Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Just Cook (Holiday Edition): Sugar Cookie Stress, Is It Worth it?

Tis the Christmas cookie season and I find myself again faced with the sugar cookie dilemma: to make them or not? I have really no luck with sugar cookies. Even though I fancy myself a pretty good cook and a decent baker, I have never done well with sugar cookies. Either I can't get the shapes right, or they get too dark, or the cookies themselves taste so bland. The only decoration I can usually muster is colored sugar, which is pretty boring. They hardly seem worth the effort. Honestly, there are so many lovely, easy cookies to make, "Why, oh why, must we make sugar cookies?" Of course, this cookie dilemma is because my kids WANT sugar cookies. It's like they've been waiting all year to use those cute cookie-cutters and to try yet again to decorate them with  pretty icing or a multitude of fancy toppings. Like it or not, decorated sugar cookies are the classic Christmas cookie.

Baking cookies together is a great family tradition, so I want to make the effort to bake with my kids and to make something fun for them. So I searched the web for some inspiration and found two great Howcast Videos on making and decorating sugar cookies.

Tonight's the last chance for sugar cookies in  my  house if they are to be part of the "Teacher Thank You Gifts" or on Santa's tray. I made some wicked Chocolate Chip Cookies last night (so easy!), so at least there are some baked goods in the pantry for the holiday.  (The NYC Blogger Cookie Swap cookies, including the extras I made of the pecan puffs, are long gone!)

Will my girls forgive me if we skip the sugar cookies this year? Are sugar cookies worth the stress? Any tips out there?

More Christmas Cookie Links:
Martha Stewart Holiday Cookies
The Family Kitchen Christmas Desserts for Kids

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Fighting Obesity without a "Food War"

Obesity is the pathway to a wide range of health maladies we face, including heart disease, diabetes, kidney disease--and the economic malady of high health care costs.  James R. Knickman, Founder and CEO of NYS Health Foundation, The Huffington Post, 12.14.10
As a physician, I am always looking for treatments. But with obesity, the available treatments in no way match the size of the problem. We must find effective ways to prevent obesity.  Jeanne Clark, MD, MPH Johns Hopkins University, School of Medicine, paraphrased from  presentation at Super-Sized World Conference, NYAS, 12.09.10

What can be done about the obesity crisis? First off, we have to recognize that it is a genuine crisis and that the rates of obesity are climbing at alarming rates both here and abroad.  (Childhood obesity rates have more than tripled in the last 30 years!) Part of this recognition must be to eschew the "food wars" sniping that seems to reduce the obesity problem to a question of whether school bake sales should be "outlawed" or not. Homemade cookies, or homemade food of any kind, are not fueling these obesity rates!

Parents and families are perhaps the most important resource in the fight against childhood obesity. Rather than alienating or berating parents, we have to educate them about healthy food and lifestyle choices, being sure to promote fresh food is delicious and just as fun as "fast food." Good food shouldn't be demonized or seen as "punishment" or "medicine." This discussion should be taking place in pediatricians' offices, at PTA meetings, on the playground, and in the workplace. This is not about taking away bake sales or occasional treats; this is about creating a "norm" of what a healthy balanced life looks like and feels like. Of course, I feel like regular family dinner is an important part of what normal healthy eating looks like. Encouraging family dinner is one route to promoting healthy families.

Just as there is no single villain, no single intervention may be enough, be it better school lunches, or a soda tax, or more physical education at school. Many things must come into play in order to really see a difference and reverse this trend in childhood obesity. Family dinner is a good place to start.

Related Reading:
Obesity: We Need an All-out Campaign, James Knickman, 12.14.10

Food, Obesity, and Regulation: Simmering Culture War Boils Over, ABC News, 12.15.10

From the Academic Literature:

Long-term effects of a lifestyle intervention on weight and cardiovascular risk factors in individuals with type 2 diabetes mellitus: four-year results of the Look AHEAD trial. Arch Intern Med. 2010 Sep 27;170(17):1575-7.The best current treatments for obesity include intensive lifestyle coaching, which can have short-term weight reduction. This article is the latest report in a multi-year study. Unfortunately, the treatment group regained weight, on average, in the long-term. 

Monday, December 13, 2010

Cookies, Connections, Change (with Recipe)

Last week was pretty crazy. I started the week off chatting about school lunch reform with folks from the Brooklyn Food Coalition at their holiday party and ended it at the NYC Cookie Fest, swapping cookies with a warm and wonderful group of food bloggers. In between, I listened to academic presentations about the global obesity epidemic at the New York Academy of Sciences, had a phone conversation with the founder of Dinner Together, and met Laurie David, the author of The Family Dinner Cookbook, at her NYC book party. 

What is the connection here? I wanted to reach out to these diverse groups and talk about the importance of family dinner and how it might be connected to their work. Some of the professions of the people I talked with this week included:

Food Magazine Editor
Sociology Professor
Clinical Psychologist
Food Stylist
Emergency Room MD, interested in community health
Pastry Chef
Ivy League Academic
Community Activist
Cookbook Authors (many of these!)

So many different types of people, approaching food or family or health in very different ways, but each could appreciate the family dinner message.  I hope to change the way people think about family dinner from a "nostalgic, nice to have" kind of thing to an important personal and public health resource.

Especially around the holidays, we are thinking about family and traditions, but moreover, we are trying to make or deepen our connections. I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to meet and connect to so many interesting people this week and hope that these connections will help further the dialogue and support of family dinner.

I wish I had a simple recipe for change, but here's a good cookie recipe, nonetheless. I asked my good friend (a great YA author also known as a bake sale queen) for a no-fail recipe that wouldn't embarrass me in front of the food bloggers.* This recipe was it! Pretty easy and since three other people made them, an obvious favorite. I added my own twist with the bourbon glaze.

* Having not meet them yet, I didn't know how nice everyone would be! Thanks again to Chris & Karen (@thepeche), Gail (@onetoughcookie), Abby (@abbydodge) and Maggy (@threemanycooks) for organizing!

Pecan Buff Balls (with optional Bourbon glaze) 
Adapted from The Joy of Cooking
Makes about 40 1.5 inch balls, double the recipe because they go fast!

Oven 300 degrees.

Beat until soft 1 stick unsalted butter.
Add and blend until creamy 2 Tablespoons sugar
Add 1 teaspoon vanilla
Measure, then grind 1 cup pecans
Sift then measure 1 cup. Cake flour

Stir pecans and flour into butter. Roll dough into small balls. Place on greased cookie sheet and bake about 30 min. Roll while hot in confectioner's sugar.

Put back in oven for a minute to glaze. Cool and serve.

Optional Bourbon Glaze: 
1/2 cup of confectioner's sugar
1-2 Tablespoons Bourbon
1-2 Tablespoons Hot Water (if needed)
Mix bourbon with sugar until mixture is a glaze consistency. Add a little water to thin, if needed. Drizzle glaze onto cooled cookies, re-roll in confectioner's sugar.

NYC CookieFest 2010 Links
New York Cookie Swap, 12.13.10, Maggy of Three Many Cooks
Cookies, Cookies, and More Cookies!, 12.12.10, The Adirondack Chick
{Sweet Treats} NYC CookieFest 12.13.10, High/Low, Food/Drink

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Fight Childhood Obesity? School Lunch Reform AND Family Dinner

Childhood obesity must be addressed on many fronts; I believe that family dinner is one of them. Tomorrow I'm attending a conference at the New York Academy of Sciences called Super-Sized World, and I'm looking forward to learning more about latest research and policy initiatives to combat the worldwide obesity epidemic.

Recently, U.S. school lunch reform has been one of the big topics in the food community and there is great hope that can help address obesity in school children. I am a big proponent of school lunch reform, and I am thrilled that CNR finally passed last week. It is great to have a little more money in the budget and a little more direction on nutrition in the hope of providing healthy meals to kids. School lunch and breakfast programs are essential, but healthy meals belong at home too.

