The dish about family dinners

Too busy to cook? A new book argues that your kids may be missing out on more than just veggies. Plus: Healthy, stress-free recipes guaranteed to make your family ask for seconds.


Sarah Karnasiewicz
July 1, 2005 12:36AM (UTC)

You have Domino's Pizza on speed dial, and laundry piled high on your dining table. Your kids think Veggie Booty is one of the basic food groups. You spend more time in the car than in the kitchen.

You're not alone.

The home-cooked family meal is quickly becoming a thing of the past. A recent survey conducted by the University of Minnesota shows that the number of American families who regularly eat dinner together has dropped by more than one-third since 1970, as busy parents opt instead for the convenience of restaurant meals or takeout in front of the television. But Marialisa Calta, a food writer and working mother, is on a mission to turn back the clock. And while encouraging American women to unleash their inner Betty Crocker might not seem progressive, Calta's serious commitment to helping parents embrace domesticity, at the dinner table at least, has landed her in the ranks of a quiet revolution taking place in small towns and cities across the country. Backed by a spate of studies showing that children who routinely eat dinner with their families not only perform better in school but are also less vulnerable to depression, drug and alcohol addiction and eating disorders, a Columbia University substance abuse counseling center (CASA) has even set aside an official holiday -- Sept. 26 -- devoted to getting parents and kids eating together.

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Calta's new book, "Barbarians at the Plate: Taming and Feeding the Modern American Family," takes readers into the kitchens and dining rooms of a dozen families across the country as they attempt to make a healthy, home-cooked meal every (well, almost every) night. With unpretentious advice and simple menus drawing on pantry staples such as beans, chicken stock and pasta (and featuring a special section on that Nixon-era workhorse, the slow cooker), "Barbarians" offers an antidote to the fussy, labor-intensive Martha Stewart mentality that intimidates many home cooks. "You don't have to chain yourself to the stove," she writes. "If you are organized enough to get your tired self dressed and to work every day you have the tools to get food on the table." Around that table, Calta believes, parents and children share much more than food -- they exchange stories, learn about each other's lives, and hone social graces that serve them in school and beyond.

Calta spoke with Salon by phone from her Vermont home about saying no to over-scheduling, getting men into the kitchen, and how to make the world's simplest, most scrumptious macaroni and cheese.

What inspired you to write this book?

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A lot of books and magazines pretend to have quick and easy recipes but don't, so I wanted to provide that. Also, no one ever talks about the fact that cooking is hard work. For the parent who cooks on a daily basis, no one is saying, "Way to go" or "Great job!" I mean, half the time your own family is sitting around going "eeew!" So I felt like working parents -- and the book speaks mostly to women because that's mostly who I found were cooking -- need all the encouragement they can get to get the job done.

You make a point of cheering parents on for the work they already do, and provide many tips on making cooking easier, but given the hectic schedules many families have today, the family dinner ritual seems like something of a relic. Wouldn't reviving the family dinner really mean drastically reworking the way modern families live their lives?

Absolutely. I think this book addresses the issue of priorities as much as anything else. We're over-scheduled to an insane degree and I'm speaking of myself and my family too -- my younger daughter did three sports for a while, every season. It's crazy, and you have to say no to some things. You have to prioritize, and most of all, you really have to plan. Even if you are not a planner, you have to make yourself get organized around food. Why is it that people who excel at jobs, who go to every soccer game, and do everything else, somehow think it's OK to fall apart as far as dinner is concerned?

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Yes, cooking is hard work, and we tend to avoid hard work -- that's human nature. We avoid things that we're not good at, or take time, or that we don't get a lot of praise for -- but I think that's what we have to get over, that hump.

Making home-cooked meals every night seems like a big task. Why is it so important?

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Because with our crazy schedules, when do we ever really get to be together as a family? You may spend a lot of time watching your child on the soccer field, but to me, that is not the same quality of time as sitting across a table, looking your children in the eyes -- as a friend of mine says, "Seeing if their pupils are dilated ..." -- and having a conversation. I don't understand how we can define ourselves as families when we're just people connected by blood that just happen to live in the same house.

In the beginning of your book you quote Marion Cunningham, author of "The Fannie Farmer Cookbook," as saying, "We're living a motel life ..." Is that the idea you're referring to -- that as families we're constantly moving in and out, orbiting one another, but never meeting?

