Thursday, April 30, 2009

The 4 P's of Successful Family Meals

I originally wrote this for Rockland Parent magazine. Thought I'd share the ideas with a wider community of parents trying to figure it out...
What works for you? Any tips you'd like to share for how you pull meals together?

It’s 4:30p.m. You stand in front of the refrigerator scanning its contents to see what you can throw together for dinner. You look at the clock. You have half an hour before you have to run out to pick up your daughter from dance class. There’s not enough time to make a decent meal. “Besides”, you think, “the kids probably won’t eat what I make anyway.” So you decide to just pick up some take out. You daughter is famished after class and eats her meal in the car. When you get home, you make yourself a salad and eat it standing at the counter. Your husband heats something up for himself when he comes home later.

Sound familiar? It seems like the family meal has become a relic of the past. Many of today’s families struggle with the challenge of getting everyone together for a meal and with the challenge of finding the time to actually cook the meal.

Before you throw in the kitchen towel and head for the drive-thru, there are a few things you should know about family meals.

Importance of family meals

Research has shown, however, that it’s worth the effort. Studies have shown family meal times to be an important element in cohesive, well-functioning family life and in healthy child development. Children who frequently eat meals with their families have been found to have better eating habits, better academic success, better mental health, and less risk for both obesity and substance abuse.

How to do it

Making healthy family meals can be a challenge, but it can be done. Consider the 4 “P’s” in pulling it all together.


If you can look ahead at your schedule a week in advance, you can get a jump on planning meals. When you know ahead of time that you’ll be too busy in the pre-dinner hour to cook that night, you can plan for a slow-cooker meal. Another possibility is to have a supply of previously frozen meals that you can defrost on those days with no time to cook. If you get in the habit of doubling recipes and then freezing meals, you’ll have meals on hand for those nights when things get too crazy. Planning in advance also saves you unnecessary trips to the grocery store. When you plan your meals and shopping lists in advance, you can save time with just one or two grocery shopping trips per week.


Sometimes it can be difficult to take a step back and examine your schedule. Many activities that keep our families away from the table are necessary (like work) and many are important (like lessons and sports for our kids). Only you can decide the priorities for your family. If you feel like your family’s schedule is out of control and creating unnecessary stress, maybe it’s time to make changes. As a parent, you have the authority and responsibility to set limits and make priorities when considering the family schedule.

Putting together a support system

You don’t have to do this completely on your own. If your kids are older, enlist their help in meal preparation. If your kids are younger, you can find ways for them to help. Young children can’t really save you time, but today’s helper can be tomorrow’s cook. Outside your immediate family, you can seek assistance from local extended family members, friends, and neighbors. Some families have successfully coordinated meal sharing in a variety of ways. Consider arranging to double a recipe and cook for both your own and a friend’s family one night each week while your friend does the same for you on another night. Or, organize a group of mothers from your child’s preschool and assign each a meal to prepare for everyone. You can then gather together and exchange prepared meals to bring home to your own freezers. Be creative: think of people with whom you can form support systems.

Preparation techniques

You’ll be able to make more effective meal plans if you have a variety of preparation techniques at your fingertips. Many meals can be assembled quickly and some can be prepared in advance, at least partially. You might not have time to cook right before dinner time, but you might have time at other points in your day. Early morning, your child’s naptime, later in the evening, and weekends are all possible times to do some meal preparation, whether it’s chopping some vegetables or preparing a casserole. Slow-cooker crock-pots also provide many opportunities for home-cooked meals without actually cooking at dinner time.

What to do when the family is at the table

In the ideal world, you’ve done all your planning, prioritizing, and preparing, and the whole family is sitting down together for a family meal. Everything should go smoothly from there, right? Maybe not. Often, picky eaters, unruly behavior, and lack of conversation can seem to ruin all your good efforts in getting everyone there in the first place. Changing the behavior of picky eaters is a complex topic beyond the scope of this article, but in general, the quality of the time spent together at the table is something that can be improved with some creativity and planning. Games and activities that incorporate teaching manners and promoting positive conversations are available.

Taking charge of your family meals can be exciting and rewarding, but a few caveats are important. First, don’t expect perfection. Having everyone in the family present for every evening meal is not realistic for most families. If you currently eat together once a week, any increase should be considered a valuable improvement. Be flexible in considering which meals your family eats together. Maybe breakfast is a more realistic option than dinner for your family. There may not be any simple formula, but you have the power to make healthy, enjoyable meals for your family.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

For Those Trying to Work in Some Veggie Meals

In my effort to have meatless meals at least once a week, I came across this recipe a couple of months ago and modified it a bit. I loved it and am making it again tonight. The kids gave it mixed reviews so I also make a plain cheese quesadilla. I serve them all family style and people can serve themselves whichever wedges they want. We also usually have a salad or some other vegetable with this. Try it and let me know what you think.


