Thursday, December 20, 2007

The Gift of Food: Please Help!

During the holiday season and the cold winter months, please think of those who need help obtaining food, our most basic need. Local food banks have been hurt greatly in the past year due to stalled federal legislation (the Farm Bill). In addition, there has been an increase in need. More people need help putting food on the table, due to the economy and the mortgage crisis. This year is different and consider this a call for help: The food banks are empty!

In New York, the Food Bank for New York City, and City Harvest are excellent charities that supply food banks and soup kitchens for hungry New Yorkers. Other tri-state area charities include: Action Against Hunger in North New Jersey and FoodShares in Connecticut.

You can find a local charity or food bank in your town, or contribute to food drives nationally, through either America's Second Harvest or Share Our Strength. There are even virtual food drives. Find a way to make a difference this holiday season. Don't "almost" give. Give.

Wishing a Happy and Healthy New Year to All!

This blog will take a holiday break and resume in January 2008.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Brooklyn Locavore

While much of the food I buy isn't actually grown in Brooklyn, it's fairly easy for me to get access to great fruits and vegetables grown within a 100 miles or so, as well as grass-fed, organic meat. (Thank you, Food Coop!) The bigger natural food chains of Whole Foods and Trader Joe's as well as the local empire Fairway have finally taken notice of Brooklyn's huge population of food lovers and are offering better food options to locals.

I try to buy local fruits and vegetables whenever I can, preferring that designation over simply "organic." (Though I enjoy the huge privilege of shopping at the Coop, where much of the produce is both.) An organic Red Delicious apple from Washington State shipped to me in Brooklyn tastes terrible, so IMO, what's the point?

There have recently been articles debunking the environmental arguments for buying local, but I think this misses the point. Buying local is not just about saving on carbon-footprints. It's about being connected to your community and having a better connection to the food you eat. When you buy local food, you are more likely to be eating better, fresher meat and produce. That also means that the food is more likely to be in season, and more likely to have been treated with care all along the distribution route.

All this supports the family meal. When everyone enjoys the food and is nourished by it, they are more likely to join in the family meal and look forward to the time together.

Some Articles and Books
Local Locavores: My Empire of Dirt, with video, and another Brooklyn story
Locavore, Get Your Gun (I love the title of this one.)
If it's Fresh and Local, is it Always Green?
My Year in Vegetables: Barbara Kingsolver
Michael Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

From Brooklyn with Love

Living in Brooklyn, honestly, it’s hard not to be a foodie. One of the best things about my city are all the fantastic food options within walking distance or a short subway ride. The riches range from old-time Italian butchers to farmer's markets to newer gourmet take- outs. Plus, there are specialty cheese shops, artisanal bakeries and ethnic grocery stores that offer a wide assortment of foods from all over the world. On weekends, we often take family trips to Chinatown (Manhattan's or Brooklyn's) or Brighton Beach (a Russian immigrant section in Brooklyn) to forage new foods to make into meals.

Some local food blogs I love: Edible Brooklyn, The Food Section, and The Park Slope Food Coop. (OK, I admit it. I belong to the Coop and like it, despite some well-publicized hassles, that are honestly blown-out-of-proportion.)

Though it's now hopelessly out of date, my husband and I found many delicious treats around New York with Ed Levine's New York Eats (More). Will there ever be an update? A Brooklyn edition? The task may be too insurmountable, but one can hope.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Random Thoughts on Food Blogs

When I had the idea for starting this blog, I looked around to see what else was out there. The Food Blog Blog says it lists over 2000(!) sites, so that’s a lot of people writing and reading about food!

Here's some interesting ones I've found.

Cooking With Amy Lots of recipes, writings and musings on good food. She even has some cool contests.

Dinner with Dad His tagline: Can a dad make dinner, or just a mess? Cameron Stracher decides to use family dinner as a way to reconnect with his family. Read more about his story.