If you are really going to fight childhood obesity and improve nutrition, you must engage parents and support family meals at home. I was recently interviewed for a magazine that is directed to Title I school administrators. (Title I* is a designation for schools with a high percentage of students from very low income families and these schools receive extra federal funding through the  Title 1 program). The theme of the article was parent engagement and how to encourage families to have dinner together. The research is clear: students who have dinner with their families are more likely to get As and Bs at school, and better grades are related to less drug and alcohol use, less truancy and behavioral problems. So, family dinner (at home) is actually something that school administrators, and policymakers, should care about.

This is one reason why the effort to cut food stamps in order to pay for school lunch was so infuriating. If anything, low income families need more support in order to be able to purchase and serve healthy food to their families. Family dinner is not a middle class value, and I believe that it is a key intervention to help ground families and their children (those Title I students) and help them succeed. There's research backing that up, too.

While you can't "legislate" family dinner, and that is not at all what I'm suggesting, I do think that social, economic, and policy supports matter as people make choices that affect their health. So let's keep up the pressure to improve school food without losing sight that family meals at home matter too.

Childhood Obesity Resources:
RWJF Center to Prevent Childhood Obesity If you work on this issue, join the Network!
Yale Rudd Center for Policy Policy and Obesity
House Passes Child Nutrition Legislation: Cause for Celebration or Concern? One Hungry Mama on The Family Kitchen Blog, 12.2.10

*Full disclosure: Two of my children go to Title I schools. In New York City, there are top performing schools that have very low income kids; that's the facts. My high school student goes to Brooklyn Technical High School which you have to test into by scoring well on a highly competitive test.  I do lunch duty at my youngest child's school and believe it or not, they serve a pretty healthy lunch. But no one should confuse these chaotic lunchrooms, regardless of what food is served, for the type of connection that you can establish around family meals at home.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Friday Fan Club: Hanukkah (and Holiday) Traditions

With it's early start date this year (Dec. 1st!), Hanukkah definitely snuck up on me and I am scrambling to dream up of eight nights of fried food or other fun to celebrate the Great Miracle. Although latkes are the traditional Hanukkah food, technically you are remembering the "oil," so any food either fried in oil or featuring oil can be celebratory. Newfangled takes on Hanukkah food include Olive Oil cakes, Wild Arugula Salad, and Lemon-Infused Raspberry Jam Donuts (Sufganiyot). Last night, we tried our own new recipe: fried plantains with a fruit and cilantro salsa. Delicious!

Many Jewish holidays are centered around ceremonial foods, which I think is one of the main reasons the traditions keep getting passed on. Everyone wants to have Bubbe's special recipe at least once a year, or learn how to craft it themselves. As Joan Nathan wrote recently, in an effort to stay connected, some families Fed-Ex honey cake or chicken soup to grandchildren. The holidays remind us what is important: food, family, and tradition. As One Hungry Mama (one of my favorite food bloggers) notes,
This is what food is about. History, connection, family, friends (old and new) and celebrating our similarities and differences. The miracles of life... During this time of year, food takes its rightful place in our life: right smack dab in the center. Conjuring memories, creating new ones and bringing us together. One Hungry Mama, 12.01.10
Even my oldest child, at only 15, is waxing nostalgic for things past this holiday season. Last night, my husband was wondering if he could wrangle our friend into coming over to make his famous latkes this year, and absent himself from latke duty. My son would have none of it. "But you make the best latkes, Dad!!!" So newfangled recipes be damned, I guess we have to schedule our own latke-fest into the busy weekend.  Wouldn't have it any other way, really.

Hanukkah Latkes with Jeniifer of Prefectly Disheveled and lovely musings on holiday foods, One Hungry Mama 12.01.10
Sweet and Light, New recipes for Hanukkah, Melissa Petitto, Tablet Magazine, 12.1.10 
Family Ties: football, food and the importance of tradition, Joan Nathan, Tablet Magazine, 11.18.10

Monday, November 29, 2010

Post-Thanksgiving family dinner blues

A new study, released just in time for Thanksgiving, shows that 89% of American families have dinner together on Thanksgiving. The catch is that just half of the families surveyed eat dinner together regularly. One in six families (14%) never ate family dinner together! This is not shocking news, but it does show that we are willing to take great lengths for a once-a-year tradition, but not commit to a daily routine of eating dinner together. is all about promoting family dinner on a regular basis, not just special occasions.

So how can you transform warm feelings of Thanksgiving through this week, and the next, and the next?

The first step is making a commitment to family dinner. The next steps include identifying your personal roadblocks to family dinner and figuring out how to fix them.

Are you a single or divorced parent, or one partner can't be home consistently at dinner time? 
Make family dinner with the kids anyway. Family dinner can happen if all the people who are at home are sitting together and eating, ideally the same meal with the TV off. Acting like a short-order chef for the kids doesn't count. You have to sit down and eat too.

Are you unsure of your cooking skills? 
Cooking skills will last a lifetime and are worth an investment in time. Start with a basic cookbook and a good attitude. (Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything is super easy and supplies all the basics. He even has an phone app and a weekly newsletter with recipes). Don't expect yourself to be an overnight gourmet chef, just keep working and practicing. You would be surprised how kids like and remember the simplest meals.

There's just no room in the schedule!
Schedule in dinner like it's an appointment, at least a few nights a week. Dinner with your family is just as important as soccer practice and PTA meetings. Eat dinner late if you have to. Talk to your boss, the coach or your child's teacher if you have to make special arrangements. Develop meals that can be made in minutes, quickly defrosted or served from a crockpot.

One final thought: think of family dinner as your own food revolution.
What's the best way to start a food revolution in your own home? Learn to cook.
Jamie Oliver via Family Bites blog
 Just a few ideas to help make family dinner a reality. Any other ideas to add? Feel free to comment.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Thanksgiving Thoughts to Last Through the Year

The day before Thanksgiving and everyone is deep in the hustle and bustle of preparing for the big traditional meal or hitting the roads to travel far and wide to get to the family table. Special event dinners like Thanksgiving are a wonderful way to be connected to family and friends, but you can have that sense of connectedness throughout the year with regular family dinners. The act of sitting around the table itself may foster more gratitude among family members. According to new research by psychologists, being thankful can have positive influences on the lives of children and adults, mirroring many of the benefits of family dinner.

Just think of banking a fraction of the energy you spend on Thanksgiving to share toward regular family meals. I hope that warm thoughts of Thanksgiving can spur new resolutions to make family dinner a routine part of your life.

On that note, I am honored and grateful that was mentioned in Jennifer's Grant recent column in The Chicago Tribune. Happy Thanksgiving from!

The importance of dinner together -- not just at Thanksgiving, but everyday Chicago Tribune, Jennifer Grant, 11.23.10

Thank you. No thank you. Grateful People are Happier, Healthier Long After the Leftovers are Gobbled Up by Melinda Beck, Wall Street Journal Online, 11.23.10

Monday, November 22, 2010

Thoughts on Thanksgiving with Recipe Round-up

Everyone in the food blogger community, and in America probably, is gearing up for Thanksgiving feasts on Thursday. (I listed a recipe round-up from some favorite bloggers below). We are all collectively making elaborate menus, trading secrets to good pastry making techniques and doing extra food shopping, whether we have an eye on the budget or are thinking of splurging. If you are not cooking at home, you might bracing yourself for extensive travel and all those hassles. All the effort and expense usually seems worth it as you reconnect with family and friends and enjoy a meal together on the big day.