1 sweet potato, cooked (boiled or baked) and mashed
1 cup canned black beans, rinsed and drained
½ cup onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, pressed or minced
2 Tbsp. olive or canola oil, divided
2 tsp. cumin
1 avocado, peeled and mashed
¼ cup sour cream
½ cup shredded cheddar or Monterey jack cheese
1 cup baby spinach leaves
4 flour tortillas, taco size

· In a medium-sized non-stick skillet, heat 1T oil and sauté onion and garlic until soft.
· Add black beans and heat through.
· Stir in avocado, sour cream, cumin, and cheddar cheese. Cook until cheese melts.
· Spread mashed sweet potato over one tortilla.
· Top with baby spinach, then black bean mixture. Smooth mixture over tortilla (should
only be about ½ inch or so thick).
· Top with a second tortilla.
· Heat ½ T oil on high heat in a skillet.
· Brown quesadilla about one minute on each side.
· Repeat for second quesadilla.
· Cut quesadillas into wedges and serve with salsa, if desired.

Serves 4.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

A Family Favorite Recipe

Tonight will be a crazy night at our house and we won't, unfortunately, all be eating dinner together. :( I won't even be here.

Last night I assembled and today I put in the crockpot the recipe below. This is one of the meals that everyone in the family really likes - with no variations, no complaints, and usually no leftovers. So therefore, I make it every few weeks. So tonight even though we won't be eating together, we will be sharing this meal - at separate times.


1 garlic clove, minced
1/3 cup soy sauce
2 T sherry
1 ½ T cider vinegar
1 ½ T brown sugar
1 ½ T minced fresh ginger (or 1 t dried ginger powder)
8 chicken thighs

· Remove skin from chicken thighs if not already skinless. Pulling on the skin with a paper towel is an effective method.
· Mix ingredients other than chicken together in a bowl.
· Chicken and sauce can be mixed together in slow cooker or combined together in a Ziploc freezer bag.
· If cooking right away, cook on low for about 6-8 hours.
· If freezing, thaw overnight in refrigerator when ready to cook. Then put in slow cooker and cook for 6-8 hours in slow cooker.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Awaiting the New Blueberry Diet and Blueberry Supplements and Additives

Maybe I shouldn't be so cynical on my first day back from vacation, but I just read the article, "Blueberries May Help Reduce Belly Fat, Diabetes Risk" ( and my first thoughts were now they're going to come up with a blueberry diet and/or add blueberry to all sorts of products with marketing campaigns about improved health.

I love fresh blueberries and I truly am happily anticipating the season of their peak freshness which is right around the corner. My 11 year old can eat a pint all at once if she's hungry enough when she comes home from school. I have no doubt that blueberries have many health benefits, as do most fruits and vegetables. But I always become wary when I see one particular food publicized as having medicinal-like qualities. My eating philosophy is that we need to eat variety, with a healthy dose of fruits and vegetables. So I'll sit back and wait with a skeptical eye towards new blueberry press and blueberry-added products, but I'll eagerly wait the fresh blueberry season.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Thoughts about TV cooking

I enjoy watching cooking shows on the Food Network when I have the time. Sometimes I get ideas or recipes from the shows. Sometimes I just enjoy watching good food prepared. I also think I've learned little tips and techniques from just watching how the TV chefs move and work in their kitchen.s

I like the concept of "30 Minute Meals" and I used to watch the show fairly often a few years ago when it coincided with my daughter's nap. I would feel a little frustrated though that the meals I was watching being prepared would take me way more than 30 minutes to prepare and clean up. Although I enjoyed the show, I wanted some real 30 minute meals! Since then, I've found some good, quick recipes that I like to make (some even from Rachael Ray) but I have also found other strategies (e.g., crockpot, making ahead, freezing, etc.) that help me make it through weeknight meals for my family.

