usually equals unhealthy products. The food industry is getting pressure to make improvements from consumers all the way to the White House. This doesn’t mean that their products are going to become healthy – maybe just a little less unhealthy. What will probably happen is that the companies will become even more savvy in the laboratories where they develop their goods and in their marketing departments which are hell-bent on selling.

Find out how label savvy you are:

1) Healthy foods have labels that tell me everything I need to know: True or False

2) I can make good food choices if I read food labels closely: True or False

3) Low-fat products are not better and, in some cases, may be worse for me: True or False

4) Products that say “Made with Real Fruit” contain 90% or more of real fruit: True or False

5) Products that say “Contains Zero Trans-Fats” may still have .5 grams of it: True or False

6) Ingredients are listed in order of weight: True or False

7) Products that are fortified with added nutrients are better for me: True or False

8) It is easy to tell the difference between products made with refined flours vs whole grains: True or False

Here are some tips on how to outwit the food industry:

1) FALSE: Many terms such as “natural” or “healthy” are unregulated. In fact, the FDA has been sending warning letters to companies for the last year or so to admonish them for making false claims.

2) FALSE: The majority of the foods that are best for you have little to no packaging and/or labels: fruit, vegetables, fish, lean meats, nuts, and seeds don’t have packages that tell you how healthy they are. Beans and grains may come in cans or plastic bags but there is only one ingredient (themselves).

3) TRUE: If ‘s it low in something, it’s usually going to be high in something else. Remember the low-fat craze of the 90′s? Many of those products had (and still do) contain extra sugar – and not the pure out-of-the-ground sugar but usually something ending in -ose (like dextrose) that was created in a lab.

4) FALSE: Products that claim to contain “real fruit” may only have a few drops of the real thing. There is no law requiring how much real fruit must be in the product.

5) TRUE: Any food that contains 0.5 grams or less of a nutrient can be listed as zero grams on the nutrition facts label. This can add up to a lot of harm trans fats if we are eating packaged foods throughout the day.

6) TRUE: Keep in mind that if a product says “contains whole grains” but there aren’t any grains listed until the bottom of the list, then you know it doesn’t contain much of it.

7) FALSE: We tend to go a little overboard in this country when something is revealed as good for us rather than depending on Mother Nature. For example, after folic acid was added to flour in Chile, one study showed an increase in colon cancer. When in doubt, eat unfortified foods that occur in nature.

#8 TRUE: Be aware that manufacturers won’t necessarily call their processed flours “refined” on the label. Anything that is listed as corn, rice, wheat, or oat flour IS processed and refined unless it specifically tells you that it is “whole”.

This Granola Bar recipe was developed by my cousin, Sonya. She is a kindergarten teacher who is passionate about sharing her knowledge about nutrition with her small students. This recipe is a winner with both adults and kids. The more foods we prepare at home, the more we know exactly what we are putting into our bodies.

Sonya’s Homemade Granola Bars

granolabarsreally160px3 cups whole oats
2/3 cup whole-wheat flour (or any flour – we use corn flour for a gluten-free option)
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/3 cup honey
1/3 vegetable oil
2 eggs
3 tablespoons water
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
CUSTOMIZE: 1/4 cup raisins, chocolate chips, nuts, or anything else you want to add to your bars

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Combine dry ingredients in a large mixing bowl and mix well. If you’re short on time and dishes, add the wet ingredients directly to the dry ingredients and mix thoroughly. Otherwise, combine the wet ingredients in a separate bowl before adding them to the dry. Transfer the mixture to a  a lightly oiled 9×13 pan. Use a spatula to firmly press the mixture into the pan. Bake for 25 minutes, until brown and firm. Remove from oven and cool. Cut into squares. Eat or freeze. Enjoy!

Recipe by Sonya Jassen Basseri

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Getting Healthy One Habit at a Time

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” – Aristotle

A few months ago, I was teaching my students how to poach eggs. The water was taking awhile to boil but that didn’t stop them from pestering me every couple of minutes – can we go? Now? NOW? I finally turned to them and calmly explained that you can’t rush nature. It’s a matter of physics – the water will boil when it’s ready.

The same goes for our bodies. We want to instantly look like the chiseled woman or man advertising exercise equipment or diet pills. Yet, once again, we can’t rush nature. In order to poach eggs, create a delicious, nutritious meal from scratch or get into shape, there is only one way to go about it: time and effort.

I recently spoke  with someone who offers therapy at a wellness company. She pointed out that long-term lifestyle changes aren’t just about working out and dieting. It’s also about changing our self-identification. Eventually, we need to shift the way we perceive ourselves – to go from identifying with being a fast-food eater to a person who likes taking long walks and roasted cauliflower. Clearly, this won’t happen overnight!  But in order to get there, we often have to fake it ’til we make it.

