Friday, February 25, 2011

Five Tips for Making Dinner Happen

This week held a lot of discussion on family dinner and how to make it work, inspired in part by Pete Wells' column about the difficulties of pulling it off. I wrote an open letter to Pete, and was featured twice for my advocacy for family dinner, on The Lunch Tray and on the Love You More blogs. (Thank you!) Through the magic of the Internet (aka links), I found some other great folks that are singing the same tune.

Here's hoping that the family dinner discussion encourages parents not to wave the white flag, but to embrace the kitchen and the merits of family dinner.  Family dinner does take time and commitment, and it isn't always fun, but it's so worth it in the end. Much like parenting, no?

Here's 5 more tips to add to my list

Five MORE Tips for Making Family Dinner Happen

1. Plan ahead. If you can plan and shop a week ahead, that's great. But even just making a plan in the morning, at your lunch hour, or via email or text with your spouse, can help.  Having a ready answer a when the kids cry "What's for dinner?" will take the pressure off as you walk in the door and help you feel more in control.

2. Have back-pocket, straight-out of the pantry recipes that you can whip up without thinking. There are many simple pasta sauces that can be made with just a few at-hand ingredients. Memorize a few, and you'll have dinner even on crazy days. Your goal should be 5 to 10 recipes you can make in 20 or 30 minutes. Use the weekends to learn new recipes or to make large batches of favorite meals.

3. Fresh is great, but don't fear the freezer.  In addition to frozen meals and leftovers you make yourself, there are healthy frozen food options out there, but check the ingredients!  Frozen veggies or fruit (for dessert) can be a life-saver to round out a meal nutritionally. Don't forget you can "freeze your own." We often pre-cut a large package of meat (chicken, beef, pork) into stir-fry sized pieces that can be quickly defrosted and put into weeknight meals.

4. Resist ordering take-out or buying drive-thru, if you can. If you can whip up a meal in 30 minutes, it will be on the table way before the pizza guy arrives. Cooking a simple meal at home is way better for you and cheaper too.

5. Use the web for inspiration! There are so many great food blogs out there, many with quick easy recipes for families. Also, Google just came out with a Recipe View that looks promising. Type in a cooking idea, or even a holiday or theme, and get recipe suggestions, complete with ingredient list and cooking times. Very cool!

Check out these blogs or find others that you trust and keep checking for new ideas.  (If you like any of these, send the author some love via the comments sections! Bloggers love that, really!)

Red, Round or Green Lots of great stuff on family meals, meal planning and recipes. Her recent post on how she does it: plan, plan, plan.
Stay at Stove Dad. Great recipes and perspective as a dad who cooks for his family. New book coming out in May!
Friday Fan Club: Great Blogs for Family Dinner Recipes A recent round-up of recipe sites I like.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Dear Pete Wells ("Cooking with Dexter"): Family Dinner Is Worth It.

Pete Wells has written a great column for the New York Times called "Cooking With Dexter" that I loved mainly because he seemed like a real Dad investigating the world of the kitchen with his son Dexter. He wrote warmly of the new discoveries that father and son would make in the kitchen, about food, about themselves. Wells wrote his last column this week and is off to other projects. I'm sad to see the column go, but his last missive really hit home for other reasons.

Wells talks to the real and true challenges of getting dinner on the table every night as a dual working parent family, and then, kind of shrugs it off as too damn hard. ARGH! I understand his struggles, I do. But I also want to shout: "No, no, no!" Family dinner can be admittedly damned hard, but it is worth it

One of the messages of is not to expect perfection and not to be so hard on yourself, but to make a commitment to family dinner. You have to find the right balance for your family, and that balance is going to change over time, as work demands change and as your kids grow. When your kids are little, it is honestly the hardest time to get dinner on the table in a timely fashion before they unravel. The strategy in our family is to have healthy snacks available and to have many 20-minute dinners under our belts. As the kids get older, the routine and expectation of family dinner, be it with both parents or only one, will be the touchstone of their lives, and yours. Don't give that up. Cut yourself some slack, but keep plugging away.