Exactly. I think that meals are a time when families can really learn about their connections. One of the mothers I interviewed said, "My kids have had to learn that even if they've just had a fight with their sibling, they still have to sit next to them at the table." That's important. It's not always pleasant, but that's a really significant thing to learn.

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A recent article in the Washington Post followed a family in which neither the mother nor any of her [now grown] children knew how to cook anything. Theirs was an extreme situation, but certainly there are legions of adults who to some degree feel insecure about cooking. Do you see this as a cycle, in which parents who don't see cooking as a priority pass those attitudes on to their children?

I realize cooking is an intimidating thing for some people, and I hope I can help them get more comfortable with it. But also, I hope that I can help them see how meals should be made a priority -- we can all seek out simple recipes and try them. That said, to me the most important part of "family meal" is the family and not the meal. If you can gather in some other way -- over a game of Scrabble, even -- bringing people together is the primary point. But the food piece is still important, as we now see with the rise of obesity and other nutrition-related health problems.

So, especially for parents who are away from their kids all day, the family dinner is a place where they can monitor the kinds of food their kids eat and act as healthy models of adult diet and behavior?

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Exactly. The fact is your kids still have to eat, one way or another, whether or not you cook. They're going to eat, and you're going to eat -- so I figure, you might as well do it as well as you can and do it together.

Given the growing concern about children's poor eating habits, do you think perhaps the government, as well as the family, should take the initiative and teach kids how to prepare food? Maybe home economics should be reintroduced into the standard public school curriculum?

The government would probably do best to provide healthier meals for hot lunches and help schools keep soda and fast food franchises out of the lunchroom. Certainly, though, I think classes in cooking might prove quite popular in schools. In middle school my kids learned all these outdoor survival techniques -- and it does make me wonder why cooking isn't considered a lifesaving skill! Maybe we need to be teaching kids basic kitchen survival skills, too. But I hate to advocate for sweeping government expenditures when there's so much else to worry about.

You could argue that a fresh homemade family meal is really a luxury -- an ideal that many families can not live up to -- either because both parents work long hours or good groceries are hard to come by in poorer neighborhoods while fast food is cheap and convenient.

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My book does not speak to the truly poor in our country. If you don't have a supermarket in your neighborhood and you don't have a car, you're left to buy whatever you can at the 7-Eleven; and if you don't have reliable refrigeration, well, your goose is cooked. But I don't think that a simple, and I'm talking simple, homemade meal -- including things made with canned broth and canned beans, not all grown from scratch, high-end, organic food -- is a luxury for most people. I think it is a necessity.

You emphasize one-dish meals and profess a weakness for frozen pie crusts, store-bought spaghetti sauce, and canned fruit. In the age of the "alpha mom," do you think that perhaps part of the problem is that parents have unreasonably high standards -- and believe that a "good parent" cooks meals that are 100 percent organic, made from scratch, and artfully arranged?

Definitely. Parents think, "I can't produce the perfect Martha Stewart meal, so I'm not going to try." But I also think a lot of people are just not paying attention; for example, my mother lives in a very upscale neighborhood in New Jersey and at night there is a Mr. Wok delivery truck at every house. So, it's not that some people don't have the resources to do it, it's that they don't think it's important. My argument -- I guess the whole book -- is my saying, this is important, and it can be done. There are a million easy recipes out there.

You say in the book that you were expecting to find families where men did the cooking on a regular basis, but when you actually went out into homes those men simply weren't there. Why do you think women continue to be primarily responsible for making family meals?

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Oh God, I don't know. I have no pretense that what I found would even qualify as a random sample, because a random sample might have some statistical validity to it. But I was surprised. I think a lot of women, at least from my generation, just sort of think of it as our job, and well, we just keep doing it.

What about kids -- did you find that they were involved with the cooking?

I interviewed this marvelous woman in Oregon, whose kids are now grown, but in her house, each child was responsible for two nights of meals -- so that meant four nights a week were already covered. If they weren't going to be there for dinner, they still had to provide the food or make a double batch the night before. They would make a list and the parents would do the shopping. As teenagers, they got really adventuresome -- they would try Thai and Indian food. The kids took it as a challenge. Parents tend to fall back on this idea that, "Oh, it's their job to do well in school," and I think that really kids' job is to be part of a functioning family.

