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Recipe for Family Dinners
By Pamela White

I wrote this in September of 2002. The sentiments are still ones I hold dear, and the advice is always true.

What a year we've been through. A year of losses, grief, tears, fear and feeling an unfathomable vulnerability.

It's also been a year of dance classes, soccer matches, baseball games and basketball tournaments. A year of homework and homeschooling, birthday parties, field trips and report cards. We've lost jobs and found new ones, replaced broken appliances and decided to keep the old car for another six months. We've given birth and gotten divorced.

And still we move forward, sometimes slowly, often painfully.

In the midst of crises and celebrations, let the family dinner bind us together. Coming together, breaking bread and sharing news of the day is a healing ritual resulting from taking the time to slow down in our fast-paced world. Imagine the food on the table, members of the family sitting around looking in each other's eyes, talking and listening. This simple tradition has the power to transform teens and toddlers alike, and provide a moment of peace in a world at war.

I imagine the ideal would be a daily family meal, children with hands and faces freshly scrubbed, parents smiling and passing the homemade rolls and pot roast.

But we live in a world of sports competitions, after-school activities, staggered work shifts, joint custody and blended families. It's a challenge well worth rising to when we find our own path that combines our hectic lives with time together. We must seek a way to make the most of the one day a week or one weekend a month we have as a family to create, cultivate and cherish the bonds of family.

Finding the time for a meal together may mean tossing out the family dinner and instituting the family breakfast or Sunday lunch, depending on your work schedules, and the ages and schedules of your children.

In my own family, I've been amazed at the trust that has grown between my three children and their stepfather once we made our own mealtime rituals -- dinner four nights a week.

Here are six steps toward creating the time and space for family dinners and making them memorable.

1. Frequency is important. Why do so many Thanksgiving dinners end up ruining everyone's appetite? We bank on this one fabulous meal a year to bring our scattered families back into the fold. That's quite a demand on one 25-pound turkey and three pumpkin pies.

Visualize eating a meal, albeit a less elaborate one, as a family, five or even three times a week. Suddenly the odds are in your favor that in a 12-month period you'll have some amazing conversations, loads of laughter and a closeness you only dreamed of before. A few blow-ups, burnt food, or no-shows when someone is running late or gets a last-minute invitation to eat with a friend won't hurt. The conversation and communion will continue with the next table gathering.

2. Examine your expectations for a family dinner. Babies require a lot of attention. Does a family dinner mean feeding a baby first and putting her to sleep prior to feeding toddlers and parents? Remember your teenage years? Sometimes, teenagers won't speak except to utter the dreaded, "Whatever!" Casserole experiments go awry, dogs pull the tablecloths and everything hits the floor, someone gets sick... are you relating yet?

Think of the good times you've had over a meal. Was it a picnic? Did the children make the salad and set the table? Did it involve a food fight? Perhaps you enjoy elegance and candlelight, with good table manners. In my family, if one of the children is out of sorts, we try to include him or her, but don't let a bad mood ruin our time together. For the last two years, we've had back-to-back activities on Thursday nights, yet these have been some really great dinner times, even when we have only 15 minutes. How? Read on.

3. Having no time to prepare a dinner at home is today's reality. Make the slow cooker your friend, and use it to cook stews, soups, beans and pot roasts. Buy a slow cooker cookbook to get you started if you're having trouble envisioning a good meal coming out of a ceramic pot that's been cooking all day.

Freeze ahead. Deborah Taylor-Hough has written Frozen Assets, a book that gets harried cooks started cooking enough on one day a month to freeze for four weeks of meals.

Think picnic food. Short on time? Make giant submarine sandwiches to order in ten minutes. These can be made in the morning, wrapped up and served for dinner.

There are other make-ahead meals like baked ziti, lasagna or tacos. These are wonderful ways for parents of infants to keep dinner time simple. Prepare the casserole or taco meat and fixings while the baby sleeps. Put in the oven or warm up and serve when dinner time rolls around. These also work for when you have time the night before or that day at lunchtime but maintain a hectic after-school schedule. Salads can also be made way ahead -- think luscious lettuce salads, piquante pasta salads or crisp crudite platters.

Fast food may give you a night together. Order pizza or bring home burgers. Eating in fast-food restaurants offers a less harmonious atmosphere for bonding. But sitting at home, with pizza and wings for a Friday night treat (for everybody), creates a relaxed, open night of sharing.

4. Prepare a topic of conversation. It may sound phony but having ideas in mind can get the table talk started. Avoid questions that can be answered with a "yes" or "no." For example: "Did you have fun today?" If a question is too general -- "What did you do today?" -- older children may hold back and younger children may feel overwhelmed by the enormity of possible answers.

Begin by sharing a humorous tidbit from your own day: "I was standing on the porch today shoveling snow when a little icicle broke from the gutter and hit me on the head." Or tell of a frustration: "I was shocked today when the grocery cashier was rude to a teenager in front of me." Follow up with a question: "What was the funniest thing that happened to you today?" Or, "Would you say anything to the cashier if you had been there?"

5. Turn dinner time into game time. This works best with preschoolers to preteens. My son brought this game home from school. One person starts with a letter of his choice. (For example, G.) The second person adds a letter, as does the third, as the game goes around the table. The goal is to end up with an actual word, so the second person might toss out "R." The third could add "O." The last letter, "W," might end the word, but it doesn't end the game. The family member who added the last letter is the one who begins the next round by choosing the first letter of the next word. Or play tell-a-story where each person adds a sentence to the story as it goes around the table

6. Don't force it. Trying to make the meal the most elaborate dinner you've served puts a great burden on you or whoever is cooking the meal. Expecting an in-depth sharing of emotions stirred up over current events can leave you feeling like a failure when your elementary-aged son and high school daughter begin kicking each other under the table for entertainment. Soon the time will come when your children bring conversation starters to the table and when next Thanksgiving comes around, you'll realize your family's new or continued closeness is truly something to be thankful for.

Need more help? There are resources available to inspire new ways to turn dinner time (or breakfast time or lunch time) into an opportunity to strengthen family bonds and offer sanctuary in these turbulent times:

Around the Family Table: 365 Mealtime Conversations for Parents and Children by Ronda Coleman, Robins Lane Press, 2001

Frozen Assets: How to Cook For a Day and Eat For a Month by Deborah Taylor-Hough, Champion Press Ltd., 1998

Pillsbury One-Dish Meals Cookbook: More Than 300 Recipes for Casseroles, Skillet Dishes and Slow Cooker Meals by the Pillsbury Company, Clakson Potter Publishers, 1999

Http:// - Deborah Taylor-Hough's website

Family Dinner Rap, an e-mail newsletter available from



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