There’s been an urban myth that it takes around 21-28 days to form a new habit. A new study revealed that it takes on average 66 days to create a new habit. The researchers found that:

“When we want to develop a relatively simple habit like eating a piece of fruit each day or taking a 10 minute walk, it could take us over two months of daily repetitions before the behaviour becomes a habit. And, while this research suggests that skipping single days isn’t detrimental in the long-term, it’s those early repetitions that give us the greatest boost in automaticity.”

Becoming fit takes time. Go easy on yourself and create one new healthy habit at a time:

Start with goals that are small and realistic. If your goal is to start dinner with a salad, make sure you are well stocked with lettuce, veggies, and your favorite dressing.  Chop the vegetables on Sunday night. Do as much as possible to make the change a SUCCESSFUL one.

ADD something in instead of TAKING something out. When we try to avoid something, it just becomes more enticing. Instead of denying the body, feed it frequently with tasty, nutritious snacks and meals. The vending machine will have less power if you aren’t starving.

Work with your cravings. I love salty and crunchy foods, especially at night.  Instead of trying to deny myself (impossible), I make fresh popcorn. If you have a sweet tooth, invest in dried mango or papaya or keep small bars of high-quality dark chocolate around. The trick is to shift to healthier versions of your favorite foods and eat them in small quantities – not to eliminate them altogether.

Create a calendar. It sounds silly but adults respond to positive reinforcement as much as kids do. Get a calendar dedicated to your new habits. Mark off the days that you accomplish them. When you hit 30 days in a row for a new habit, reward yourself with something other than food: a massage, a pedicure, or a new work-out outfit. Or, instead, you can start putting money in your New Habits jar and save up for a vacation. The key is to make the process fun and rewarding.

Find support through friends or online. One writer is documenting her goal of “eating like an adult” at Slate.com.  Or, perhaps the website, SparkPeople.com is more your style. Whatever helps you make the shift – as long as it’s a site that promotes slow changes and healthful eating habits (and not extreme dieting or other unhealthy strategies).

New habits are uncomfortable at first but after awhile, they will begin to feel “normal.” Try adding a delicious protein-packed smoothie to your morning routine. By balancing your blood sugar in the morning, you won’t be as hungry throughout the day and will make better food choices. Make it the night before and store it in a to-go cup if you’re always in a rush!

img_1832adjusted315px1Very Berry & Creamsicle Smoothies

2 cups vanilla yogurt
¾ cup orange juice
2 medium bananas, peeled and broken into large pieces
1 cup frozen strawberries OR ¾ cup frozen blueberries

For Creamsicle Smoothies: use 1 cup of ice instead of frozen berries
Optional: ground flax seed, protein powder, bee pollen, leafy greens

Add all the ingredients to a blender and purée until very smooth. Serve
immediately or store in the refrigerator for up to two days.

-You can use fresh berries when they are in season. Just make sure that you add a frozen ingredient such as ice or a frozen banana, so that the smoothie will become frothy like a milkshake.
-Replace the orange juice with pineapple juice for a tropical version.
-It’s best to avoid non-fat yogurts since they often contain added sugars. Instead, use low-fat or whole milk yogurt for this recipe.

Prep time: 5 minutes
Total time: 5 minutes
Serves: 3-4
Recipes from Easy Meals to Cook with Kids by Julie Negrin © 2010

“Habit is habit, and not to be flung out of the window by any man, but coaxed downstairs a step at a time.” – Mark Twain


Host a Fondue Party! Recipe: Chocolate-Dipped Strawberries

The emails are the same every year: “Help! I’m supposed to bring a dessert to a holiday party but I have no idea what to make and I’m a terrible baker. (I store dress shoes in my oven.) Do you have any ideas on what I can bring? There will be serious food people there so I can’t do the store-bought thing.”   –Your Oven-Challenged Friend

Do you want an easy-to-prepare dessert that everyone loves? Do you need a gluten-free dish? If you’re hosting, would you like a fun activity at your party that both kids and adults will enjoy? Never fear! I have the perfect solution – that’s both delicious (and nutritious).

Chocolate-dipped strawberries are always a hit – and you can make them the day before and simply store them in a large tupperware and place wax paper in between each layer. If you are hosting a party and overwhelmed at the idea of cooking for a lot of guests, you can still offer a sophisticated table of food by simply getting creative.

Borrow a couple of fondue pots (or follow my directions below and use the stove), melt some cheese in one and chocolate in the other. For the cheese fondue dippers, keep it simple and offer cubed sourdough bread and vegetables like blanched cauliflower, broccoli, and carrots. I recommend purchasing some high-quality cheese for your fondue.