Julie and Julia OK, so this is no longer a blog; it was a blog that's now a book. The author decides to attack Julia Child's classic over one year--pretty cool. We still use the family copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking that belonged to my husband's mother. The pages have the original stains on the Beef Bourguignon recipe he remembers eating as a child. He made the recipe last night, in fact. It was a fairly idyllic family project with the older kids helping braise the onions and brown the mushrooms. Not typical, but maybe they'll want to help out with the project the next time too.

The Fanatic Cook is a little intense if you are a "casual" food person, but the site has interesting and in-depth information if you like to delve into the health, science, and politics side of food.

Deb 's Dinner at Home has read some great cookbook recommendations and has some nice stories about making dinner at home, and the balance of modernity and domesticity. She may be on hiatus.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Tip #10, Ten Tips Continued

10. It’s not a battleground; it’s a family table.

Again keep the goal in mind: you want to have enjoyable, consistent family time together around the table, not a nightly battle of wills. No one wants to be a part of that. Avoid hot topics, or using the dinner table as a time to criticize your kids, your partner or to“catch up” with nagging. Let them crow accomplishments or complain about teachers without correction and they will likely want to talk more.

If you have picky eaters and “eating food” is the hot topic, start the family meal plan with favorite foods and avoid talking about the food or counting bites. Serve small portions or have the kids serve themselves. There’s no “clean plate” club. Talk about other stuff, not the food. Once the meal becomes about something other than the food (i.e. it's about being together), it might be easier to introduce some new foods and experiences.

When the topic of the "family dinner table" comes up, many people remember their own family meals as children as being terrible. It can be hard to leave whatever baggage of your own childhood behind, but parenthood can be a great chance to do things differently. Brand your own family meal with the dynamic that suits you, your partner, and your kids. Have fun at your family table!

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Tip #9, Ten Tips Continued

9. Make only one meal—you are not a short-order chef.

It’s not really a family meal if everyone’s eating something different. And it is just too much work to create several meals a night. If you have really picky eaters, try to make a side dish that you know everyone will like. Serving plain pasta with butter on the side is OK; encourage your kid to try to main dish.

I love the blog Make Your Own Damn Dinner, in part because the writer, Badger, made a “selfish” choice that had unintended benefits for her family. In the summer of 2006, Badger decided that she didn’t want to play the short-order cook anymore and that she would make just one dinner for the family, take it or leave it. She decided that her kids (at 8 and 10 years old) were old enough to make themselves something else if they didn’t like what she was making. Read “How it all began” on the sidebar for her funny and inspiring story. Guess what? Dinner became easier and more fun for everyone. She lists loads of quick and easy meals, posting every week or so. For meal ideas and inspiration, and you can scan the links by food under “What’s Cooking?”

Here are more tips on picky eaters, but beware of conflicting advice. Follow you own judgment, but stay committed to reducing your own work load and anxiety around dinner!

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Tip #8, Ten Tips Continued

8. It’s OK to Eat Late.
I call this “European-style” dining. Given work schedules and afterschool commitments, it’s often hard to have dinner at the “normal hour” of 6 pm or even 7 pm. So what? Eat later. If you are eating a real meal together with your family, eating at 8 pm is preferable to not eating together at all.

An important corollary to this rule is that it’s OK for the kids to snack early. Eating late assumes that everyone’s had a healthy snack afterschool and are not completely starving. It also assumes that really little ones (under 3 years old) eat their dinner early and are perhaps even in bed. (No one else in the family is going to enjoy dinner if there’s a toddler in a puddle on the floor.) Balancing reasonable bedtimes and dinner is a challenge, but you can do it.

This is what works most nights in my family: I feed my 2 year old dinner at about 6 pm, then she stays up to see her Dad when he gets home from work at 6:30 pm or 7 pm. She’ll usually go to bed right after that. My husband starts (or finishes) dinner while I finish bedtime. Then we sit down with my older kids, ages 8 and 12, some time between 7:30 and 8 pm, occasionally as late as 8:30 pm. Yes, it’s bedtime for them right after this, but the homework is done (usually) and there’s time to chat.