Thanksgiving dinner seems to be the "Hallmark" holiday for family dinner and I love the Thanksgiving holiday. Yet, Thanksgiving dinner extravaganzas are not really the "family dinners" I promote on this blog. Family dinner is a normal, day-to-day routine that can be extraordinary, but often is not. Sometimes dinners, especially those on the weekend, can be great fun with special games or favorite foods all around. More often, weeknight dinner is a "get-er-done" type situation where dinner is cooked in 20 minutes and eaten in less becuase there is homework or bedtime to be done. This kind of family dinner is still worth doing, and celebrating, becuase it provides a rock solid foundation for your family. This ordinary kind of family dinner provides a way to check-in with your kids and partner, a time to talk about problems that may arise, and a time to hear the good stuff about everyone's day. It also sends a message that family time is important enough to schedule in everyday, and that you, as my child, are important enough to check in with everyday. Powerful stuff made possible over an everyday dinner table.

Thanksgiving is important not just because of the great food and the family reunions, but because it is a holiday that allows us to step back and be grateful for whatever we have. Continue that feeling throughout the year with regular family dinners.

Best Thanksgiving Recipes and Tips from the Blogs:
Vino Lucci's Thanksgiving Favorites
Dinner: A Love Story's Thanksgiving Roll-out look for several great recipes by clicking related stories
6 Holiday Pumpkin Recipes from Babble's Family Kitchen
Epicurious Complete Thanksgiving Guide with Videos, Recipes, Menus
Centerpieces Without the Turkey and more vegetarian dishes from the NYT Well Blog
The Food Lab's Guide to Thanksgiving Day Planning via Serious Eats
Thanksgiving Sides from Food 52

Got a favorite not listed? Feel free to add in comments. (You can add your own blog too!)

Friday, November 19, 2010

Friday Family Dinner Fan Club: Happy Anniversary,!

I just realized that my blog's anniversary is coming up, so I'm giving myself "Friday Fan Club"! I have been writing about and promoting family dinner on for three years this Thanksgiving (my first blog post here). Just like when your babies get older, it's hard to imagine where the time has gone. Looking back, there have been some bumps in the road, but I'm proud to say that my goals have pretty much stayed the same: to promote family dinner by posting practical ideas, research, and resources for parents.

In May 2010, I rededicated myself to the cause of family dinner and, in recent months, have happily found a community of like-minded bloggers and tweeple on twitter (@eatdinner). The family dinner meme finally seems to be catching a buzz, thanks most recently to Laurie David's new book The Family Dinner Cookbook. This year has also shown that some companies in the corporate food world can responsibly support family dinner. Some examples include Stouffer's Let's Fix Dinner campaign partnership with CASA (my post here) and the Smuckers' The Power of Family Meals website that features Miriam Weinstein, who wrote  the "bible" of family dinner, The Surprising Power of Family Meals (my Friday Fan post here). Barilla also has lots of family dinner resources under its Share the Table website. Offline, I recently meet with Time at the Table, a new organization that is promoting family dinner, and we hope to collaborate as our organizations move forward.

Part of my mission is to promote great ideas that can help families commit to family dinner. So if you write a blog or books, do research, or publicize in the media on the wide-range of issues that can relate to family health and family dinner, please contact me in the comments or grace [at] eatdinner [dot] org.

Let's think about how we can all work together to promote family dinner as good for each family and as a broad social good, too.

PS For my anniversary, please "like" this page or share the link with a friend! Many thanks!

Monday, November 15, 2010

Family Dinner Tips and Tricks: Crowdsourced from The Motherhood

Laurie David's new book: The Family Dinner Cookbook is winning raves and garnering a lot of media buzz; all this is terrific attention to the issue of family dinner. She and many mommy bloggers chatted on The Motherhood today and the love for family dinner was fast and furious! I'm posting a round-up of some collective wisdom, adding a few tips of my own.
"If you can muster the energy for only one tool to raising a healthy family, make it having family dinner."   Tom Hanks, actor/producer, promoting Laurie David's The Family Dinner Cookbook.
As a proponent of family dinner, I couldn't agree more. But so many parents ask, "How can I do it?!" I think the key ingredients to family dinner success are desire and commitment. First and foremost, you have to want to do this for yourself and your family and be committed to making it happen. All the rest is planning, organization, and not a small amount of grunt work. Cooking, serving, enjoying the meals with your family can be great fun, but the proof of family dinner is in the day-to-day routine even on not so special days. Blogs, cookbooks, cooking shows all offer inspiration and a little fun as you travel the sometimes bumpy road of family dinner. As today's online chat on The Motherhood demonstrates, it helps to feel the love and support of a community that believes in family dinner.

Some Family Dinner Tips (more from past posts here)

1. Everyone chips in. Family dinner does not have to be a "mom-led" thing. Adults can share cooking duties, even if one is a "better" cook, and kids can help too. Let go of expectations and just get everyone involved. Older kids can cook meals (it's a great life skill!),  and younger ones can "help" or at least set the table or clear plates.

2. Menu planning: saves time, money and stress: Since being "too busy" is the number one reason families struggle with making dinner routine, menu planning can really help make family dinner happen. When you know what you are making each night, the prep and cooking can go on auto-pilot. Plus, you can balance out meals (meat one night, meatless the next), effectively use left-overs or grocery specials, and be sure to include kid and parent favorites in the rotation.

3. Have go-to recipes and staples on hand to create them. Jennie at Dinner: A Love Story refers to these as "back-pocket" recipes: something you know so well you can whip it up with little thought or preparation. In our house, I can throw together a left-over pasta dish and my husband makes a mean fried rice out of fridge forage. Both are faster than take-out. It's an essential skill when something got to get on the table.

4. Be flexible with timing, but not about dinner. Everyone eats the same dinner and eats around the table with no phones and no TV. If my kids come home from sports practice hungry (and of course they do), I left them snack. But they still eat dinner at the table when dinner comes, even if it's just few bites. If one of us works late or has an evening meeting, there is still dinner time at the table. Dinner might be late or early that night, but whoever is home sits down and eats.

5. It's supposed to be fun and a time to talk, but not to nag or air grievances.  Family dinner is a block of time is to connect, to enjoy the food, and to hear stories of the day. Not the time to nag about HW or go over old arguments. The Family Dinner Cookbook has many fun suggestions to spark dinner conversations if you need inspiration.

6. Family dinner is about more than the food. Conversations, connections, family folklore, politics, table manners, values, appreciation of family life: all this is what family dinner is really all about.

My dear hope is for more families to realize that family dinner is an essential and important part of life. Family dinner helps you get the most out of your family life (right now!) as well as give a solid foundation to your children's futures.

The Motherhood Chat Thread on Family Dinner, 11/15/2010

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Just Cook: YouBChef, Getting Your Cooking Groove On

In promoting family dinner, I often think about what stands in the way of families coming together for meals. One thing is cooking skill; many people lament that they just can't cook. But I think it's not just cooking skill, it's cooking confidence. In our society, we have both quickie, fast-food-style convenience foods on one hand and a "foodie" cultural of exotic ingredients and elaborate presentations a'la the Food Network on the other. Both extremes can undermine a person's mojo in the kitchen. Basic home-cooking falls somewhere in between and is rewarding and delicious in its own right.  Don't let high expectations of camera-ready masterpieces from lush cookbooks or food blogs  get you down; learn from them and be inspired. Coming up with delicious, quick-and-easy meals is an important skill and takes practice.

A friend, and supporter of family dinner, came up with an idea to videotape real people, cooking real meals to promote a concept: YouBChef. You don't have to be a TV star chef to cook for yourself and you family. You are the chef, you can do it. (More videos are under the YouTube channel YouBChef). Here are some folks that are muddling along just like you. Be inspired and just cook. As they say, a few eggs may get broken along the way, but it's all part of learning in the kitchen and at the table.

Jill on YouBChef, Broccoli Rabe Crostini

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Spread Vegetable Love: Eat Veggies Plain or with "the Flavor"

How to get kids, and their parents, to eat vegetables: that's been a topic of much debate in the blogosphere lately. Jane Brody of the NYTimes recently wrote a lament that basically argued that people should know what's good for them and take their vegetable medicine. Many in the foodie blog community (Daniel Koontz of Causal KitchenJolly Tomato), as well as over 600 NYT readers, called her on it, stating "Can we please stop calling vegetables bad and rejoice in them?" In another thread, One Hungry Mama called for straight up vegetable love rather than teaching parents that veggies must be "sneaked' into cooking in order to be consumed by kids. I agree; we need more vegetable love.