I was encouraged, though, by the numerous commenters on the NYT site (well over 100), many who call Wells to task. The sentiments were, basically, "Hey, Pete, family dinner is well worth it and here are some things we do in our family that can help." I love that so many people wanted to help Wells and his family with practical strategies and advice. This is the conversation that we need to be having: what can busy parents do to help make this thing work. I also think we need a national conversation about a life-work balance that allows enough flexibility for parents to make a dinner commitment with their families. But that's another story.

Thanks to The Lunch Tray who wrote a blog post (2.21.11) that paralleled many of my feelings and spurred me to write my own response here. (Through the time shifting force of the Internet, I actually read the Wells' Sunday piece on Friday, and tweeted about it, but hadn't gotten my thoughts together enough to respond. And of course the kids are off school this week!)

Friday, February 18, 2011

I Heart Fruit, Straight Up from Kindergarten

Fruit Heart from my little Kindergartner
My 5 year old daughter brought this drawing home yesterday from school. It may be a bit hard to make out, but it's a pink heart surrounding a fruit bowl. Before I could ask her what it was about, she excitedly reported that they were having a contest to name the school's salad bar and that she decided it to make this, because "I L-O-V-E all the fruits!" Wow, even if I didn't spend all day trying to promote healthy family eating, I think I would be bursting with pride.

I would like to take all the credit for my kid loving fruit, but remember she's the "picky one." So I dare not or I might jinx myself and we'll be back to mac and cheese requests every night. Really, though, I think kids naturally love fruit and simple exposure to good, fresh, in-season fruit will convince most kids to eat it with joy. We as parents (and educators at school) have to decide that fresh fruit is a worthwhile snack than can be available all the time, despite its slightly higher cost and perishable nature.

We have a rule in our house The fruit bowl is always open.  I try to have 2 or 3 big bowls of fruit out on the counter in easy access all the time. Honestly it disappears. Standards are bananas, apples, and, now, clementines; I keep washed grapes in a big bowl in the fridge. For dessert, we'll sometimes have harder to prepare fruit like mango, pineapple, or last night, we had starfruit, which tastes a bit like kiwi, but in a really cool shape. My kids also love berries and whipped cream, which is still a healthy dessert option. The fruit balances out the whipped cream by far!
Starfruit, cool shape.

The biggest complaint I hear about fruit is the cost. Fresh fruit can be expensive. But really, if you compared fruit to most cookies or pre-packaged snacks, they are very comparable in price. Most cookies are at least 3 or 4 dollars a box; if you cost out the packaged snacks, most are 50 cents or $1 a piece. Somehow it's OK for a cookie pack to cost this much, but an apple at 75 cents is too expensive? Really, we have to change our mind set. Reducing packaged foods is the real way to cut a grocery bill, and sticking with fresh fruits and vegetables often will end up being comparable in cost, or even cheaper, and much healthier to boot.

Fruit is perishable, though, and I understand that busy parents who go shopping only once a week don't want to throw good money away. Below I have some tips for buying and storing fruit, and plus ideas for getting your child to eat more of it!

Ten Tips for Buying, Storing and Eating Fruit:
1. Buy fruit in varying stages of ripeness, if you can. Ideally, some fruit will be ready the day you buy it, and some fruit will ripen over the week, so that you and your kids can eat the best fruit as it becomes ripe.
2. If freshness is waning but the fruit is still good, stick it in the fridge. This will help it keep another couple of days.
3. Don't forget about fruit in the fridge! Since the kids may not see it to grab it, you may have to remember to cut it up and serve as snacks, or with breakfast.
3. In general, fruit keeps better unwashed. Teach your kids to give it a rinse before eating.
4. Use an apple corer. For some reason, fruit slices are much more enjoyable for snacking. Once I bought an apple corer, my kids' apple consumption doubled! Also keep the skin on because it has lots of vitamins. If the apple is cored, a skin hater can still just eat the inside, though half the time, my daughter still eats the whole slice, skin and all.
5. Slightly damaged fruit can be saved to use in smoothies or in fruit sauce. I cut out the brown parts and either freeze or, if I have enough, I throw in a pot to make sauce for pancakes. One or two apples or pears with a little water and sugar can make a quick and delicious sauce to be used for a weekend pancakes.
6. Many fresh fruits can be frozen at home. If strawberries are on sale, you can buy two packages and freeze one. They don't taste quite as good defrosted, but they are still good for you and can be used frozen in smoothies or thawed over cereal or in a fruit dessert.
7. Figure out the fruits that your kids like and always get them. Fruit should be like milk and bread, something you always get. Make it a new habit. Don't get stuck thinking your kid doesn't like fruit just because they don't like the red delicious apples at the cafeteria. (In case you didn't know, red delicious apples mostly stink; they are the biggest misnomer in the fruit world!) Gala apples are kid favorites, so are golden delicious, but there are lots of other varieties to explore.
8. Add new fruits every once in a while to expand their interest. Right now, there are lots of choices in citrus, so try some varieties of oranges that you haven't before. Tangelos and blood oranges can be amazing and you may be surprised that kids actually like the sour-sweet combination. (There are some popular candies on the market that exploit this.)
9. Fruit is best when it is local and in-season. In season fruit tends to be cheaper and taste the best. But in the winter time, it may not be possible to only eat locally, and still actually eat fruit. As a mom and as someone who promotes healthy eating, I am still in favor of eating fruit year around.
10. Increase the times you give fruit to your child. Fruit can be served with breakfast, packed in lunches, and offered for dessert. It's not just an in-between snack.

