Simple Ideas for Tying Family Bonds through Food
As time marches on, I enjoy the various phases, stages, and changes life brings. And in this ebb and flow, there have been times when I haven’t been able to live out my ideal as food provider to my family. Let’s face it, nourishing a family with traditional food practices—procuring and preparing ingredients of superb quality—can be a nearly full-time job in itself, not to mention costly. Throw kiddos who are not accustomed to real foods into the mix, and it can be quite the adventure! Where is the middle ground, the compromise of doing the best by your family and avoiding battles? How can families eat foods they enjoy, yet still supply their bodies with life-imparting nutrients? And don’t forget about tight schedules, which make things even stickier. There are still ways to make wise choices without giving in and rolling through the closest drive-thru just to survive the day.
IS THIS YOU?
A friend of mine is raising four lovely, thriving children who are active in sports and clubs that keep the family so on-the-go that meals together are hard to schedule. Another mom I know works hard in the kitchen to prepare nourishing foods but is run ragged with her life’s responsibilities. Moreover, when it comes time for her family to sit down and eat, the kids balk at her creations. Perhaps you can recognize another friend who came to traditional foods later in life when her children were older and less than receptive, making changes surrounding food a tedious chore. Everyone has a story.
I don’t claim to have walked in anyone else’s shoes, but I do know that each family must find its own balance and flow in life, including the areas of food and wellness education. The evidence that supports the acts of preparing food and instilling its value into children is clear; the more they know and appreciate the hows and whys of food, the better equipped they’ll be to live fully with highly functioning brains, vital bodies and steady emotions.
What helps me make food a priority in my family is keeping life simple. This looks different from one family to the next, but the idea remains the same. It is implementing this simplicity that is the tricky part. Can something be changed to allow for more time in the kitchen? Schedules trimmed? Allowing only one sport or club per child each semester? How well can you get to know your crockpot? Can a social volunteer position be given to someone else for a season? There are many possible choices, but a different answer for everyone.
Molly Wizenberg, blogger and author, reminisces about her family’s dinners growing up in A Homemade Life. “It was the steady rhythm of meeting in the kitchen every night, sitting down at the table, and sharing a meal. Dinner didn’t come through a swinging door, balanced on the arm of an anonymous waiter: it was something that we made together. We built our family that way—in the kitchen, seven nights a week. We built a life for ourselves, together around that table.”1
Wizenberg’s sentiments hit home for me, weaving delicious food into everyday life that unites my family. This means that all things “food” take up a big part of my day: buying, preparing, cleaning, planning (which might include a little creative flare), researching recipes and food experimentation, setting a welcoming and fun table, and thinking up ways to include my children in the whole process. Oh, and I can’t forget having the mental room left to remember to pull out the red “You Are Special” plate when one of my boys has done something extraordinary! This encompasses my food objectives, minus the wind-blown, easily-flustered Mommy rushed from an over-scheduled, busy day.
These food-focused undertakings support what I believe to be a fundamental real-food truth: it does more than nourish our physical bodies, it also feeds our souls. Connecting around a table ties our heartstrings to family and friends alike and provides those increasingly precious opportunities to engage in good old-fashioned face-to-face conversations.
Time magazine published a piece, “The Magic of the Family Meal,” wherein author Nancy Gibbs asserts, “. . . there is something about a shared meal—not some holiday blowout, not once in a while but regularly, reliably—that anchors a family even on nights when the food is fast and the talk cheap and everyone has someplace else they’d rather be. And on those evenings when the mood is right and the family lingers, caught up in an idea or an argument explored in a shared safe place where no one is stupid or shy or ashamed, you get a glimpse of the power of this habit. . .”2
The benefits achieved from consistent family meals come by way of teaching kids civility, bestowing wise judgment, and imparting core family values. Experts on the subject of adolescent development have found through studying this table-centered practice that the more often families share a meal, the more likely children are to choose to eat vegetables, maintain a healthy weight, and do better in school. In fact, a report from Columbia University states, “Compared to teens who have five to seven family dinners per week, those who have fewer than three family dinners per week are nearly twice as likely to report receiving mostly C’s or lower grades in school.”3
Children who experience shared family meals are also less likely to eat trans fats, drink sodas, develop eating disorders, smoke, abuse alcohol and take drugs.4 Those youngsters gathering at the table with their parents at least five times a week are two times less likely to use tobacco or to drink alcohol and one-and-one-half times less likely to smoke marijuana.5
Anthropologist Robin Fox, who teaches at Rutgers University in New Jersey, brings a historical perspective to family meals. He asserts that food is too easy to come by these days, giving a lesser sense of significance to a once sacred event. Fox says, “When we had to grow the corn and fight off predators, meals included a serving of gratitude. It’s like the American Indians. When they killed a deer, they said a prayer over it. That is civilization. It is an act of politeness over food. Fast food has killed this. We have reduced eating to sitting alone and shoveling it in. There is no ceremony in it.”6
The act of building ceremony around meals is as nourishing to our loved ones as the traditional foods we strive to serve; it is part of raising well-rounded, compassionate children that grow into adults who make wise choices for a fruitful and enjoyable life.