Vegetables are delicious. Period. True, vegetables may require a bit more cooking skill and adults may have to open their minds a bit to get over old habits. If your working memory of vegetables runs something like spinach=canned or stringy frozen=punishment, go get yourself some fresh spinach, wash it well, and lightly steam. It is a totally different experience. True, organic and fresh food can be expensive, but getting sick is expensive too. Healthy food helps you and your family stay healthy. True, many kids balk at vegetables. But just remember that kids may have to be exposed to lots of veggies, lots of times (like 10+) in order to love them. There are easy ways to make kid-friendly, great-tasting vegetables and serve them from infancy onward.

My older kids love vegetables. Maybe they are "weird" or maybe it's because they have eaten them from baby-hood. (I used a blender to make babyfood or the Happy Baby Food Mill to crunch up everything right at the table.) My youngest, though I hate to admit it, is the picky one. She takes a lot of coaxing on vegetables, just like everything else. We call the bok choy "baby boy choy" even if it's not. We just give her the more tender leaves of a Chinese vegetable, not the stems. We let her open up the green beans and just eat the tiny little "pea" inside, tossing the rest away. After all the coaxing, there's a lot of ignoring. She often loudly declares that she doesn't like it, or worse, throws the offending thing off her plate. We firmly say "That's not allowed," and go into the "ignoring" portion of the dinner. We basically say you can eat it or not, but you can't be rude. And every night, we keep offerring her whatever vegetable we have on the table and steel ourselves for her discontent.

She is now 5 years old and this vegetable battle has been going on for maybe 2 or 3 years now. It can be wearing. But we do have some triumphs to report. She will now ask for salad (likes the carrot shreds and the tomatoes, sometimes the lettuce), she loves edamame, and she regularly eats broccoli, spinach, and the baby leaves from many Chinese vegetables. Her favorite dish is "Broccoli with the Flavor." Not just her favorite vegetable dish, her favorite thing to eat, period. My husband devised this stir-fry method, which my dear daughter dubbed "Broccoli with the Flavor." When I asked him to walk me through the steps of the recipe, he warned,"This is a seriously complicated way to make broccoli." But she loves it and your kids might too.

Broccoli with the Flavor
1 Head of Broccoli, sliced into florets, retaining some stem
2 Tablespoons Canola Oil
2 cloves of garlic, sliced thinly or minced
1 teaspoon of soy sauce

Parboil broccoli: Cook in boiling water for 3 minutes. Promptly remove and run under cold water, spin dry in a lettuce spinner, if you have one. Otherwise, pat with paper towels to remove excess water.

Stir-Fry: Heat wok or saute pan until hot. Add canola oil and quickly saute garlic for 10 seconds, careful not to burn it. Toss in dried broccoli, scraping up the bottom to mix garlic, oil and vegetable. Cook this way for maybe 1 minute. Lower heat and add soy sauce. Toss for another 30 to 1 minute and serve.
PS: If I'm cooking, I just steam up the broccoli (try not to overcook!) and toss with a little butter, salt and pepper. She'll ate that too.

Spread Veggie Love!

Links to Veggie Debate and Resources for Cooking Veggies for Kids:

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Sharing Stories about Family Dinner

One of the initiatives I'm working on at is to collect personal stories about family dinner. Whenever I mention that I work on family dinner, I get wonderful feedback about what a difference family dinner makes. (I also get knee-jerk guilty apologies, which are totally unnecessary!)  Sometimes the driving force behind family dinner is a health problem, such as the child has a food allergy or the father was diagnosed with high cholesterol. Sometimes one or both parents just believe in it and jump through all the necessary hoops to make it happen, several nights a week. Always I hear that it is worth the effort in terms of staying connected with your partner and you kids,

Much of public health research is all about the numbers:
  • How many calories are consumed with an average school lunch?  What are proportions of fat, sodium etc?
  • How many people are obese? 
  • What is the percentage of kids who have tried drugs or alcohol, and at what age?
But narrative stories are important too and can be studied systematically. Qualitative research can often lend the interesting details and point out true themes and rationales behind health choices that the statistics miss.
  • Are people eating family dinner more because of the recession?
A statistic may tell you yes or no, but only narrative stories can tell us what family are getting out of eating dinner together more often and whether it is a temporary solution or potentially a more long-lasting trend. The stories may help us understand what exactly it is about family dinner (or breakfast or lunch, for that matter) that provides the protective glue within a family.

Over the next few weeks, I'll be developing a structured interview to share family dinner stories. I hope you'll add your voice to help us create a rich narrative of family dinner. In the meantime, please visit the Facebook page (Like us!) and add your thoughts under the Discussion section. Or feel free to add in the comments below. Thank you!

Friday, October 22, 2010

Friday Fan Club: Truth, Integrity, Blogging

Several bloggers I follow have been throwing down the "T" word: Truth. What's Cooking wrote a compelling post about how to speak the truth, have integrity and still get your message across in a positive way.  The Yummy Mummy publicly offered her book proposal in order to help herself and others to squelch those inner doubts and to come out with your story, your way. And this month Integrity is getting big play, with the Twitterwaves buzzing about the HFCS and Iowa Corn Tour Debate and whether or what bloggers should get paid for product reviews, what are rules for disclosure, etc. (PhD in Parenting, Mom 101, and Spain in Iowa).

Truth in storytelling is something I struggle with as I write about family dinner, although the sponsorship debate* hasn't come up for me (yet!). I wonder how to balance an optimistic and forward-looking message without seeming like a Pollyanna.  I wonder just how much of my own life to share and how much to keep it strictly to the "business" of family dinner research.

Specifically I think about,
  • How to present research and sound advice to parents without being judgmental. 
  • How to sing the praises of family dinner and better nutrition for you and your kids while acknowledging the hard facts that it can be a struggle, night after night. 
  • How to get policymakers and researchers to consider family dinner as a health promotion effort worth taking seriously.
My goal is to present family dinner research and information in a compelling way, and I know personal stories are one of the best ways to do it. I'm willing to share, but don't want it to be just about me and my family. Many of us are working on similar goals and I would love us to join in conversation (Foodie Patootie Jolly Tomato, Feed Our Families Blog). I'd really like to collect the personal stories of other people, document the struggles we all face, and collect tips and advice from parents in the trenches.

Will you  help me do that? Add a story or link to the comments section or just email me with your ideas or support. Thanks!

*For the record, Stouffer's and ConAgra have NOT come calling. In fact, Stouffer's blocked my comments even though I was far from critical of their Let's Fix Dinner campaign. It should be noted that they partnered with the respected CASA research group for the promotion who must have reined them in, er guided them, a bit.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Just Cook: Knife Skills for Parent and Child

This week I came across a couple of videos about basic knife skills that I hope will offer inspiration: one for parent, one for child.

Having family dinner can be sabotaged by many things, but two persistent threats are cooking skills of the parent and attention spans of the kids. Many parents feel unable to cook and then feel overwhelmed by the daily process of making a home meal. But like any skill, cooking skills can be developed slowly and surely over time with great reward. Jamie Oliver has a great series of videos related to his new book 30 minute meals that can help round out your basic cooking skills. This one's on knife use.

Getting kids involved in the kitchen at the end of a long day can be a harder trick, but a useful one becuase they are engaged, learning and helping out. Kids do want to help out in the kitchen, but it often just adds to a parent's sense of stress. To relax and get them involved, it helps to have a few tricks to engage your child safely in the kitchen. I sometimes have my youngest put already-chopped vegetables into little bowls for a simplified mise en place or have her measure out the ingredients for simple sauces and stir. As she gets older, I may be inspired by J.M. Hirsch's book and video High Flavor, Low Labor to move her up to knife skills!