More great resources for learning more and making eating fruit and veggies fun!
Today I Ate a Rainbow Kit This kit that encourages your kid to get eat the colors of the rainbow, everyday.
The Produce Geek: Sign up for weekly newsletter on what to eat now.
Fruits and Veggies More Matters website has lots of tips and ideas for increasing the number of fruits and veggies in your life.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Family Dinner Love for Valentine's Day

This year, Valentine's Day is on the most un-romantic day of the week--Monday. But if you have kids at home, it's a good excuse to make this Valentine's Day a family affair. Family dinner is the ultimate big hug to give to your loved ones. 

Here's a round up of some great Valentine's Day recipes that are easy enough for a weeknight treat. (See also a "vintage" eatdinner post:  We "Heart" Family Dinners and be sure to schedule a date night over the weekend!)

Some favorite Valentine's Day links and recipes:

Create Holiday Traditions, Valentine's Day edition, Kristin Uhrenholdt The Family Dinner Cookbook Blog. 02.08.11

I Heart You Fresh Strawberry Smoothie for Kids by Kathy Patalsky on The Family Kitchen, Babble, 02.11.11

Dessert (For Breakfast or Dinner!) Strawberry Shortcake Waffles from The Naptime Chef on The Family Kitchen, Babble, 02.11.11

Naturally Sweet DYI Valentines from One Hungry Mama, 02.06.11 (She's got other great treats too in Valentine's section.

Valentine's Day WITHOUT Food Coloring, The Jolly Tomato 02.10.11

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Not Just a U.S. Problem: Thoughts on the Global Obesity Crisis

The U.S. has an obesity problem, no doubt about it. It is a large and growing problem that some are taking very seriously (thank you Michelle Obama and Let's Move) and others are ignoring or downplaying. What may be surprising, though, is that the U.S. is not alone. According to a recently released Lancet, worldwide obesity has doubled since the 1980s and now 1 in 9  people worldwide are obese.

In fact, the largest rates of increase in obesity (that is, the highest rate of change not the total number) is in countries where rapid changes in economic development and industrialization are happening, like the Middle East, Latin America, and parts of Asia.  The reasons behind this are complex, and not dissimilar to issues in the U.S.: increased access to low-cost, low-nutrient processed foods, less time at home for traditional meals, more TV and computer use and less physical activity, both at work and for leisure.
"A 2004 [World Health Organization] study shows that obesity rates in China, Brazil, Morocco, Thailand, and Mexico are all increasing at a faster pace than rates in the U.S." Benjamin Caballero of the Center for Human Nutrition at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, "Obesity—A Global Perspective," presented at the NYAS 12.10.10.
Widespread changes in food availability, food quality and cost greatly influence eating behaviors. Food Econ 101 says that cheap prices lead to high consumption. Throughout the world there has been a rapid decrease in the cost of carbonated, non-alcoholic beverages and of vegetable oils (a key ingredient to processed foods),  while there has been an increased cost of fresh fruits and vegetables. The result is high calorie intake that way out-balances high nutrient intake in the average diet. With high rates of obesity come high rates of disease-related illness. The highest worldwide prevalence of diabetes is in India and China, with the U.S. third. (NYAS, Super-Sized World Conference Report) 

Some of the poorest nations are actually facing twin-crises of hunger and obesity, where children are hungry and under-nourished but adults are obese (and perhaps hungry too.) This is also a problem in the U.S. where families that are "food insecure" struggle both with hunger and health problems due to poor food choices and food availability, as I have posted previously here.