MAKE FAMILY MEALS WORK, SOMEHOW, SOMEWHERE
Does the idea of dinner conjure up a vision of the 1950s mom, dressed to the nines, from her lipstick to stiletto heels? Get rid of ideals—just making it happen is what matters. For me, amidst the chaos I may be dealing with in my personal surroundings, cooking dinner somewhere between three to five is when it is easiest for me most days (even in my ratty pajama bottoms and bunny slippers sometimes!). While my time frame may change as family life takes on new dimensions, this currently is my usual routine.
But for your family, in whatever age or stage it might be, dinner could look different. A picnic blanket spread out on a private grassy knoll before your child’s ball game might make do for the family table on occasion. Or your main meal together may not even be dinner. Families with a parent working night shift, for example, may choose breakfast to be their sacred family meal. Working around sporting events and after-school activities may mean some families eat dinner at 8 p.m. instead of the typical 5:30. Try one thing, try another, and keep trying until something works, and then stick with it.
OPTING FOR SECOND BEST
I admit I have a weakness for not settling for second best. I want the crème de la crème for my family, which usually means the most expensive ingredients and the most time-consuming involvement. With every fiber of my being, I believe this investment is worth each nutrient-dripping morsel and tick of time; however, as the busy-ness of life continues to grow along with the size of my family, there have been times when I have had to compromise. And that is okay! Suffering anxiety that every speck of food must be flawlessly prepared, organic/biodynamic, and soaked to perfection can be counterproductive to my overall goal of gentle, lifelong physical and mental wellness.
In an engaging book titled The Happiest Mom, author Meagan Francis says this, “I’m not recommending that you completely give up your standards, but by embracing a slower pace and setting realistic goals, you’ll cultivate more happiness for the whole family.” While raising her five children, Meagan discovered that we need to be gentle with ourselves, and permit ourselves sometimes to compromise gracefully for the sake of family bliss. This is a lesson I am (slowly) learning.
First, stop comparing yourself to others. There are some families that appear to be real food superheroes: baking sourdough bread, brewing kombucha, fermenting sauerkraut, culturing kefir, raising a backyard cow . . . you know who I mean. This may even be you, but if it’s not (which is most of us), let go of the belief that you must reach these same goals; give yourself some wiggle room to grow and change. Your time will come when these projects or aspirations will find their way into your days.
Next, take heart that “second best” is not necessarily “second-rate” (of course, this could mean something different to those in the midst of healing certain health conditions). Using some canned foods (e.g. salmon, sardines and beans), brown rice pasta, jarred salsa, store-bought tostadas, bagged corn chips, serving a smoothie as a side dish, or eating the same meal three nights in a row may help you find a sense of calm and do-ability in the busy-ness of creating family meals. Refer to the WAPF shopping guide for direction on the best and second best choices (it is available for purchase or comes free with Foundation membership).
Finally, rework priorities getting in the way of regularly serving a soul-nurturing family meal at least five times a week. Purposefully schedule enough downtime to embrace everything under the umbrella of feeding your family well and make meal prep, clean up and inventive creations a team effort, while steadily elbowing out distractions (such as TV and phones). And when the going gets frazzled, frenzied and fast, allow yourself to make “second best” adjustments where needed to ensure that shared family meals happen. Remember, you are doing much more than giving your family vitamins and brain-building fats when you dedicate attention to food—you are gluing your family together with lifelong bonds, while slowly and surely launching your precious babies into the world with a strong sense of security, confidence and belonging, and a solid foundation of Grandma-approved manners.