Thanks for the video tips from The Lunch Tray and from my tweep @FoodiePatootie.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Family Dinner Beneficial to Low Income Urban Youth

Research: This study followed a large sample of urban, racially-diverse youth from low-income families from middle school age to the beginning of high school (3.5 years on average, n=4,750) and found that kid's perceptions of parent-child communication and frequency of family dinner was positively associated. That is, the more these kids ate family dinners together, the more likely they were to view their ability to communicate with parents in a positive light.

Although the frequency of family dinners declined as the kids got older, the study suggests that teens can benefit from family dinner and that eating family dinner at middle school age has enduring positive effects, at least 2 years later. Journal of Family Psychology June 2010

Reality: The positive effects of family dinner are NOT just a middle class phenomenon. It is never too late to start family dinner, but it seems important to set a routine by the time your kids are in middle school. Teens will not be as available for family dinner, due to their independence and other time commitments, as are younger children, but having family dinner as a regular option is beneficial to them as well.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Mothers and Meals: Attitude Makes a Difference

Research finding: Mom's attitude towards family dinner makes a difference. When mothers care about family meals, and take time to plan, shop and prepare for them, older kids and teens care about family meals too and are more likely to participate. Appetite, Sept 2010

Reality Check: Mom can set the priority, but she doesn't have to do all the work. Get Dad involved in the cooking or shopping and get the kids to help prep, cook, or clean up.

A common negative attitude was the time pressure associated with making family meals. More planning and organization can help ease this pressure and make family meals easier to accomplish. Easier said than done, of course (!), but try weekly menu planning so that nightly dinner is a less of a scramble.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Strength of Family Ties: Results from CASA Family Dinner Study 2010

Teens want to eat dinner with their families and family dinner strengthens ties among parents and teens, according to CASA's most recent study. All this makes sense: family dinner gives us the time and space as parents to connect to our kids and listen to them. It helps to have family time be something teens can "count on" rather than a random event. As much as teens want "their own lives," they both need and want to be connected. Family dinner is a way to do it, and it's never too late to start!

Here are some key findings from CASA's national adolescent survey.
  • 60% of teens have dinner with their family 5  or more times a week. This statistic has been steady from most of the past decade.
  • 75% of teens talk to their parents at dinner about their lives.
  • 80% of parents agree that dinner helps them learn more about their teen's life.
  • Teens who frequently have dinner with their families (5 or more nights a week) are twice as likely to talk to their parents about their lives than are teens who infrequently have dinner with family (2 or less nights a week).
  • Most teens (60%) want to have dinner with their families more often.
  • 72% of teens think family dinner is important.
  • Kids who frequently have dinner with their parents are less likely to use drugs, smoke, or drink alcohol. Of these kids, 70% reply that one reason is that they know their parents would be upset.

Family Dinner Contributes to the Strength of Family Ties. This year CASA added a new dimension to the survey to measure the strength of family ties and how that was related to illegal drug and alcohol use among teens. Stronger family ties resulted in less likelihood to use drugs, alcohol, or tobacco. Family dinner contributed to stronger family ties independently and by influencing two other component of the scale, as noted below.
  • Teens who had frequent family dinners were 3x more likely to report an excellent relationship with both mom and dad. 
  • Teens who had frequent family dinners were 2x more likely to report that their parents were good at listening to them.

Source: CASA, The Importance of Family Dinners, IV, September 2010. Full Report available by pdf.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Translating Family Dinner Research into Action

One of the things that I aspire to do with my work on this eatdinner blog/twitter/facebook page is to help translate research on family dinner into action. The statistics on the benefits of family dinner shouldn't just be empty slogans or exhortations of guilt directed toward busy families. The personal benefits of family dinner for you and your kids are important, but from a public health perspective, the societal benefits are even greater. Less kids doing drugs and drinking, more kids doing well in school, less childhood obesity: these positive outcomes affect the whole community and the whole country.

I know from experience that the academic research community puts a lot of effort into studying problems and identifying determinants of health, but often gives short shrift to actually developing and implementing solutions.  I just read a recent literature review in the Journal of American Dietetic Association that found that only a quarter of the studies on Weight Loss Management had any mention of real-world adoption or maintenance of the weight-loss strategies studied. The authors concluded that it was unknown what popular strategies could actually work becuase real-world adoption was not effectively considered. If you are not thinking about real-world adoption, especially in an area like weight-loss, why study these strategies at all?

Many research studies that mention family dinner end with a statement like "Family dinner is important and this message should be shared with the public." Gee, thanks. Can we get a little more detail please? I think the research community should go to the next level. The identification of key elements of family dinner success and the persistent barriers to family meal times would be a good start. There is also important work to be done assessing how public information and education on family dinner should be tailored regionally or by socioeconomic or cultural group.

Perhaps it's only fair to expect community-based organizations or policymakers to take up where the researchers have left off. CASA, a national research center, has done an amazing job with their annual Family Day campaign and getting key statistics out to the media. But one day is not enough; family dinners require a concerted commitment and attention throughout the year.

The best support for family dinner at this point has been from the social community of the Internet, with blog/twitter/facebook commentators weighing in on everything from menu planning to easy weeknight recipes to parenting support. To Malcolm Gladwell, I say, don't undestimate the power of weak ties and social networks. Spreading information and collaboration can do more than you think to change the world, though it may not be as dramatic as sit-ins during the civil rights movement.

Let's use the power of this social network to collaborate and learn from each other. What ideas do you have to help families make the commitment to family dinner?

Friday, September 24, 2010

Family Dinner Day 2010: Celebrate, Move Forward

Plan to have dinner with your family this Monday, September 27, 2010 as part of CASA's National Family Dinner Day. I know this is preaching to the choir, because many readers and followers are having dinner with their families (almost) every night anyway. Still, take a moment to reflect on why family dinner is important to you and to pat yourself on the back for making the effort for yourself and your family. Then, think about what we can do to promote family dinner more widely.

The media laments that "no one" eats dinner together anymore and that our busy lives are to blame. There are periodic news stories or articles that run down the statistics on why it is important for kids and their families to have meals together and gloss over the various barriers to family dinner: technology, work schedules, sports schedules, commuting, to name a few. Yet, those who actually have dinner with their families can feel isolated, as if modern busy families are all too focused on other tasks to bother with the routine of family dinner.

I have had many people thank me for working on this issue, for publicly supporting family dinner as important. I almost feel like "family dinner" is in the closet. The people who have family dinner are loathe to talk about it, feeling perhaps like they represent some throw-back, traditional family or that they would be "bragging" to admit this special feat.  Then families who aren't able to swing dinner together very often, for whatever reason, may feel guilty or defensive that they aren't meeting some "family dinner standard." So they don't want to talk about it either.

These little demons cut both ways:
"Gosh, you must have such a boring, un-busy life if you can manage family dinner every night. Do you wear an apron too?"
"Do you realize that not having dinner every night with your kids will doom them to failure for life?! Little Johnny will probably be doing drugs by the time he is 10. Are you ready to live with that?"
"Only well-off, upper middle classes families can afford the time and money it takes to put family dinner together."
"Only low-income immigrant families eat dinner together."
"My kids need sports and afterschool activities to be healthy and competitive in high school and college. These things are good for them; how can they possibly do both?"
Guilt, as the new age gurus say, is a useless emotion, though one that I, as a lapsed Catholic who married a Jew, know a lot about. Family dinner is not about guilt; it's not even about doing what's right for your kids, although that is a happy side bonus. I think it's what's right for mom and dad too as part of building a family life. My motto is: try family dinner, make it a priority, give it a chance. Talk about it, share stories and support and recipes with other families. Family dinner norms for 2010 are not a "Norman Rockwell" scene, but something quite different. It's about finding that happy medium of "busy, yet got your priorities straight," a balance that seems so hard to manage for parents today.

