A Guide to the Family Dinner

Cathy Arnst

Summer’s over, school’s back in session, and the family dinner—Say What! Who has time for a family dinner? As hard as it may be for working parents, indeed, any parents, to gather the clan around the table, research has consistently proven that kids who eat dinner regularly with their parents do better in every way. For proof check out Columbia University’s National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (which, incidentally has designated Sept 25 as Family Day).

Their research has found that children who have a regular family mealtime are less likely to smoke, drink, use illegal drugs, experiment with sex at a young age, and get into fights. Further, these children are at lower risk for suicidal thoughts and are more likely to do better in school. Teens that have frequent family dinners are more likely to be emotionally content, to work harder, to have positive peer relationships, and to have healthier eating habits. Family mealtime is the single strongest predictor of academic achievement scores and low rates of behavioral problems, regardless of race, gender, education, age of parents, income, or family size.

OK, point taken, but how do we fit a family dinner into our overscheduled lives? , author of a syndicated food column (and an old friend), has written an excellent how-to book on the family dinner that shows us the way. Barbarians At the Plate: Taming and Feeding the Modern American Family is funny, informative and filled with tasty and easy recipes, an ideal combination. Maria traveled around the country interviewing real families, gathering recipes and tips on how to accomplish that basic building block of civilization, the sit-down meal.

I am forever indebted to Maria for introducing me some 20 years to one of my favorite pasta recipes (reprinted at the bottom), and I figured I’d let her share some of her wisdom on family feeding with the rest of us. She talked to me by phone from her home office in a lovely Vermont farmhouse, where she and her husband, also a journalist, managed to get their two daughters, now 21 and 18, to sit down for dinner almost every night while growing up.

Q) It’s all well and good to say families should eat together, but what do you do if your kid will only eat plain pasta while the parents would like, say, fish and salad?

A) First of all, I think we all have to recognize that the American food industry totally panders to children in a way that I think disempowers them. It makes kids think that there is such a thing as kid’s food, and that kid’s food is neon-colored, shaped like a cartoon character, and tastes like candy. This robs kids of the joys of tasting all the good things on the earth. We as parents should be saying “Wow, there is so much cool food out there and we’re going to try it!” Don’t say, “But they won’t eat that.” Give it a try, maybe they will. We’ve all been a little brainwashed into thinking that kids will only eat kid’s food.

I think we’ve also bought into the stereotype of children as picky eaters. I’ve met way more picky adults. These parents are modeling bad behavior. There’s a difference between knowing what you like to eat and rejecting foods outright because you think you won’t like them. Parents should be inclusive and enthusiastic as possible about food. Don’t hold up being picky as a cool thing, or admirable, or funny.

And don’t think you should cut everything to look like a teddy bear. By coddling children this way we are not giving them choice and not opening their eyes to all the diversity of food choices. Food should look like food. It’s all right to have some culinary tough love and say, “for your health you have to eat a certain amount of vegetables and fruit and so on.”

Q) How did you get your own family to sit down together every night?

A) There’s no question, it could be really difficult. Sometimes we wound up eating up very late at night, at 8 or 8:30. You have to fortify the kids with healthy snacks. Sometimes we ate very early, before the school play or whatever. Sometimes we just said no to activities, which was hard. That was true through middle school. I have to admit, by their junior and senior year of high school we weren’t always together, but by then we had cemented the idea of the family meal, so we would still eat together more often than not. I have to say, I did many things wrong as a parent but that was one thing I did right—we spent a lot of time with our kids and a lot of it was at the table.

Q) And what are the advantages of spending all that time at the table?

A) You really hear the stories at the table. You hear about their lives and they hear about yours, which is just as important. They need to know what you spend your time doing.

I think that you learn so much at the table when you’re very young. You learn how to sit, which is really important when you’re first going to school. We had a “keep your butt on the seat” rule that I think helped them learn self-discipline. You learn how to take turns talking and listening. You learn how to tell a story with a beginning, middle and end. That’s one of the best skills a human can have. You learn manners. There’s a lot more happening that just the eating

Q) But who has time to do all that cooking?

A) With all the cooking shows on TV, people think they have to have a gourmet meal on the table. Grilled cheese and carrots are fine. My book has a lot of recipes for grilled pizza, and crockpot dishes. I think that parents don’t give themselves enough credit for getting dinner on the table. It is really hard work—you have to plan, and organize. People should be getting awards for doing this. One woman said “I feel like the Lone Ranger every night.” Parents feel very alone in the struggle to have dinner, because there is a sense out there that no one else is doing it. Everything seems to be organized around kids’ schedules these days, so there’s not a lot of peer support.

The point of the family dinner is to pay attention to each other. In the end I don’t care what you serve, it’s doing it that’s important. On the other hand, if you are serving something it makes sense to think about what’s healthy. There are a lot of healthy foods out there that are cheap and easy. I think a basic principle is to shop on the periphery of the supermarket, where the fruit, vegetables, dairy and meat are. Stay away from the center, where they keep the cookies and the junk food.

And now, for some recipes.

Mexican Enchilada Casserole

Maria says this is one of her favorites from the book, a one dish meal with plenty of vegetables

1 to 2 tablespoons canola or vegetable oil
1 pound boneless chicken breast cut into 1/2 inch cubes
1 onion, peeled and chopped
2 cloves garlic, peeled and finely chopped
2 cups mild picante sauce or salsa
1 14 ounce can whole tomatoes, drained and chopped
1-1/2 cups chopped broccoli
1 tablespoon ground cumin
2 cups shredded cheddar cheese
8 burrito-size flour tortillas

Preheat oven to 350. Lightly oil 9 by 13 inch baking pan.

Coat the bottom of a large skillet with oil and set over medium heat. Add the chicken, onion, and garlic and cook until chicken is no longer pink, about 7 minutes.

Add 1/2 cup of the picante sauce, tomatoes (no juice), broccoli and cumin. Mix well. Bring to a boil, then adjust heat to simmer, cover and cook for 5 minutes. Uncover, increase the heat and cook at a rapid simmer, stirring frequently, until most of the liquid has evaporated. Stir in 1 cup of the cheese.

Spoon a generous 1/2 cup of the mixture down the center of each tortilla, roll up and place seam-side down in prepared plan. Spoon remain picante sauce over, bake 20 minutes or until hot.

Scatter remaining 1 cup cheese over the top. Return to oven for 2 minutes, or until cheese melts. Serve hot, with sour cream and chopped fresh cilantro if desired.

You can make this ahead up to the point where the rolled tortillas are arranged in the pan, and either refrigerate or freeze.

Anchovy Sauce for Pasta

I know what you're thinking: Ugh! Anchovies! No way my kid (or me) will eat them. Not so. This is the best and fastest pasta sauce ever, everyone loves it and if you don't tell your kids it's made with anchovies they will too (or at least my in-the-dark daughter does). Really, try it, I've been winning hearts with this for 20 years, thanks to Maria.

1/2 cup olive oil
8 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
1/4 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes (skip this if your kids hate spicy)
1 2-ounce can anchovy fillets packed in oil, drained and chopped
1 10-ounce package frozen chopped spinach, thawed and drained well (or use frozen or fresh broccoli)

Heat the oil in a skillet over medium heat. Add the garlic and cook, stirring, until beginning to soften, but try not to let garlic brown (though still tasty if it does). Add the red pepper flakes and the anchovies and stir until the anchovies more or less dissolve. Add the spinach and stir to heat through.

Stir in cooked pasta (I think angel hair is the best).

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