If You Cook it, They Will Come

March 25th, 2011 · 24 Comments · Chicken and Turkey, Dinner, Kitchenlightenment, Pasta, Rituals

I’d like to interrupt the relentless roll-out of pizzas and stews for an important — maybe even obvious — message. A few nights ago I was reading yet another article regurgitating what we probably all know by now about family dinner. This just in: All kinds of great things will happen if you just sit down with your kids to eat dinner. They will bring home straight As, they will be less likely to suffer from depression or eating disorders. They will beg for second helpings of spinach. And, right on cue, the article ended with this line (I’m paraphrasing): “Don’t worry about making a homemade dinner. Have a bowl of healthy whole grain cereal if you have to. It’s not the food that’s important, it’s being together.”

Let me first just say that I of course totally agree with most of this statement. The being-together part, after all, is the whole reason I launched this site. DALS is as much a response to all of us wanting to connect more with our children as it is about those succulent, beautiful eight-minute lamb chops.  But if that is all it is about, then there would only be as many posts here as there are brands of nutritious cereal. (Or Trader Joe’s frozen pizzas!) And also, I’m pretty sure we would’ve stopped caring about dinner (cooking it and writing about it) a while ago since a bowl of cereal for dinner is kind of fun if it’s Cereal for Dinner Night. But after too many Cereal For Dinner Nights, it’s just…cereal.

The goal (at least in my house) is to make dinner a ritual, and putting together something that you want to eat — that you are excited to eat — is going to do more for establishing that ritual than just about anything else. If you cook good food, it will build on itself. Your family will look forward to it. You will look forward to it. You will get addicted to eating well and watching your family eat well. (Is it me or do I sound exactly like Amy Chua justifying the self-esteem cycle that results from making your children practice their instruments for three hours a day? You force them to practice, they get better. The better they get the more they want to practice…) Is it essential that you braise an Osso Bucco on a Tuesday night? Of course not! There are all kinds of quick easy recipes on this site that qualify as special. But my point is, I don’t want to dismiss the role of caring about what you cook in this whole equation. The more you care, the more you’ll cook, and the more you cook, the more firmly the family dinner ritual will take hold. It’s probably going to be a long time before my kids recognize in a conscious way that eating a meal with someone who loves them satisfies some deep psychological need. But for now I’m pretty sure they’re psyched to show up just for the noodles.  And I don’t have any problem with that.

Thai Chicken with Noodles from Martha Stewart: Killer. Illustration up top is by M. Hafner, from the March 1960 issue of Good Housekeeping.

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24 responses so far ↓

  • 1 kate // Mar 25, 2011 at 9:51 am

    That dinner looks amazing! I’m pretty sure my kids would go nuts for it too. So making it this week!

  • 2 Pennie // Mar 25, 2011 at 10:04 am

    Love this post, Jenny! I’m a firm believer in family dinner time and making interesting, flavorful meals that will keep my kids coming back to the table. Not to mention, expanding their culinary horizons. First question from my kids every day after school, “What’s for dinner?” Dinner time has certainly always been precious time in my family, making us closer and better nourished!

  • 3 Cassie, mamamakesitbest.com // Mar 25, 2011 at 11:34 am

    I couldn’t agree more. Truly, thisis why I cook for my family. It’s about being together, conversing and enjoying good food. I wrote about it a while ago, too, if you’re interested :)

    http://www.mamamakesitbest.com/2010/06/sausage-ricotta-and-spinach-stuffed.html

    Also, I found the following on a different blog, who found it on a different blog, so I’m not sure of the origination…but I thought you might enjoy it.

    “Over the past decade, many studies and books have shown that children from families who eat together do better in school, that eating “whole” foods is healthier, that eating sustainably will save the environment. But no one has pointed out that the only way to achieve all this in a comprehensive, lasting way is for people to cook.
    Because:
    If you cook, your family will eat dinner together.
    If you cook, you will naturally have a more sustainable household.
    If you cook, you’ll set a lifelong example for your children.
    If you cook, you’ll understand what goes into food and will eat more healthily.
    If you cook, you’ll make your home an important place in your life.
    If you cook, you’ll make others happy.
    If you cook, people will remember you.”

  • 4 Beth S // Mar 25, 2011 at 12:02 pm

    We have a family tradition of the kids telling us the “best & worst” parts of their day at the table after dinner. On the nights I make a special meal it is usually one of their “bests” of the day, which it would not be if it was cereal or frozen pizza!!

  • 5 andrea // Mar 25, 2011 at 12:08 pm

    I love this post because sometimes I spend all this time making a meal that no one eats and then I wonder what’s the point? But my kids are still young and I have to assume eventually it will all be worth it.

  • 6 Liesel // Mar 25, 2011 at 12:56 pm

    So many of my childhood memories of the family dinner revolve around the food. How psyched we’d be to smell the yummy breaded pork chops cooking. The dread of seeing the “cauliflower-ham-bake” going into the oven. Sitting down to eat the barbeque chicken that my Dad would have spent an hour carefully cooking over a charcoal grill on a summer evening. It’s not something to stress out about but I think you are right that there’s something in the ritual of cooking that adds meaning and texture to the family dinner.

  • 7 Kate // Mar 25, 2011 at 1:07 pm

    This was a really moving and beautiful post, and, as always, so inspirational! Thank you: your mission here is really important to me and many others.