The bottom line is: Many families are not eating dinner together and we need to decipher why not. There are obvious reasons: families are busy and crunched for time and money. But like the obesity paradox, where low income families who do not have enough food are also likely to be obese rather than stick-thin, I think there is more to it than that. From a public health perspective, more can and should be done to influence, support, and encourage families at all income levels to make the effort to create healthy family dinner traditions. So promote National Family Dinner Day (09.27.10), live what you preach and spread the message. 

Friday, September 17, 2010

Friday Fan Club: School Lunch Reform

Back to school is on my mind as are all the issues around feeding our families breakfast, lunch and dinner. So this post is a shout-out to some of the bloggers, twitter mavens, and policy wonks who are advocating for real change in the lunch room.

School lunch is a personal issue for me now as my youngest started Kindergarten at a large public school this week.  I'm packing her lunch, in a special new lunch box, just like I did for her in pre-K. Much to my chagrin, lunch is turning out to be her least favorite part of the day. The food isn't the issue; it's the same heart-shaped jelly sandwiches or cheese sticks and veggies. The problem is the loud, chaotic nature of being in a big cafeteria, with literally hundreds of kids doing lots of things that might not be eating. It's hard to celebrate and enjoy lunch when you are hunkered down. It makes me think a bit about how environment affects how much and how well kids are eating in the school cafeteria. That hotly-debated chocolate milk is perhaps a comfort food, for reasons beyond sugar.

Most school lunch reformers are trying to change the larger system and improve the food that's presented to all kids as they pass their cafeteria trays through the line. For families that can't pack lunch from home, schools should be able to provide good food. School lunch reform advocates have been making progress locally, with fresh ideas like salad bars and farm-to-school collaborations. Nationally, there is a big push for more money and improved guidelines in the Child Nutrition Reauthorization (CNR). Recess and outdoor play, either after or before lunch, is another important piece of keeping kids healthy and ready to learn during school time. It's great that these issues are finally getting attention and action.

For my own child, I hope I can use her little lunch box as a token of home amid the confusion of "big-kid" school. To be sure, planning and packing healthy from-home lunches everyday is a hassle and it adds to the daily morning juggle. But, like family dinner, I think it's worth it. When a friend asked if I was packing lunch, I expected her to remark on the poor quality of institutional school lunch. Instead, she said, "Food from home can be such a comfort." Words of wisdom.

School Lunch Reformers (and Moms/Dads who pack great lunches!) that I Follow
(Please add to this list in comment section!)
Fed Up With Lunch
One Hungry Mama Back to School Lunch Post
The Lunch Tray 
Healthy Schools Campaign
Time For Lunch Slow Food USA
Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution
The Lunch Box
What's Cooking Blog
Brooklyn Food Coalition School Reform Group
Bento Lunch
Today I Ate a Rainbow
Jolly Tomato

Monday, September 13, 2010

Back to School, Back to the Table

Rosh Hashanah Round Challah
Today's our family's first "real" back to school day and our first full week of routines, homework and afterschool classes are ahead. The first official day of school was Wednesday, but that was almost like an orientation day. Several days off for the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah seriously challenged the momentum of starting school. Though celebrating the new year, with the required apples, challah, and honey, seemed especially appropriate on Wednesday night, the four-day break from school makes today feels like the first time all over again.

The slight chill in the air also hints that summer is really over. We did eat dinner together over the summer, but things were much more relaxed. The norm was eating late or eating very light meals because the older kids were away at camp or with friends. There were many days when less than the five of us were at the dinner table.

Now it feels like back to business. Dinners every weeknight with the challenge of making enough food for a growing teen and tween who have sports practice 4 out of 5 nights and are seriously hungry. It's like rapid re-entry into the days of balancing work, homework, activities, dinner and getting to bed at a decent time, all with the stress and emotions that school can bring. I'm trying to remember how it is possible to cram all this into the few hours left at the end of the day.

Still, it's an exciting time of new beginnings. On Wednesday night, my kids were all aflutter with stories. They were actually shouting over each other to be heard and to tell their tales. We had to calm it down on several occasions to make sure everyone got their turn. Our youngest speaks very slowly and deliberately to be understood, and the older ones could barely mask their frustration as we let her have the floor. This is really what family dinner is about. The give and take and the chance to share the day: to be proud, to pose questions, to listen to others, to give and get feedback on these new experiences, knowing you have this touchstone at home.

La Shana Tova and Happy New Year! To great school years, to great dinners, to great accomplishments for all! Love, peace and happiness above all!

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Lost in Translation: Can I have an Unsweetened Coffee?

More Family Food Tales from Recent Travels

Scene: a McDonalds inside a Wal-Mart
I almost couldn't believe my eyes, but there it was, a McDonalds inside a Wal-Mart. I felt like George Bush, Sr. seeing bar-code scanners for the first time in the 1990s.  So if you work up an appetite with your Wal-Mart low price shopping (the place was the size of an airplane hanger, after all), McDonalds is there for you.

I told my daughter that it was too early to get a happy meal (her immediate request when she saw the Golden Arches), but that she could get a small cookie. (It was 11:30am, and I was probably lying about the Happy Meal. ) I decided to try an iced coffee for myself. I was in the South, so I knew to be careful with my beverage order.
Me: Do you have unsweetened iced coffee?

Teenage clerk: Yes, we have no calorie iced coffee.
(In hindsight, this strange construction, should have alerted me.)

Me: Err, OK, I'll have that with half-n-half, no sugar.

I get the coffee, start to walk away and take a sip. Almost gag; so sweet.

Me (thinking): I can't believe this. It is undrinkable, I should just throw it away.
But I decide to say something to the clerk.

Me: I thought you said it was unsweetened? It tastes so sweet.

Clerk 1: Maybe it's the cream?
Clerk 2: Oh, it has no calorie syrup in it.
Clerk 3 (it was a slow day): That's the way all the coffee tastes.

Me: I didn't want any syrup, just coffee and milk. I can't drink this, it's too sweet. Can I just have a refund?

Manager, quickly to fore: What's the problem?

Me: Umm, I just wanted unsweetened coffee, no syrup, Is that possible?

Manager: Sure we can do that.
She gives me the unsweetened iced coffee with half-and-half. It actually tastes like good quality coffee and tastes surprisingly good after all that. Why the need to add sugary syrup, even if it is "no calorie"?

Feeling a little embarrassed now I add (lying): I'm diabetic and I just can't have anything sweet. Thank you so much.

Why did I feel compelled to say I was diabetic? Why do I have to explain that I want something without sugar? Why is wanting no sugar or black coffee "weird"? I think this speaks to the environment where "sweet" is the default and so many processed foods have hidden ingredients, often in the form of more sugar, more fat or more chemicals. You have to bend over backwards to get something un-sweet or natural in any way.

Once home, I tried to search for what McDonalds calls their "no-cal" syrup, so I can avoid it in the future and found a interesting post by Rachel of smallnotebook. No wonder plain coffee is such a foreign concept! I guess the hidden motto here is: no food stuff should be served unaltered; pump up the chemicals and sweetness as much as possible. Buyer beware, indeed!
More reading:
Fixing a World that Fosters Fat, Natasha Singer, NYT 8.22.10

McDonalds Iced Coffee Ingredient Breakdown via smallnotebook.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Lost in Translation: Family Food tales from the road

I've been traveling a lot this summer. It has also been an opportunity to see how food environments can be very different away from my Brooklyn homeland. I'll post some observations over the week.

Scene: Wal-Mart, Fruit and Produce Section
My mom, a senior who lives in Florida and on a budget, has been doing more and more grocery shopping at Wal-Mart, the store that most in Brooklyn vehemently oppose. (I am opposed them too, but am open to the potential benefits of better food access.) But this is the first time in her life that she has felt like she could "afford" organic and I have to say the fruit and veggies she bought there were quite fresh and good-tasting.