Berries aren’t exactly seasonal right now but the beauty of a Fondue Party is that you can dip pretty much anything into chocolate. For the chocolate fondue, you can offer kiwi or bananas slices, pineapple chunks, pear or apple slices, and of course, strawberries. It’s an excellent way to get some fruit into kids during this sugary time of year. However, the kids (and adults for that matter) might also enjoy graham crackers and pretzels too.

Place some more cheese, olives, and grapes on the table surrounding the fondue pots and everyone will comment on what a spectacular host/hostess you are – when you hardly did a thing in the kitchen!

This recipe is from my cookbook – enjoy and HAPPPY HOLIDAYS!!

strawberryphoto300pxChocolate-Dipped Strawberries
Dipping food into melted chocolate is always an exciting activity! When making this recipe with kids, make sure that you keep the chocolate cool enough for their little fingers to touch but not so cold that it hardens.

30 medium-sized strawberries
6 ounces of semi-sweet chocolate
1 tablespoon unsalted butter or non-hydrogenated margarine
1 tablespoon corn syrup

KIDS 2 and up: Wash and dry the strawberries. Make sure that the berries are completely dry or the
chocolate will not adhere to them. Line a baking sheet with waxed paper.

ADULTS: In the top of a double boiler that you’ve set over simmering water, stir the chocolate, butter, and corn syrup until the chocolate melts and the mixture is smooth. Remove the chocolate from the heat but leave the water simmering in case the chocolate starts to harden and you need to re-heat it. If you’re worried about small kids touching a still-warm pan, you can transfer the chocolate to a cool dish.

KIDS 2 and up: Hold each strawberry by its stem and dip it ¾ of the way into the chocolate. Swirl it and shake off excess chocolate. Place the chocolate-dipped strawberry on the baking sheet lined with waxed paper and repeat with the rest of the strawberries. They can harden in the refrigerator or at room temperature.

Cooking Tips:
-It’s best if the strawberries are at room temperature rather than cold.
-If you don’t have a double boiler (which is necessary since the chocolate will burn if put directly over heat), simply place a metal bowl on top of a saucepan or put a small saucepan inside another larger saucepan. Alternatively, you can microwave the chocolate, butter, and corn syrup in a microwave-safe bowl in 30-second intervals until it is melted.
-“Simmering” means a few small bubbles are barely breaking the surface.
-This recipe can be prepared up to 1-2 days before serving – just store the strawberries in the
refrigerator and remove 30 minutes before serving.

Kid Tips:
-If your kids want to create designs, melt some white chocolate, dip a spoon in, and swirl designs onto the chocolate-dipped strawberries. Or, they can dip the chocolate-dipped strawberries in sprinkles before the chocolate hardens.

Prep time: 20 minutes
Total time: 20 minutes (plus 1 hour for hardening)
Yields: 30 strawberries
Recipe from Easy Meals to Cook with Kids by Julie Negrin © 2010

Just thinking about eating melted cheese makes my stomach hurt so I don’t have my own recipe for it – however, this Cheese Fondue recipe on the Food Network looks like a winner. Check it out and have fun!


Cook Like a Professional on the Holidays

Cook Like a Pro for the Holidays

I love cooking for parties – but it’s taken a lot of trial and error to figure out how to do it without becoming a stress case. I also picked up a lot of great tips from the wonderful chef instructors I worked with in New York. The key is to be as organized as possible:

Choose the right recipes for entertaining. When searching for holiday recipes, look for dishes that can made ahead of time and easily reheated. Soups, grain and pasta salads, and many appetizers like hummus, bean dips, tzatziki, and tapenade taste better the day after they are made.

Talk to your host/hostess. If you are a guest at someone’s house, always ask your host what you should bring so there aren’t 15 pies for dessert (true story: I made 2 homemade pies – Pecan Pie and Apple Pie and when I arrived there were literally another dozen pies brought by guests). And make sure that your dish transports well and won’t be difficult to reheat if the oven is occupied. Better yet, bring something that can be served at room temperature.

Plan ahead. If you commit to making or bringing a certain dish, make sure you have a great recipe already on hand and the ingredients are easy to find. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had frantic friends emailing me for recipes at the last minute – it’s much more fun to cook when you’ve already taken care of the homework.

chef-cooking175pxShop and cook on different days. I rarely shop and cook on the same day – the only ingredients I’ll pick up at the last minute are items like fresh herbs, fish, or berries. I like to get all of my shopping out of the way as early as possible. I’ll buy pantry items a week ahead of time and gradually finish the rest of my shopping as my “Cooking Day” approaches. This strategy also means you’ll save money because you will have time to look around for the best prices. During Thanksgiving week, I try to avoid going to the grocery store after Monday.