I spent many years grumbling about late dinners and late bedtimes. But we kept it up because my husband wanted to spend time with the kids at night, and we figured having dinner together was the best way to ensure this. My kids now like to eat late and want to wait until we are all home to eat together, even if one of us has a late meeting. It’s just better when we are together.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Tip #7, Ten Tips Continued

7. The better you eat, the better you’ll feel.

The previous tip aside, the better quality food you can put on the table, the better off you and your family will be. You’ll enjoy it more (which is the main goal in my opinion) and it will be more healthy for you in the long run. Fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, real food, not processed food, are all better for you. You know this, but it can be hard to avoid the siren call of convenience at your supermarket deli case or frozen food aisle. Just make a commitment to improve—that’s the first step. You might be pretty frightened to read what’s in that frozen dinner. Look at the label: the ingredients, and the fat, sugar or calorie content. As Michael Pollan suggests, use the Grandmother rule. If your Grandma would have no idea what that ingredient is, think twice before eating it!

There was a brand of frozen chicken pot pies I used to buy. The packaging evoked home-cooked and the ingredients shown the carton’s photo seemed “real” enough. They tasted good and were pretty easy. One day I looked at the label. That pie had something like 77% of your daily fat allowance per serving and lots of sodium. I never bought one again. Look at the labels, make better food choices, and buy food without labels—fresh fruits and vegetables.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Tip #6, Ten Tips Continued

6. Don’t be afraid to “cheat.”

It’s OK to mix pre-made food with home-cooked food. It’s OK to use convenience foods. If you’ve never cooked a full meal in your life, no one expects you to start making everything from scratch tomorrow. Depending on where you are on the spectrum of making family meals, you can start off in your comfort zone and then try to improve.

Personally, I do make a lot of “home-made” food. It works for me because I think it's healthier, saves money, and just plain tastes better. Also, my husband is a great cook, so I’m not shouldering all the meals, everyday. But I use my share of frozen and convenience foods. I try to balance out our meals, or at least balance the week, using a combination of homemade and convenience foods. If we are short on time or energy, it might be broiled fish and macaroni and cheese for dinner tonight. The next day, I would try something more “ambitious,” but still simple, like sautéed chicken breasts, rice, and fresh broccoli.

There are lots of quick and easy cookbooks out there; ask for one for Christmas or or buy yourself one for Hanukkah (two more nights left!). Mark Bittman's "How to Cook Everything" is a classic.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Tip #5, Ten Tips Continued

5. Make it Fancy. Or Make it Easy.

Boost up your enjoyment of the family meal by crafting it to your own tastes. Create an environment that works for you, making changes based on how much time you have that night. Make the table look nice, adjust the lighting. Or make it easy and use paper plates. Do whatever you can to make it fun for yourself and your family.

Since tonight’s Friday, maybe you or one of your children can take a few extra minutes to put out a tablecloth or candles. Kids love the privilege of using fancy glassware or special plates. If your kids are old enough not to spill or instantaneously break things, put out nice dishes. You don’t have to save your nice stuff only for holidays, use it! If you don't particularly like your tableware, you can get some reasonably-priced plates at Target or CB2. Get something you like and that makes you happy to place on the table. The cost may be less than a take-out meal or two. I recently purchased a rustic Mediterranean-style serving plate that I love. It really makes the food look great and instantly makes everyday dinners seem special.

On the other hand, some families make Friday "take-out" night. Order Chinese or a pizza and watch a family movie or play a game together. That’s a fine tradition too! (If you want to avoid take-out, making your own pizza is also fun.)

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Tip #4, Ten Tips Continued

4. Relax: This is supposed to be fun.

Just remember that the family dinner is supposed to be rewarding for you, your partner and your kids. The process counts, not just the “goal” of getting the food on the table. Some nights I have to try HARD to enjoy the process. So much is going on before dinner; sometimes the homework, hunger, and overall crankiness get the better of us.