There is a growing body of research that contends that kids who eat family meals on a consistent basis reap enormous physical and psychological benefits. There has also been shown to be a correlation between the family meals and improved academic performance. Frankly, it sounds like there must be something magic in the food. What are your views on those findings?

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I'd hate to see people having dinner together because they think it's going to increase their child's GPA. It's easy to joke about it, but I cringe at the idea that some parents might be out there saying, "Eat, Billy, your grades are slipping!" I would hope that the motivation for sitting down together would be that you're a family, and now given our fractured schedules and busy lives we rarely get to be together in one place. I think for some families being in church provides that time. But you're not necessarily talking to each another, and that's what I like about meals -- they're a place to exchange vital information.

What do you think accounts for the benefits reflected in the studies?

There is something very soothing about sharing a meal. Just think about the phrase "having a place at the table." I think if you have a place at the table -- which can be extrapolated as a metaphor for your place in the world -- it helps you feel a little more grounded. What I found interesting -- and this is definitely true in my own family and in many of the families I visited -- was that most kids had to eat at a certain place every night. Even now, when I go back to my mother's house, I still sit in the chair where I always sat. So, I worry about kids who are eating standing up or next to the microwave -- where are they finding out how to fit into the world?

I'm sure there's a lot of basic social training that goes on at the table too.

Of course. At a meal, you learn to take turns and not to interrupt and you learn how to tell a story. And these are things that will hold you in good stead in the classroom and the boardroom as you grow up. There was one mother who told me she always asks her kids, "What did you say that was funny today?" So maybe the table is a place for us to hone our sense of humor too.

If the family dinner continues to leak out of American life, what else do we stand to lose?

We'll lose a fundamental pleasure, which is the pleasure of a good meal with people that we love. And I think that is very sad, though we may find something else -- some new ritual -- to take its place. But I don't think it's going to come from a computer or a television.

Kids learn who they are by sitting at the table, through family stories and even the traditions of ethnic foods. There's a lot of focus on parents' learning about their kids, but I think kids also learn an enormous amount about their parents at dinner. What they learn might not always be pleasant, but they figure a lot out about the family just sitting at the table.

The following recipes are from "Barbarians at the Plate: Taming and Feeding the Modern American Family," by Marialisa Calta.

Mexican pork and hominy stew

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

Hominy is corn that has undergone a complex process called "nixtamalization," which enhances its protein value. It is terrific in chili or any bean dish. Look for canned hominy, in the vegetable, Hispanic or "international" section of most supermarkets. Sometimes you can find canned hominy with chili spices and peppers already in it; this is fine to use.

1 pound pork (any inexpensive, boneless cut such as shoulder or butt), trimmed and cut into bite-size pieces (you can also use boneless, skinless chicken)

salt and pepper

1 to 2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 onion, peeled and chopped

1 bell pepper (red or green, or half of each, for color), stemmed, seeded and chopped

2 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped (optional)

2 teaspoons chili powder

1 teaspoon dried oregano

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1/2 to 1 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes

3 (15-ounce) cans yellow or white hominy, or hominy seasoned with chili peppers (do not drain)

1 cup canned chicken broth, plus more, if needed

1/2 teaspoon sugar

For serving:

1 lime, cut into wedges

hot sauce and chopped fresh cilantro (optional)

Spray the inside of the slow cooker stoneware with cooking spray to prevent sticking. Season the pork with salt and pepper. Heat the oil in a skillet set over medium-high heat and, working in batches if necessary, cook the pork, turning frequently, until it begins to brown, about 7 minutes.

Using a slotted spoon, transfer the pork to the slow cooker. Add the onion, bell pepper, garlic (if using), chili powder, oregano, cumin, and pepper flakes to the skillet and cook, stirring, about 5 minutes, until the vegetables begin to soften. Spoon the vegetables and any liquid into the slow cooker.

Add the remaining ingredients, cover and cook on LOW for 8 to 10 hours.

I like a thick stew. If you prefer a soupier version, add more chicken broth; if you are doing this toward the end of cooking, heat the broth almost to a boil before adding it to the slow cooker.