Today's NY Times Food columnist has a good column about TV cooking vs. Real Cooking. Click on the link below for the full column.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Website Updates

Just finished making some updates to the Dinner Together website ( Check it out and let me know what you think.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Holiday Family Meals

As tomorrow is Easter, I'm thinking about kids' eating in the context of large family gatherings. My aunt is taking out our family to a restaurant with a beautiful buffet tomorrow for lunch so everyone will find something that they enjoy to eat. So no worries for me. But I've been at other family gatherings when my kids were younger where they only ate bread. I've also been to gatherings where kids are only offered chiken nuggets and french fries. I think it's sometimes a hard balance to achieve - offering healthy choices yet also offering something "kid-friendly." By relying on kids menus too heavily, I think we've done a disservice to a generation of kids. We send the message that children should eat different food than adults. We end up narrowing the number of foods that our kids will eventually eat, and we feed into an expectation that they will be catered to and offered "special" foods. On the other hand, food from kids' menus is generally much cheaper than adult menu food. Sometimes I would prefer that my kids just eat the $5 kids meal than the $15-$20 adult entree just to save money. Sometimes we've been able to get two of the kids to share an adult entree, but not always. So nutrition, economics, family dynamics, and particular tastes all go into making that decision of what to order. Who knew it could be so complicated?!

P.S. Happy Easter!

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Success with Roasted Kale

Last night I tried something new with kale. I've made kale before but the kids have never eaten it. I've heard of people roasting kale so I searched the web for some recipes. I found a couple of easy ones, adapted them and came up with this:


1 bunch of kale
1 T olive oil
1 garlic clove, pressed
Salt and pepper, to taste

· Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
· Rinse kale and pat it dry.
· Break kale into pieces, removing spines and stems.
· In a large bowl mix all ingredients.
· Spread mixture on a baking sheet. It does not have to be in a single layer at this point.
· Bake for about 15-20 minutes, stirring every 5 minutes.
· Serve immediately.

Serves 4-6.

The kids actually liked it. My pickiest said, "This doesn't even taste like a vegetable!" High praise from a vegetable-avoider. Another said, "They're kind of like potato chips," referring to the crispy, airy texture. So if you're looking to try a new and different way to serve vegetables, I'd suggest giving this a try. By the way, I used almost a teaspoon of salt, which I personally thought was too much, but the kids liked it, so go figure...

Friday, April 3, 2009

How to Make Perfect Hard-Boiled Eggs

Easter is almost upon us. Right now I'm making a dozen hard-boiled eggs for us to color tonight so that my daughter can bring them with her to a church function tomorrow. When I was in graduate school, a fellow student taught me a method for making perfect hard-boiled eggs that has never failed me in the years since. Before learning this method, I would drop eggs into boiling water and guess at how long it took them to fully cook - sometimes I'd overestimate, sometimes I'd underestimate.

So here's how to do it. Start with large sized eggs (extra-large or jumbo will need more time than what I'm describing and I'm not exactly sure what the proper timing is). Place the eggs in a sauce pan, large enough for the eggs to have some space between them. Cover the eggs with cold water. Bring to a rapid boil over high heat. As soon as the water is boiling, cover the pot with a tight-fitting lid and turn off the heat. Set your timer for 10 minutes. When the timer goes off, drain the hot water, cover the eggs with cold water, and then remove them from the pan to a container. Store in the refrigerator.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

BMI Reports and Body Image Messages

My 13 year old daughter's "State Health-Related Physical Fitness Test" results were mailed home today. We get this every year and I usually don't give it much thought because my girls are all fit and healthy. Today, however, I became angry reading the form with my daughter's "failing" BMI score. Fortunately my daughter has an amazing self-concept. She is self-possessed and feels comfortable in her own skin - to a much greater extent than I ever felt as an adolescent! She does not appear to be overweight, and I doubt that she would give these results much attention. However, I would predict that many adolescent girls would be upset to see on paper that their BMI is too high. I would expect that the development of their body image, self-esteem, and future dieting behavior could be hugely impacted.

Perhaps this struck a chord with me today because I was reading an article in my monthly American Psychological Association magazine which described some work by psychologists to help "women gain health and self-esteem by losing their obsession with weight." If anyone wants to read more about this, check out The point is that many women go through life dieting, regaining weight, dieting, regaining weight, etc. And they often feel terrible about themselves throughout the process. Do we set our daughters up for this cycle from early on with messages about their appropriate weight/height ratios? As I said, my daughter does not appear to be overweight, but she does have a butt - a butt like her mother before her, her grandmother before her, and her great-grandmother before her. Although I may have some negative thoughts about my own body at times, I try very hard to avoid saying anything out loud in front of my daughters. I want them to stay physically active, to enjoy eating, and to feel good about themselves and their bodies.

How do you handle body image issues with your daughters (or sons)?