1. Wizenberg, Molly. A Homemade Life: Stories and Recipes from My Kitchen Table. Simon and Schuster, New York. 2009. p 2
2. Gibbs, Nancy. “The Magic of the Family Meal.”Time. Originally published Sunday, Jun. 04, 2006. Found at http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1200760,00.html
3. The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA). “The Importance of Family Dinners VI.” September 2010. Found at http://www.casacolumbia.org/upload/2010/20100922familydinners6.pdf
4. Gillman, Matthew W. “Family Dinner and Diet Quality among Older Children and Adolescents.” Arch Fam Med. 2000; 9:235-240.
5. The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA). “The Importance of Family Dinners VI.” September 2010. Found at http://www.casacolumbia.org/upload/2010/20100922familydinners6.pdf
6. Gibbs, Nancy. “The Magic of the Family Meal.” Time. Originally published Sunday, Jun. 04, 2006. Found at http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1200760,00.html
MEAL PREP STRATEGIES
CROCK IT: The crockpot is one of my favorite kitchen appliances. Its simplicity and prep speed make it fantastic for the fast-paced family. Pulling together a Mexican meat and bean casserole after the kids catch the bus at 8:30 a.m. may be your best option, or tossing the ingredients in for a heavenly stew at 8 p.m. to sit in the fridge until morning might be the time-ticket for someone else. My piece titled “The Slow Cooker Rules” can be found at www.westonaprice.org for more on this subject. Also check out Stephanie O’Dea’s blog, A Year of Slow Cooking, crockpot365.blogspot.com. O’Dea gives a “verdict” of how the meal appealed to her husband and children; I like its trial-and-error feel.
ONCE A MONTH COOKING : It sounds a bit intimidating, but it can be fun, especially when tackled with a game group of friends. The idea is to take a day or two to create restaurant-sized amounts of several dishes that are frozen into meal-sized portions to eat throughout the month. This is a good money saver too. Check out books on the subject from the library or surf the web for ideas and recipes that work well with this concept.
MEAL ROTATION : Make two or three large meals and rotate them throughout the week with small changes, such as using fresh side dishes or creating a new meal with the leftovers. Take for example a big pot of your family’s favorite soup and a stew meat crockpot dish. Serve a simple rice side with your soup for two nights and on night three make the rice into a pilaf, fried rice patties or, if the soup is gone, make a whole new fried rice dish. And after enjoying stew two nights, on night three pull the last of the meat apart and mix it with a few different types of shredded cheeses and a scattering of chopped cilantro for quesadillas.
FAST BUT NOURISHING DINNER FORMULAS
Listed here are twelve gratifying, not too “weird” dishes with easy-to-find ingredients and simple, nourishing whole
foods. Use these recipeless ideas for inspiration on those nights, weeks, months or phases of life when you need to lighten
your load in the kitchen. Some of these formulas may seem atypical for dinner, but allow your mind to think outside the
dinner-box to invent fresh, “strange” ideas; it may be just what you need to keep sacred family mealtime alive in your
abode. One rule for these meals to work: keep your Food Essentials (see side bar on page 54) on hand to be able to whip
them up without too much fuss. And many of these dishes make lovely breakfasts!
SALMON AVOCADO BOAT . Canned wild salmon salad (made with mayo, preferably homemade, chopped onion and
cucumber with a dash of mustard) stuffed in an avocado half, served with fruit and crackers to scoop up the excess salad.
PEPPERING THE DOGS . Packaged grass-fed beef hotdog (no bun), sliced red peppers, slice of well-buttered bread (preferably
sourdough) with a clump of sauerkraut on the side.
ROAST AND SMOOTHIE DUO . Slow-cooked, pasture-raised roast with vegetables (brown a salt and pepper-seasoned
chuck roast on all sides in a skillet over high heat in fat, toss it in a slow cooker with about a cup of water and a good
amount of chopped carrots, potatoes, onions and celery) cook on low for up to ten hours. Serve with kefir (dairy or
coconut water) smoothie made with favorite fruit, coconut oil and a cucumber blended in.