It kills me that Wal-mart of all places has gotten her to try organics and that they may be the best produce place for her in town. But I also know that "organic" produce in many places is just plain expensive and tends to be older because there is less turn-over of stock. My mom doesn't live in a food desert by any means. You would think, living in a place where fresh produce grows abundantly and is shipped all over the country, it would be easy to eat local. But it's not. I have no idea if there's a farmer's market anywhere in her community. So, she's voting with her dollars to buy fruits and vegetables at place like Wal-Mart that is cheap and convenient.

This same Wal-Mart also had Swiss Miss pudding packs stacked by the produce aisle for the unbeatable price of $1. How many people are just getting the pudding and no fruit or veggies at all? Probably most of them. For a family with kids, especially, it would take a lot of will-power to only buy fruit and skip the cheap snacks altogether. (I actually kept my 4 year old away from the shopping floor because I thought she'd go gaa-gaa over all the sweet snacks to choose from.)

Is Wal-mart too much of a devil's bargain? Are there better ways to improve access to good food without the "help" of retail behemoths? How can we change the dynamics to make it easier to afford the luxury of good food for everyone without a complete sell-out to other vital principles? We need to keep looking for concrete solutions.

Can Wal-Mart Save us from Food Deserts? By Adriana V., The Stir

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Just Cook: Easy Calzones that Even Kids Can Make

Two Aprons Video

Family Dinner Tip: Get the kids involved. These girls are too cute and aptly demonstrate that kids can cook in the kitchen, especially with some advanced preparations. These calzones would be in the oven in less than 20 minutes, add a salad and you are done.

Store-bought pizza dough, cut into 2 or 4 pieces depending on size of calzone
Grated Mozarella cheese
Any other pizza fillings you like: veggies, pepperoni, etc.
Tomato sauce (optional, but I like it for dipping)

Roll out dough, Add fillings with cheese and pinch closed. Cook for approx. 20 minutes in a 400 degree oven.

Note: The girls don't say oven temp in their video, so I guessed a hot oven. Bittman says to cook calzones at 350 degrees for 30 to 40 minutes. Pick one and keep a close watch.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Friday Family Dinner Fan Club: Bloggers who care about Family Dinner

Logo from BlogHer

This Friday kicks off BlogHer '10, the annual blogging conference that has reportedly attracted over a thousand attendees in its 5th year show. Though it is usually a West Coast affair, this year it is being held in New York, practically in my backyard. It was sold-out before I realized it was so close. So, I'm disappointed (and kicking myself a bit) that I won't be able to attend.  Instead, I thought I would give a shout-out to my fellow Mommy bloggers out there, (and the cooking Dads and foodie, non-parents too) that are committed to family, good food, good parenting and family dinner.

Daily, I am inspired and educated by the wonderful information and wisdom that you put out there. Real-life stories of the ups and downs of getting our families to eat together and eat well. Protests and petitions about reforms that can help fix our broken food system. Be it recipes with beauty-shots of delicious dinners or details on nutrition, sustainable eating or school lunch, together we are creating an enormous wealth of information for both parents and policymakers.

Some it is is just fun, of course. Peach cobbler and grilled dinners don't exactly change the world, though maybe.... 

Blogging has been called a revolution in publishing, and that it is. It can also be a call to action and an instrument of change.  I believe in the power of family dinner to transform lives; I believe in the power of committed individuals to make changes in their worlds, at home, in their communities, and nationwide. The Social Network (blogging, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and the like) allow us to share experiences, find common goals, and learn from each other in ways that simply weren't possible a few years ago. Face time is important too. Just as the dinner table should be gadget-free, connections that happen in real-time feel deeper and more true. So enjoy yourself at BlogHer 2010, getting in touch with fellow like-minded women, and a few men. Be inspired, make connections, and come back to the Network to report, teach, share.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Wednesday Videos: Menu Planning Reality TV

Mark Bittman posted a column on Babble last week with 5 tough-love tips for parents who want to make family dinner a priority. I agree with his sentiments, but several commentators, rightly, pointed out that his list didn't actually include any helpful tips for how to get dinner on the table quickly, night after night.

Many cooks swear by menu planning as the answer to making sure family dinner happens every night without fuss. The basic instructions are simple: 1) take time on Sunday to plan for the week, 2) use your plan to create a shopping list, 3) stick with the plan through the week. The Menu Plan can help you be organized and maybe even get a jump on prepping for some meals ahead of time. It can also be a platform to get your partner and older kids to help out. If everyone knows what is on the menu, tasks can be assigned beforehand, so that they can chip in. Older kids can be taught to wash vegetables or start the water for pasta when you are on your way home, for instance.

I found two videos on menu planning that were so funny in contrast to each other. The first shows a regular mom who happens to live in New Zealand. She swears by menu planning as a money-saver; that's another bonus. She eschews paying a menu planning service (that are abundant on the internet) and just opts for a simple printed chart tacked to the frig. Low production values, but very honest, real, and practical.

Reality Menu Planning

The second video is pure fantasy.  Put together by Parents magazine with sponsorship (Bertolli says make pasta, pasta, pasta!), the production values are better: nice shots of well-groomed kids and mom (an actress?) in kitchen and grocery store. She, too, is basically describing a piece of paper that becomes a menu plan and a shopping list. The fantasy part is that the kids are so helpful and that there's time to let them help with the shopping, help with the meal prep, and you can even boost their writing skills if they write the list for you! Kids can definitely pitch in: setting the table, clearing the dishes,  and during well-planned and practiced food prep. But having kids help is not really a time- or work-savers as any cooking parent knows! It's teaching them to cook which is valuable, but not often possible in a time-crunch situation. Still, it's a good idea to involve kids in the planning; each kid can recommend a dish for the week and then you plan how they can be of help with actually cooking it. Realistically, this can probably happen once a week, depending on the age of your kids and the time frame you have between getting home and making dinner. (Maybe Friday night or a weekend meal is Kid's Choice night.) Similarly, the trip to the grocery store is cute, but also pretty laughable in reality. Unless it's a trip to the farmer's market or a health store, the kids may sabotage your healthy pantry and your budget!

Fantasy Menu Planning

Do you menu plan? Feel free to write in with your own menu planning tips. also has some great menu planning tips under Menu Plan Monday.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Lessons from Research: Who's Working on Family Dinner

The researchers who work on family dinner are a varied sort. They come from nutrition and food science schools, from medical schools, from schools of public health and schools of nursing, and from a wide range of programs in social work, sociology, and psychology. Each of these disciplines come at the research from a different perspective, but findings are surprisingly similar. Family dinner offers a protective effect for kids and teenagers, be it less risk-taking activities, like smoking and underage drinking, more positive actions like improved eating habits and better grades, or just improved general well-being.

The next frontier of research, I think, is to bring the detailed findings of these studies out from inside the ivory tower. Let's figure out how to translate the research into action that goes beyond the occasional pep talk. We need to find out how to both encourage and support families who are trying to create a family dinner routine for their families. Do they need more information about healthy choices at the grocery stores and navigating the choices among prepared foods?  Advice on 20-minute meals cooked at home and menu planning? Do they need help with their family relationships so that everyone chips in? Do they simply need more time? More time might mean flexible and supportive work environments that allow them to go home by 5 or 6pm at night. Probably, all of the above.

Health education campaigns sound so easy, but effective campaigns to change individual health behaviors are notoriously difficult to craft.  It can be also hard to measure their effectiveness or translate what works in one community to another. Nevertheless, the benefits of family dinner are well worth a concerted effort to better promote them.