Keep it simple. Even the most accomplished cooks get frazzled on the holidays. So, whether you’re a gourmet chef or novice cook, pick recipes that you are familiar with and that are easy to prepare. There are plenty of delicious dishes that rely on flavorful fall ingredients rather than complicated cooking techniques. Pick something that you’ll have a good time preparing – your guests will taste your enjoyment.

Find a sous chef. There are days where I really enjoy cooking alone and other times, I prefer company. It’s a great excuse to get together with a friend and be productive at the same time.

And for those of you who have guests who don’t eat poultry, check out Kim O’Donnel’s new cookbook, The Meat Lover’s Meatless Cookbook!


How to Get Kids to Eat New Foods (& Pumpkin Pie Pasta Recipe)

His name is Timmy. He is 5 years old and he doesn’t like to try new foods. I’m guessing that’s why his parents put him in my after-school cooking class at PS 75 (in New York City). It’s Wednesday afternoon and I announce to my small students that we are making Pumpkin Pie Pasta.

This is my fourth week with them, and thankfully, they are starting to trust me. Timmy, however, is  still pretty resistant to eating anything unfamiliar. This is common for this age group – except that also he tells me and the class over and over again that he isn’t going to eat whatever we are making. Or, on this particular afternoon, he starts begging me for plain pasta. I tell him we are making Pumpkin Pasta, not plain pasta. He doesn’t relent. I persevere. We are in a stand-off. Who will be more stubborn? I will, of course. That’s my job.

After they prepare the pumpkin puree, I dump the cooked pasta directly into the pumpkin bowl so that there is no plain pasta left. I sprinkle on some Parmesan cheese. They start eating and there is silence. This is a group of 5-6 year olds. They are never silent. And yet, this week, everyone of them sits quietly while they eat their pasta – even Timmy.

A lot of parents of my students ask me how I get kids to eat new foods. Here are some tricks of the trade I’ve picked up over the years:

Keep it low-key. I recommend offering something new once or twice and then walking away. No begging, negotiating, or bribery. I will often put the new food on the edge of their plate so that they are exposed to it. I ask them to try one bite and if they don’t like it they don’t have to eat the rest. Then I walk away.

Take advantage of peer pressure. Introduce new foods when they are around adventurous eaters. This works well when they start elementary school because they want to fit in with their friends.

Be firm and clear – and stick to your guns. This is really important but can be hard to implement. Create meal time rules and stand by them – even if your kids are older now. One friend of mine, whose children are 9 and 6, recently stopped cooking multiple meals but allows each child to pick dinner once per week. Whatever you do, be consistent.

Have high expectations and don’t pander. The food industry has done an excellent job of convincing us that kids will only eat their expensive, highly processed kiddie food. If that were the case, our species would have died out long before Lunchables were invented! The children of chefs are perfect examples of not pandering. Chefs expect their children to eat sophisticated foods and the kids respond to that expectation.

Model good eating habits. Be exuberant about your love for a healthy dish. And if you’re a picky adult eater, then make it a project to try new dishes with your kids – a team effort.  Remember that they will eventually eat like you. It might be when they are 7, 12, or even 18 but eventually, they will mimic you.

Use reverse psychology. If they don’t want to eat something, I will often say, “Awesome, that means more for me!” and pop it into my mouth and go on and on about how good it is. You know how your kids only want to play with a toy when a visiting friend shows interest in it? Kind of like that.

Treat them like a chef. Obviously, I suggest cooking with kids – but I also advise having conversations about food, discussing which vegetables look interesting at the market, and asking them if a dish needs to be tweaked. I take them very seriously and they respond in kind. When I ask them if a dish needs more garlic, salt, pepper, etc., they nod and think about it and then declare which ingredient they want more of. They are brilliant chefs. They don’t doubt their creativity. I love it.

I have to give you this famous Pumpkin Pie Pasta recipe now, right? We also made the Crunchy Roasted Pepitas in class which were a huge hit too.

pumpkinpasta200pxP U M P K I N  P I E  P A S T A
Try adding some protein like chicken or white beans for a more balanced meal.

1 pound of bow ties
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
¼ teaspoon crushed red pepper
½-1 cup canned pumpkin puree
½ stick unsalted butter, at room temperature
½ teaspoon salt (or more to taste)
ground black pepper to taste
1/8 teaspoon of grated nutmeg
½ cup of grated parmesan cheese, plus extra for serving
½ cup fresh basil, coarsely chopped

Combine all the ingredients in a bowl, except for the pasta and basil. Heat the butter a little if necessary. Set aside.

Cook paste until al dente. Drain pasta well and immediately add to sauce bowl. Sprinkle with basil and toss. Serve at once with extra parmesan.

Recipe by Jacquie Grinberg, adapted from Joie Warner’s No-Cook Pasta Sauces
For information on how to cook with kids, check out my new book, Easy Meals to Cook with Kids, available via my website.