What does this have to do with family dinner? Well, it is evidence that the challenges are great and the tools are few. One tool that is often overlooked is family dinner. It is overlooked by policymakers and public health researchers and it is overlooked by families. Family dinner has been shown to help families eat better and be less at risk for obesity, as well as a myriad of other social and health problems, like depression and underage drinking. It is not the only solution, but it is one of those "small steps" that you, as an individual, can change right now. And to policymakers and others, I say, support families with food and economic policies that can make healthy family meals and food choices easier. Guilt and blame will not be effective to spur long-standing health changes. Globally and nationally, we have a lot of work to do, but at home, it can be as simple as making a commitment to family dinner.

References and more reading:
First Lady Taking Health Work Global, NYT 02.08.11
GOOD Feast Your Eyes:  Visualization of BMI by country using data from Lancet. 02.09.11
The Obesity-Hunger Paradox, NYT 03.12 11
Super-Sized World Conference Report, New York Academy of Science, 12.10.10 (some data may be members only)
The 30 Project by Ellen Gustafson

Friday, February 4, 2011

Happy Chinese New Year! Try it at Home with these Great Cookbooks.

In honor of Chinese New Year, I'm re-publishing a blog post from a couple of years back. While the foodie Twitterverse is buzzing about recipes and plans for #CNY, I have to admit that since we eat Chinese-style food 3 or 4 nights a week, no special menu plans have been made. My kids have been talking about Chinese New Year in school (and clamoring for red envelopes), so we had Chinese noodles (for long life) with chicken and vegetables last night for dinner. We plan to brave the Chinatown crowds on Sunday for some dim sum and other New Years' treats.

Enjoy this reprise and be inspired to make home-made Chinese food. Once you get down the techniques, it can be some of the fastest, healthiest weeknight family dinners.

Repost from Feb 2008
On the last eve of Chinese New Year 2008, I'm recommending the two best Chinese cookbooks I have found.
A Thousand Recipe Chinese Cookbook, Gloria Bley Miller, 1966, 1994

The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen: Classic Family Recipes for Celebration and Healing, Grace Young, 1999
A few years ago, my husband set out to learn how to cook authentic Chinese food. Why? I'm not sure. I think he would say that he always wanted to learn to cook from the fresh ingredients from Chinatown. I am happy to reap the benefits.

My Chinese sister-in-law told me that, ideally, authentic Chinese food should appeal to all five senses. Admirable, sure, but not exactly the kind of challenge any everyday cook needs. Nonetheless, we have found that homemade Chinese food can really work for weeknight dinners. (Sure Chinese take-out is easy too, but that's another story.) Chinese food requires a lot of prep and then, often, very fast cooking. So if you can master a few recipes and have a little advanced planning, dinner can be ready fast. Generally, I help out with the prep (washing and chopping vegetables, defrosting stock), so that my husband can step in and fire up the wok when he gets home from work.

The first cookbook he used was Gloria Bley Miller's A Thousand Recipe Chinese Cookbook. This is a "teaching the basics" cookbook that literally has more recipes than you know what to do with. It is invaluable for teaching basic Chinese cooking techniques and basic recipes. I also find it handy for trying new vegetable/meat combinations, because there are so many recipes to choose from. Miller will sometimes substitute American ingredients for Chinese ones. It was written originally in 1966, so there were no other options!

His latest favorite is The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen cookbook, which is more advanced. This book is a joy to read and to cook from. Grace Young tells stories of learning Chinese cooking techniques from her parents and grandparents, and she gives background details to Chinese cooking philosophy and holidays, like the New Year. She keeps it real and insists that you find the authentic ingredients. Still, she gives tips for navigating Chinese groceries stores and for finding the freshest fish and produce. The results are worth it.