Select List of Academic Research Centers Working on Family Dinner
The National Center for Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA), Columbia University,
Joseph A. Califano, Jr., Chairman
Founders of National Family Day
Report on The Important of Family Dinner

University of Minnesota, School of Public Health
Project EAT. Principal Investigator: Diane Neumark-Sztainer, PhD, MPH, RD
Other Research Projects

Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity
Eat Healthy New Haven
Other Research Projects

University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
The Pampered Chef Family Resiliency Program Center,  Barbara Fiese, Ph.D., Director

Harvard Pilgrim Heath Care Institute, Department of Population Medicine, Harvard Medical School
Obesity Prevention Program

International Association of the Study of Obesity (iaso), Europe
The ENERGY Project

Cornell Food Lab
Food Psychology and How, Why, When and How Much We Eat, Brian Wansink, Ph.D., Director

Baylor College of Medicine
Children's Nutrition Research Center, Dennis Bier, MD., Director

Friday, July 30, 2010

Friday Family Dinner Fan Club: Miriam Weinstein

The Surprising Power of Family Meals, by Miriam Weinstein
 Today I have to give a shout-out to Miriam Weinstein, author of The Surprising Power of Family Meals. Written in 2005, it is one of the only popular books out there that tries to bridge the research of family dinner with tips that families can really use. It is a well-written inspiration that I reccomend to anyone who cares about food and family. I read it in 2007 when I started this blog and it was relatively hard to find. Weinstein seemed like a voice in the wilderness, someone trying to get at the nitty-gritty of family dinner beyond the platitudes, but it was unclear who was listening. I could never find much follow-up writing about it by her after the book was written.

Recently, thanks to a J.M. Smuckers company endorsement, she's been give a new slick web platform to spread the word of family dinner at The Power of Family Meals. It's sort of a funny partnership, but I guess Smuckers feels like this is an authentic way to promote breakfast as a family meal. In a similar vein, Stouffer's launched the Let's Fix Dinner media campaign and website this year, created in partnership with CASA, one of the longest-running family dinner advocates. CASA, founded by Joseph Califano in the early 1990s, is the research group responsible for many of the oft-cited statistics that family dinner is a protective factor against teenage alcohol and substance abuse.

What does it mean that big corporations are espousing family dinner? While part of me is skeptical, there is a big part of me that welcomes the money and resources that big companies bring in promoting what I see as an essential good. For major brands that sell food products at supermarkets, it is a positive trend if people eat at home more. I think the more people eat at home, the more routine it becomes and the better they'll like it. So first steps are important. I worry when the promoters are selling relatively unhealthy processed foods, but sometimes convenience foods may be necessary in order to get something on the table for dinner. There has to be a balance. Perhaps the more healthy foods, like vegetables, fruits, and whole grains need their own champion marketers, funded by the CDC, a consortium of California growers, or a major health foundation like Robert Wood Johnson. Or basic home cooking versus reheating convenience foods has to become a more common and valued skill.

The experts like Weinstein and CASA have a responsibility to make sure the message of the importance of family meals gets out there without too many strings attached to the processed foods themselves. Stouffer's pizza for dinner or Smuckers jam on toast for breakfast are not the only way. Both these campaigns, though, seem to hit the balance very well, and are excellent and authentic in the information they present. So far, so good.  I'm glad to seeing Weinstein on a bigger platform, touting the importance of family dinner in her approachable and non-judgmental style.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Video Wednesday: Tips on How To Make Family Meals on a Tight Budget

Here's a very cute Howcast video with great tips to spread your budget and eat healthier.

Some highlights:
  • Eat less meat, and marinate cheaper cuts of meat to make tender. I would add learn to stir-fry, so you use less meat and increase the number of veggies at the table.
  • Fresh veggies are best (my tips). But frozen veggies can be good too (their tip). Frozen veggies definitely better than no veggies.
  • Try real whole grains, including brown rice and oatmeal. Buy dried beans and learn how to rinse and soak overnight.  
  • Make homemade desserts rather than store-bought. Can be more nourishing and more delicious. Fresh seasonal fruit is a great dessert. I sometimes let my kids add a tiny bit of whipped cream to make it special.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Lazy Summer Meals: Slow and Lo BBQ with Easy Sides

Monday Meals and Recipes

Family dinner's not the same around here while the bigger kids are camp. It's just the three of us--mom, dad, and 4yr old (that's 4 and three-quarters, she would add) and it's hard to get all worked up over the meals, especially in this heat.  Still, it's a worn-in routine to eat dinner together. During this past, sultry hot week, we've been cobbling together simple meals of salads or picnic foods like pesto pasta with cherry tomatoes, which are prefect now. "Like candy," said a friend of mine. I think we did "real cooking" once with a flash, pan-fried trout fillet and stir-fried spinach. Stove was on for maybe 5 minutes.

But this Saturday, in an effort to boost the small number at the table for a festive weekend meal, we invited neighbors over for dinner and my DH continued on his quest for perfect BBQ. He takes his BBQ seriously. He has a Big Green Egg, he makes his own rubs, he is particular about the wood charcoal. I think the resulting BBQ meat is always delicious and amazing, but he often seems unsatisfied. Even though he might have been cooking a chunk of beef or pork for maybe 5 or 6 hours, he says, wistfully, "It's just not long enough." But he dutifully and reluctantly takes it off the fire so that the rest of the meal can be commence before 9pm at night.

On this Saturday, he was determined to truly do a slow and lo BBQ and cook it for as long as it needed. He started the fire at 6am, hoping that today 12 hours of low cooking on the Big Green Egg would enough. It was. The most beautiful and buttery pork BBQ he has ever made.

Though not the centerpiece, my quick and easy sides were also appreciated. This pasta salad has lots of fresh vegetables and crunch, which feel desperately needed to counterbalance a heap of BBQ. Add a big green salad and fresh bread to round the meal. We had peach cobbler for dessert, cooked on the grill for a truly summertime finish.

More reading:
How to Make BBQ Brisket that Doesn't Suck on Serious Eats, James Boo. 07.21.10
Ahh... Summer Food, vintage, 06.08

Recipes: Both recipes are adapted from the Peace, Love and Barbecue cookbook by Mike Mills and Amy Mills Tunnicliffe

Lazy Slow and Lo BBQ (hardly a recipe)
Pork Shoulder, with Bone and skin (7-8 lbs)
Rub (buy or make)
Grill and enough wood charcoal

Though it cooked 12 hours, he only had to check it a few times to add more charcoal and test the temperature.

Pasta Salad Primavera
(vegetables and amounts can vary based on availability and preference, but try to add a lot of veggies!)

1 lb pkg of dried pasta, tri-color if you prefer

1/2 cup frozen or fresh peas
1/2 cup frozen or fresh corn
1/4 cup of chopped scallion or sweet white onions
1/4 cup chopped celery
1/4 cup of chopped carrots
1/4 cup of chopped fresh parsley 
1 cup cherry tomatoes, halved
1/2 cup of fresh black olives (optional)

1/4 cup prepared Italian dressing
1/2 cup mayonnaise
2 tablespoons of milk

Cook the pasta al dente according to package directions. Rinse under cold water and drain. Mix in a large bowl with the vegetables. (If using frozen vegetables, do not cook, but run under cold water to thaw. If using canned olives, run under cold water to remove metallic taste.)

In a separate bowl, mix the dressing ingredients and toss with pasta and vegetables. Add more or less dressing to your taste. Chill for at least one hour or overnight if time permits. Add salt and pepper if desired.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Friday Family Dinner Fan Club

I'm a big fan of Jamie Oliver and his Food Revolution. Helping our kids and families eat healthy foods and exercise more is the big picture goal and many smaller efforts can work together to make this picture a reality: healthy school lunches, daily recess and physical activity, healthy food at home, educating parents and kids about healthy choices, and of course, family dinners.

To rebut accusations of "nanny-state" food policing, I agree that parent involvement and responsibility for their own health and their kids' health is critical. But I also think that political policies, the food distribution system, and cultural attitudes have played a huge part in creating a very broken food system with the disastrous results of ever-increasing rates of obesity and food-related illness. There are social, economic, and political forces that stack the deck against parents and kids, and as a nation, we have to recognize that and stand up to it.  If a food celebrity like Jamie Oliver and his celebrity friends can call attention to that and help parents and lawmakers "wake up" to making needed changes, I'm all for it.

If you haven't added your name to the Food Revolution petition, do so today. This is a change for good that needs as many supporters as possible.