QUICK CHINESE SHRIMP . Sauté frozen vegetables (Chinese blend) in sesame oil, add fresh or thawed shrimp (preferably
wild-caught) and season with soy sauce, sesame seeds, pepper, etc. Serve with rice or another favorite grain like
quinoa if desired.
PIZZAZZY GRILLED CHEESE . Thinly sliced apples are a special touch inside a grilled cheese sandwich, as are bites of
leftover meats or fish. Serve with a handful of cherry tomatoes, pickle, and sliced summer sausage stacked on a toothpick.
Roasted Bratwurst and Veggies . Cut root vegetables into one-inch pieces (potatoes, carrots, turnips, parsnips)
and slice red onions into wedges. Apple wedges will also complement these flavors. Toss the veggies, apples and brats
together with a good sprinkling of olive oil with a couple shakes of salt, roast in a 400°F oven for 30 to 40 minutes, turn
at least once to allow for even cooking. Serve with rice or leave as is.
EGG WRAP -TASTIC . Sauté veggies (onion, carrot, pepper, zucchini) in ghee, butter or coconut oil. When soft, crack a
few eggs on top with a little chopped chicken liver if available. Cover and allow the eggs to cook slightly, then mix in and
create an egg/veggie scramble that wraps nicely into a tortilla. Add leftover meat, cheese, beans, hot sauce, sauerkraut, etc.
VAT -O-SOUP . No recipe needed for a simple, use-up-all-your-veggies soup. Toss a good amount of grass-fed butter
or coconut oil (maybe 8 tablespoons) into a big pot. Sauté several chopped onions until translucent. Toss in whatever
else you have (carrots, purple potatoes, cauliflower, cabbage, peppers, green beans), sauté a little longer, then pour in a
quart or two of chicken broth (preferably homemade) and fresh or frozen tomatoes (I prefer frozen whole tomatoes as
the skins peel right off with a little rub under warm water) and maybe a jar of tomato paste to intensify tomato flavor.
Toss in herbs of your choice (basil is lovely), some paprika and unprocessed salt. Once everything is soft and to your
liking, make a paste of about three tablespoons arrowroot powder and water and stir the mixture into your soup to
add a touch of thickness. When serving, pour a little sauerkraut juice into each bowl for added flavor and a probiotic
boost. The variations on this are endless: add miso, frozen peas, roasted peppers, leftover chicken pieces, beef chunks
or taco filling. Other simple soup ideas: split pea, chicken and rice, corn chowder, veggie-filled chili, butternut, egg drop.
PLAIN OL ’ BEANS AND RICE . The additions to these simple foods include cottage cheese, cornbread, sausage, ham or
bacon, tomatoes, cilantro, sour cream, avocado or guacamole, salsa, grated cheese, carrot ribbons (made with peeler)
and a lacto-fermented vegetable. Your favorite combination can also be wrapped into a lettuce leaf for a fun twist.
TOSTADAS , TACOS AND BURRITOS . Most meats go well with these meals (beef, chicken, shrimp, canned salmon,
liver) and anything goes with toppings (similar to Plain ol’ Beans and Rice). Buy refried beans in a can or make your own
from canned beans by sautéing chopped garlic in some bacon drippings, lard or other oil, then pour a can of organic
beans into the skillet and mash. Top with leftover meat and your fixings. Take your tostada or regular corn tortilla and
load with beans and meat and toppings (or skip the beans and use just meat and toppings). Taco salad using all the same
ingredients is also a winner with the addition of crunched up tortillas chips.
NICE ‘N’ EASY FRIED RICE . Sauté vegetables of your choice (garlic, onion, broccoli, cabbage, peas, peppers) in your
favorite oil or fat until tender and add leftover rice. Beat a few eggs together with a tablespoon or two of soy sauce and
sesame oil and pour it into your veggie/rice mix and sauté until eggs are cooked.
EGG AND HAM CUPS . Oil a muffin tin, line each cup with ham or turkey ham slices, fold or cut to make it fit. Crack
an egg in each meat-lined cup and top with salt. Bake at 400°F for 10 to 15 minutes. This tasty, yet uncomplicated idea
is from Kids’ Fun and Healthy Cookbook by Nicola Graimes. Serve with small green salad sprinkled with a handful of
berries and nuts, and a drizzle of olive oil and squeeze of lemon.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Winter 2011.