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.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Just Cook: Easy Fruit Crumble with Kids

To encourage readers who may be reluctant home cooks, I've decided to periodically post cooking videos that will show easy recipes you can create with or without your kids.  This video from Kids and Cooking channel on YouTube and

I like how she does the set-up before the kids get involved in the cooking. Helps keep it organized and fun for even the youngest children. True, it's more like a class or special activity than everyday cooking. But this recipe is so simple, it's a great way to get started cooking with your kids, especially if you've been reluctant to try it! Also it's very flexible recipe, so you can use seasonal fruits or whatever is on hand.

Ingredients: (amounts can vary based on size of dishes)
Fruit (Apples and Strawberries, or any other)
Small Tins or Baking Dishes

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Lessons from Research: Parenting Style and Family Dinner

Parents who are afraid to put their foot down usually have children who step on their toes. ~Chinese Proverb @AskDrVicki, RT@eatingarainbow
 A newly released study from The University of Minnesota's Project EAT (Eating Among Teens) hones in on an important aspect of successful family dinners: parenting style. Parents who were "authoritative" meaning understanding of their children, but able to set clear rules and expectations were more successful at creating and maintaining family dinner routines among their teens, both initially and 5 years later.

Parents (maternal and paternal) were classified as authoritative, authoritarian, permissive or neglectful based on the teens' answers to a battery of questions about their parents. (I'd like to see this list of questions! :) ) Authoritative parents were "empathic and respectful," but maintain clear expectations and rules in the household. Authoritarian parents were strict disciplinarians that showed little warmth. The permissive style was empathic but with few rules or expectations, and the neglectful style...well, as you can guess, cold, no rules, not showing care or attention. (Sigh, one hopes this was rare, but they are teenage perceptions.)

Using multivariate analysis, parenting style was matched up with how often the teens ate dinner with their families, in addition to other social behaviors. Both boys and girls in the study (over 1600 middle school and 3000 high school students) ate dinner with their families more often if they considered their parents to be authoritative. 

Many parents today strive to be "authoritative," even if they never thought of it that way. We want to listen to our kids and be understanding of their needs, but at the end of the day, rules and routines are important to make family life run more smoothly. When the balance tips more in favor to the child's individual desires and wants, and less toward family rules and standards, the parent heads towards the permissive zone. Parents today have been chided in the media, sometimes unfairly, for excessive permissiveness. The lean toward permissiveness may be a reaction to the authoritarian or neglectful parenting styles of the past, or it could be a result of less family support and structure and more frazzled parents who are working more and have less family time. Most would agreed, though, that there is hell to pay for "giving in" to our kids too often, both on a day-to-day basis and in the long run. As all parents in the trenches know, it can be hard to strike the right balance.

The big lesson of this study for me, and I think parents need to hear it loud and clear: it is OK to have rules and routines. In fact, it is better. You are not necessarily squashing your child's individuality or creativity or self-esteem by setting some household rules to live by. Dinner time, while it can be a struggle in terms of time and commitment, is the perfect way to establish not only an important routine, but a model of rules that your family lives by. These rules might include: we are respectful to each other, we listen and talk together and take turns, we are grateful for the food on the table and the effort it embodies (and we don't ask for something different or demand plain pasta every night). It sounds so simple, but it can be so hard in practice. Never fear mom and dads, if you can get and keep your kids at the table, especially as they age into teens, it is well worth it.

Journal of the American Dietetic Association, July 2010
Project EAT additional Resources
Update: Just found a great blog post by breaking down parenting style as it can affect family dinner dynamics

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Design changes to

I'll be updating and upgrading this blog over the next few weeks and testing different social networking functions. Just little old me here, so please bear with me through the process. I hope you enjoy the changes and share the site with friends. Feel free to comment, suggest or let me know what you think!

Monday, July 12, 2010

Let's Cook: Cooking as life skill

 Image from Let's Move website

Just heard about "Let's Cook" a new White House video series hosted by Michelle Obama's Let's Move campaign, which is set to launch today Tuesday 7/13/10 at 10am via webcast. There is a preview here at the Obama Foodorama Blog. Such a great idea. From the start, I've been hoping that the Let's Move campaign would take a broad view of health and combine its message to be about both staying active and eating right. Teaching kids, and adults, how to cook healthy foods and empowering them to actually cook for themselves and their families is an important step.

I read something recently that listed all the things you would expect a 20-something independent adult to do, such as making simple meals, doing laundry, pretty standard stuff.  The punch line was that these are the things we are supposed to be teaching our older kids and teens to do now so that they will, in fact, become the independent 20-somethings that we hope they will be. I have to admit that I haven’t done too well in making my reluctant teenage son do these daily-living household chores. My nagging usually runs towards homework first and then to “please stop playing that video game and/or get off the computer.”

Nonetheless, cooking basic meals is an essential life skill.  I know my experience cooking for my family as a teen (my mom worked in a restaurant on the night shift) was instrumental in giving me life skills in the kitchen and beyond. My son does like to make breakfast and will often make himself or his crew of friends that slept over a big breakfast of eggs and whatever else he can scrounge up. It’s a start.

Cooking doesn't have to be set up as a chore (that goes for parents and kids), even though it's something to "get done." Find some joy in learning a new skill or just getting a dish to the table, be it something new or an old standard.  Bon appetit!