Serve in bowls with lime wedges. (Lime juice really brings out the flavor in this stew.) Pass the hot sauce and cilantro (if using).

Prep ahead: The night before, chop the meat; cover and refrigerate. Chop the vegetables; cover and refrigerate separately from the meat. Combine all the spices in a small bowl (no need to refrigerate).

Freeze: Up to 2 months

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Macaroni and cheese

Yield: 4 servings

A box of mac and cheese requires you to cook the noodles in a pot, add the powdered cheese stuff, milk and butter (or margarine). This recipe requires you to cook the noodles in a pot, and add flour, cheese and milk. If you buy the cheese already shredded, this recipe takes almost exactly the same time to prepare as the boxed kind, but the flavor is way better.

As a bonus, one serving -- if made with reduced-fat cheese and low fat (1 percent) milk -- has about one-third of the fat and twice the protein of the stuff from a box, even when the boxed stuff is prepared with 1 percent milk.

A newspaper editor I once worked with gave me this recipe when I was trying to meet a deadline and was whining that I still had to make dinner. I have always thought of him fondly every time I make this -- which, when my kids were little, was at least once a week.

8 ounces (1/2 pound) elbow noodles or other small-shaped pasta

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

1 cup regular, reduced-fat or skim milk

2 cups shredded regular or reduced-fat Cheddar cheese

Bring a large pot of salted water (page 96) to a boil over high heat, add the noodles, cover and bring back to a boil. Remove the cover and cook, boiling, according to package directions for "al dente" ("to the tooth"), that is, not raw-tasting but still firm. Drain well.

Return the noodles to the pot and sprinkle with the flour, stirring well to coat the noodles. Return the pot to the stove, and set the heat to low. Add the milk and stir until slightly thickened, about 2 minutes. Add the cheese and stir until melted and creamy, 2 minutes or so.

Serve hot.

Additions: Add several tablespoons of salsa, drained, when you add the cheese, or add 1 (4-ounce) can of green chilies, drained and chopped. Or, add any or all of the following: frozen peas (thawed), frozen chopped bell peppers (thawed), frozen chopped onions (thawed), chopped fresh tomato, chunks of leftover ham or sausage, or crumbled crispy bacon or real bacon bits.

Freeze: Up to 1 month

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BLT salad

Yield: 4 servings

Tell your kids you are serving them a sandwich-salad. If they find this funny enough, they may eat it.

For the dressing:

1/2 cup buttermilk

1/4 cup regular or reduced-fat mayonnaise

1 teaspoon onion powder

1 teaspoon dried dill

generous pinch of sugar

salt and pepper

For the salad:

1 (8-to-10-ounce) iceberg, romaine or combination lettuce (about 8 cups) washed and drained

3/4 pound tomatoes (2 regular tomatoes), cut into large chunks, or 2 cups grape tomatoes

1/2 bell pepper (any color), stemmed, seeded and chopped

1 cup cubed or shredded regular or reduced-fat Cheddar, Colby or Jack cheese

1/4 to 1/2 red onion, peeled and chopped

4 hard-boiled eggs, peeled and chopped (optional)

12 slices bacon, cooked

4 slices whole grain bread

mayonnaise

Make the dressing: Combine all the ingredients in a small bowl or in a jar with a lid, whisking or shaking to mix well. Taste and adjust seasonings. Cover and refrigerate.

Make the salad: In a large bowl, toss the lettuce, tomatoes, bell pepper, cheese, onions and eggs (if using). Add the bacon and drizzle with the dressing and toss.

Toast the bread and spread it lightly with mayonnaise. Cut into cubes and add to the salad. Drizzle with more dressing and toss.

Make ahead: The dressing can be made up to 4 days ahead. Whisk or shake well to mix before using. Cook the eggs and refrigerate them in their shells for up to 1 day.


Sarah Karnasiewicz

Sarah Karnasiewicz is a freelance writer and photographer based in Brooklyn, N.Y. Until recently, she was senior editor at Saveur magazine; prior to that she was deputy Life editor at Salon. She has contributed to the New York Times, the New York Observer and Rolling Stone, among other publications. For more of her work, visit thefastertimes.com/streetfood and Signs and Wonders.

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