Imagine a world where the dinner bell rings, and feet from all around the house come shuffling to the table. There, great bowls spill with home-cooked foods. The table is set with silverware and napkins, cloth ones. Conversation, the give-and-take of great ideas or silly stories, flows. Laughter punctuates the tinkling of forks and knives. Someone asks, politely, "Please pass the peas."
Scratch that. Imagine not the whole wide world that way, but just one house. Yours.
Imagine that soccer practice isn't smack-dab at dinner hour. Imagine that you're not driving through the drive-through and calling it "good enough." Imagine that the TV isn't roaring.
Radical imagination, we know.
But we're about to get radical. Really, really radical.
It's time, people, to reclaim the family dinner.
Not only is it essential for the care and comfort of the ones you love, it also lays down a lifetime of memory that stands a chance of stoking generation after generation. Family dinner goes a long way toward keeping civilization from crumbling. The body politic, you might say, is launched with fork and spoon. Sopping up spilled milk is mere rehearsal for decades of diplomacy.
No short order, surely.
And, yes, yes, we know. There are a million and one reasons that it's practically as hard to get food on the table and bodies in the chairs after a long, hard day as it is to, say, circle the moon.
We know, thanks to the most up-to-the-minute snapshot by the market research gurus at the NPD Group, in a study titled "Dinnertime MealScape 2009," that if a camera peeked in the window of every American household we would see slightly more than half of them eating all together (an uptick, likely thanks to the recession). But in a third of the homes, meals are eaten in shifts. In almost 4 of 10 households, the TV is blaring during dinner. In 4 percent, there's a computer right beside the plate. And the computer is whirring away.
The bottom line, according to NPD's Kim McLynn: "There are more [of us eating together] than what most people believe, but we're approaching it in the easiest way possible."
Are we cranking up the stove, peeling a potato, doing actual cooking? "We're looking for any way around that," McLynn said.
Behold the counterargument.
"Family dinner is one-stop shopping for health and wellness," declared Lucinda Scala Quinn, cohost of PBS's Everyday Food, executive food director for Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, and author of Mad Hungry: Feeding Men & Boys (Artisan, $27.95).
"You have to eat, so why not nourish the ones you love physically, emotionally, spiritually?" Quinn asks. "You're using this necessary function to create a lifelong dialogue with the people you live with."
It won't happen overnight, she cautioned. "It's a day-in-and-day-out commitment, and there aren't rewards all the time. But when you see it, not all the money in the world could buy it. Each of those moments is like a little pearl on a necklace. When you look back on those pearls - when you have a 22-year-old who invites you for dinner, when you have a kid who likes vegetables, when you think of all the laughter and stories and learning that took place at the table - you're going to have a magnificent necklace."
Chef and cookbook author Lisa Schroeder couldn't agree more. The dinner table, she said, "is a great location for many lessons of civilization. We pass the plate, we use tongs instead of grabbing. It opens a door for all sorts of communication. Sometimes you just have to set aside the time and make it happen."
Schroeder, a European-trained chef and single mother who felt so compelled to preserve home cooking that she opened Mother's Bistro & Bar in Portland, Ore., recently tucked 150 of her favorite recipes into a cookbook, Mother's Best: Comfort Food That Takes You Home Again (Taunton Press, $28).
Anna Last, editor of Everyday Food, the magazine that strives to make it doable to cook any night of the week, said we need to ditch the notion that it's OK to sit in front of the TV shoveling in food.
"It's about breaking a habit," she said. "I don't know why every day can't be a celebration. Or an everyday inspiration."
Flat Roast Chicken
Makes 6 servings
1 whole chicken, 3 to 4 pounds, backbone removed
1/2 teaspoon coarse salt plus a pinch
Freshly ground black pepper 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, divided
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
2 cloves garlic, smashed or chopped
1. Heat oven to 400 degrees. Cut along both sides of backbone of chicken with kitchen shears to remove; reserve backbone for broth. Spread bird flat, skin side up. Press down firmly on breastbone to flatten. Pat dry with paper towels. Season with salt and pepper to taste on both sides.
2. Heat large ovenproof skillet over high heat. Add 1 tablespoon of the olive oil and 1 tablespoon of the butter. Add chicken, skin side down; cook until browned, 3 minutes. Turn, being careful not to break the skin. Transfer skillet to oven. Cook until chicken is golden brown and cooked through, 40 to 45 minutes. Remove chicken to cutting board; let rest 10 minutes. Add 1 tablespoon of the lemon juice and remaining 1 tablespoon of the butter to the pan drippings; whisk.
3. Whisk together remaining 3 tablespoons of the olive oil, 2 tablespoons of the lemon juice, red pepper flakes, garlic, and pinch of salt in a bowl. Cut chicken into pieces; drizzle with lemon sauce and pan sauce.
Per serving: 375 calories, 30 grams protein, 1 gram carbohydrates, 28 grams fat, 105 milligrams cholesterol, 249 milligrams sodium, no dietary fiber.
Mexican Egg Scramble
Makes 6 servings
18 corn tortillas or 1 bag salted tortilla chips
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
5 green onions, chopped
4 serrano or jalapeno chilies, minced
1 large tomato, coarsely chopped
1 1/4 teaspoons coarse salt
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro, optional
1 dozen large eggs
1. If using corn tortillas, toast individually over gas flame on low, or in a pan for about 40 seconds per side. Stack on top of one another; wrap in foil or a clean kitchen towel to steam.