I try this: I take a deep breath to relax and ask for help as calmly as I can. I remind myself that the world is not going to end if dinner is 10-15 minutes later than I had hoped. I regroup and wait for reinforcements. For me, that's waiting until my husband gets home to help. For you, it might be that, or it might be waiting until the youngest is in bed, or the oldest/most responsible kid is finished with homework and can really start helping. More tips for stress-busting here and here.

Try to be less focused on when dinner actually gets on the table and pat yourself on the back for aiming to get the family together for a meal. Let go of whatever guilt you might feel about the meal or how it got to the table. Enjoy that moment when all of the craziness subsides and you all come together at the table. Ahhh....

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Tip #3, Ten Tips Continued

3. Enlist Family Help in Making Meals, Setting Menus, Cleaning Up.

Putting dinner on the table every night does take work and it is more do-able for parents if both partners help and the kids chip in. Depending on the age of your kids, they can be enlisted to do many set-up, prep and cleaning tasks. They might think of it as a chore and they might complain, but it builds “investment” in the family table. When you are involved in making the meal, you are more likely to enjoy it and feel proud. Here are more tips on engaging kids of all ages in the kitchen.

My daughter likes setting the table with placemats and candles. We usually only have time for this extra step on weekends, but it’s still fun. My son prefers emptying the dishwasher and though he definitely complains, it’s become a routine chore. For many meals, I am the prep cook and get the vegetables chopped or meat marinated ahead of time. Then my husband comes in and does the actual cooking. Getting some of the work done ahead of time means the meal can get from stove to table in 15 minutes.

A complaint, and generally a true one, is that it takes more time to enlist the kids than it does to just do it yourself. But that's not the point. It's a bad habit to do "everything" yourself. By insisting that they help, you are teaching your kids that their contribution is important. Plus, they get experience with the actual life skills of cooking or cleaning. AND, with practice and as they get older, they will, in fact, start being more helpful. Be patient and believe in them, and they might surprise you. More on this here.

More on Hanukkah: Recipes and Stories from the New York Times archive.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Tip #2, Ten Tips Continued

2. Keep it Simple.

You don’t have to be a master chef to cook dinner for your family. Pasta with bottled sauce and a salad is a perfect family dinner. I find my kids like some of the easiest and quickest meals to make. There are lots of sources for quick and easy weeknight meals. (Just Google "easy dinner" to get a few. Or browse your local bookstore; many of the new cookbook titles are for quick and easy meals.) Develop a few stand-bys and they are liable to become family favorites.

Happy Hanukkah! If you are Jewish, you can remember and celebrate Hanukkah over the next eight nights with your family—and keep it simple, too. My kids love lighting the candles; just getting the candles lit every night is an achievement and it feels like a special event! Remember-- any fried food can do for recounting the story of the oil. We usually go through the labor-intensive process of making potato latkes at least once a season, but we also rely on easy fried foods like French fries or even store-bought doughnuts as Hanukkah treats. We don't give presents every night (at some point that got too overwhelming), but we do try to do something special every night of Hanukkah, often that involves a special food!

Monday, December 3, 2007

Ten Tips for Creating and Fostering the Family Meal

Over the next ten entries, I’ll set out some tips to help make family dinner a reality.
  1. Start Young or Start now.
Making a commitment to having meals together can start when your kids are very young, definitely by preschool age. The good thing about starting young is that it becomes “normal” to eat together, even if mealtime takes 15 minutes. Also, you don't develop the habit of making separate “kid meals” and “adult meals.” It might seem easier to give them what they want, when they want it, but it’s a trap! Having one meal with your young kids also means that they will be more likely to try complicated "adult" foods and not get hooked on only the "white, brown, and yellow" foods that are kid standards. Here are some useful tips for toddlers that are "limited eaters" and some more tips that are applicable to older kids too.

If your kids are older , it may be more the “we’re-all-so-busy” thing that is making family dinners hard. So, look at the family schedule and set a goal of eating together once or twice a week and stick to it. Once you get into a routine, begin to add days as often you can. Family meals feel more like a regular, reliable phenomenon when you get together 4 or 5 times a week. Tips on finding time to schedule family time can be found here and here.