  • 8 Ceri@Sweet Potato Chronicles // Mar 25, 2011 at 1:41 pm

    Right on the money, as usual! I feel like the dinner debate veers from fear of cooking (30 second recipes!) to fear of not cooking (your kids will become hoodlums!). And most of us find ourselves in the middle, doing our best and trying to remember that dinner time can be delicious and fun. Thanks for all the great reminders.
    Plus, those noodles look amazing. Will definitely try.

  • 9 Tara // Mar 25, 2011 at 2:27 pm

    Yes, you are absolutely right that family dinner without the dinner is lacking something vital. My parents both cooked and dinner was always a family affair. Seeing them engaged in the kitchen, and seeing their pleasure at serving us the food they cooked made an impression on me and is, I’m sure, part of the reason a sit down dinner has always been the norm in our house, even before kids. And no, you sound nothing like Amy Chua.

  • 10 Brooke Reynolds // Mar 25, 2011 at 2:43 pm

    Right on. Dinner comes in all kinds of forms (though cereal is not one I’d count). Some days you can make the three hour meal that everyone will rave about, other days you’ve got just enough time to put together a nice hearty soup, and other nights it might need to be TJ’s orange chicken from the freezer over broccoli and brown rice. What I love about your site is you share dinners that cover the whole gamut.. Love this blog!

  • 11 susan // Mar 25, 2011 at 3:31 pm

    Yes, Yes, Yes. And you don’t sound like Amy Chua (but then again maybe I’m drinking the coolaid too).

  • 12 Laura // Mar 25, 2011 at 4:58 pm

    My thoughts exactly! By the way, are those things next to the plate some kind of chopsticks? They look cool! And that Thai chicken looks awesome! I think I’ll stop by the Asian market and get some noodles……

  • 13 jenny // Mar 25, 2011 at 5:19 pm

    Laura – They are “cheater chopsticks” and I got them at Broadway Panhandler in NYC about a hundred years ago. I think they sell them in party stores, too. Here they are on amazon — pretty sure they are the same ones.
    http://www.amazon.com/Animal-Cheater-Chopsticks-Pack-10050/dp/B0006M6XPS

  • 14 Claire // Mar 25, 2011 at 5:21 pm

    Like everybody else above, I love the message. And I can tell you after about ten years of nightly family dinners (sometimes more, often less gourmet) that the effort is well worth it. What you want is to get things to the point that it’s just routine–the preparations aren’t so daunting as they once were, my hubby knows to wrap up work and come home for a yummy meal, and the kidlets are not overly put off by the sight of chard. I plan to keep this up for a good, long time. Cheers!

  • 15 Nancy // Mar 25, 2011 at 9:29 pm

    Love the post. Love the illustration. Love the MS recipe recommendation. Speaking of MS, there is a recipe in the April edition of Everyday Food for shredded chicken with kale and lentils that seems to be calling out to many of us who read the DALS blog. Please let me know if you try it!

  • 16 nic ole // Mar 25, 2011 at 10:03 pm

    Love the post. My guy is 15 months old and we are trying to figure out how to make family dinner work. We’re getting there.

  • 17 Kirstin // Mar 25, 2011 at 10:59 pm

    Thank you! I so needed to read this. I’m not a natural born cook and, like most moms, there never seems enough time in the day to prepare a home cooked meal. But it is totally worth the effort. Thank you for the inspiration to keep on cooking :)

  • 18 Alyssa // Mar 26, 2011 at 12:11 am

    It’s an interesting topic to me. I spend SO much time in the kitchen…cooking, chopping, serving. And sometimes I wonder if it’s wasted time. I have friends who hardly cook…but their kids are fine, they spend time eating together as a family, and they seem to have so much more time on their hands. I feel like I am always grocery shopping, cooking, or cleaning up the kitchen.

    But I believe that I am doing a good thing for my family. My girls are starting to get interested in what goes into preparing their meals. They stand over me in the kitchen and watch what I’m doing. And even though they would probably prefer McDonalds to one of my home-cooked meals if asked, I have to hope it will all pay off in the long run!

  • 19 Erin @ Small Types // Mar 26, 2011 at 1:35 am

    I love this post! I don’t love cooking but I’m trying to get on board with it for the reasons you discuss here. I need to re-read this weekly!

  • 20 kate // Mar 27, 2011 at 12:25 pm

    Cassie-I love that quote too! It’s from Food52, as part of their “cooking manifesto” :) Just FYI…

    Jenny-Also, I am going to try this dish. I wanted to ask you, did you follow MS’s recipe exactly? Did you use Chinese rice noodles, or regular spaghetti? It’s hard for me to tell in the pic.
    Thanks!

  • 21 Jenny // Mar 27, 2011 at 5:32 pm

    kate -I’m pretty sure I used udon noodles. And I didn’t have basil so I used either cilantro or mint — can’t remember. And I added a few toasted sesame seeds at the end. In other words, it’s very flexible. But I did follow the Asian spicy sauce recipe almost to the letter.

  • 22 Berit // Mar 27, 2011 at 10:11 pm

    I made this tonight and it was delicious! Thanks for adding another goodie to my recipe box.

  • 23 Elizabeth // Mar 28, 2011 at 12:25 am

    I adore that illustration — it reminds me of my childhood, the books I loved –

    And, yes, to everything you wrote. I love your blog and your cookbook!

  • 24 Helene // Apr 13, 2011 at 10:21 pm

    I really have to make this salad. Love the illustration.

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