2. Heat 14-inch skillet over high heat; add oil. Stir in onions and chilies. Add tomatoes, salt, and cilantro. Cook, stirring, 2 minutes.
3. Whisk eggs together in bowl. Add to skillet; cook, stirring often, just until eggs are set, 1 to 2 minutes. Scoop a portion of eggs onto serving plates; serve with tortillas, or crumble tortilla chips over the egg mixture.
Per serving: 348 calories, 18 grams protein, 40 grams carbohydrates, 14 grams fat, 423 milligrams cholesterol, 552 milligrams sodium, 5 grams dietary fiber.
Sausage, Mozzarella, and Broccoli Rabe With Shells
Makes 4 servings
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
3 sprigs thyme
1/2 teaspoon coarse salt
Freshly ground pepper
2 cloves garlic, chopped
3/4 pound spicy Italian sausage, casings removed 1 tablespoon flour
1 can (28 ounces) whole peeled tomatoes
8 ounces medium shell pasta
1 pound broccoli rabe, trimmed, coarsely hopped
6 ounces fresh mozzarella, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1/4 cup grated Parmesan
1. Heat oven to 400 degrees. Heat oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add onion and thyme; season with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until onion is golden, 15 minutes.
2. Add garlic and sausage. Cook, breaking up meat, until browned, about 5 minutes. Add flour; cook, stirring, 30 seconds. Add tomatoes, breaking them up with spoon. Cook until slightly thickened, 5 to 8 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Discard thyme.
3. Meanwhile, heat a large pot of salted water to a boil; add pasta. Cook 4 minutes less than package instructions. Add broccoli rabe; cook 15 seconds. Drain; return to pot. Stir in sausage mixture. Transfer to a 3-quart baking dish or divide among four 16-ounce gratin dishes. Top with mozzarella and Parmesan. Bake until cheese has melted and liquid is bubbling, about 15 minutes.
Per serving: 665 calories, 32 grams protein, 64 grams carbohydrates, 31 grams fat, 64 milligrams cholesterol, 1,324 milligrams sodium, 5 grams dietary fiber.
The 1-2-3 of Family Dinners
So, you're taking the plunge. You've decided that, darn it, you're reclaiming family dinner, making it your own, an oasis of contentment among the daily chaos. Do not underestimate the power of that utterly essential Step No. 1, the decision to just do it. But now maybe you're scratching your head, wondering how the heck to get to Step No. 2 and beyond. Well, here's some smart thinking to get you to what you're dreaming of: Family Dinner, the Civilized Way.
Don't go it alone. Enlist the kiddies. Demonstrate the carrot peeler. Teach the fine points of knife, fork, and spoon, and where to plop them on the table. Appoint a vice president of salad.
Aim for three. Start slowly. Do not set out to make dinners seven nights a week. Start with only one, if that's all you can handle. Build up to three. Extra credit for anything beyond.
Don't wait till tummies growl. Planning is everything. Sketch out ideas for maybe three meals in a given week. Everyday Food's Lucinda Scala Quinn says shopping is 50 percent of the equation, and she does it all early Sunday mornings. Everyday Food, the magazine, gives you shopping lists for a week at a time. Quinn loves to knock out plenty of cooking on Sundays, with all hands on deck, making it a lively kitchen tableau.
Compound recipes. Learn to think like a smart someone who knows that one easily divides into three. Roast chicken one night turns into chicken and dumplings the next night, and chicken soup the night after that.
Block by block. Break down your meal prep into 10-minute tasks. Whip up a quick marinade before work, toss chicken breasts and marinade in a food storage bag. Rinse and dry greens, tuck back in fridge. Rinse and chop broccoli to steam later on. Sometimes just lining up ingredients is enough to jump-start the later-in-the-day cooking.
Stick with what you know. No one says family dinner need be a five-fork affair. Simple homemade food is guaranteed to satisfy. If you're inclined to test one new recipe, round out the meal with standbys - your killer vinaigrette, the no-brainer baked potato.
A supporting cast. Salad from the salad bar plus garlic bread from the freezer equal easy sides for that pot of spaghetti and meatballs. Who cares if you didn't slave over every last bit of it?
Dig in, everybody. Serve family-style, says chef and cookbook author Lisa Schroeder. Gets everyone talking as they pass the pasta and slide the Parmesan cheese down the table.
Never underestimate the aromatics. Corollary here is "If they smell it, they will come." Just watch what happens when you get the garlic sizzling, onions browning. Same goes for cinnamon wafting from the oven. The aromatic bliss floating from the kitchen is the surest dinner bell ever.
Down-home details. A dash of cinnamon atop the poured-from-a-jar applesauce, a sprinkling of paprika on the sour cream. You needn't knock yourself out on every dish to impart that Mama's-at-the-stove dash of lovin' from the kitchen.
Embrace the beautiful. Splurge on new cloth napkins. Light candles on a Tuesday night. Tuck fresh herbs on the plates. You'll be surprised how those little touches revive the flagging spirits of all who gather there - especially the cook.