One of the emails I get all the time is pretty basic: “If I want to make family dinner happen regularly, where do I start?” And in spite of 650 blog posts, my next book coming out on that very topic, and, oh, roughly 5000 family dinners logged in my own house at my own kitchen table, it’s still one of the harder questions to answer. I like to think this is not because I am incompetent (though the jury is still out on that one) but because I am a realist. The truth is, family dinner is not an easy thing to make happen, and any blogger or magazine article or cookbook author who claims otherwise (“Family Dinner in Five Easy Steps!”) should be viewed with a healthy dose of skepticism. The way I see it, like anything, there are different levels of the game, and if you concentrate on mastering one level at a time, and building from there, it’s a lot easier (and more long-lasting) than just assuming your family of athletes and picky eaters and late workers and on-again, off-again vegetarians is going resemble a Norman Rockwell painting on the very first time you try. (And by the way: Is there anyone left who believes that a Norman-Rockwell-imagined world still exists?) Here’s the way I see it progressing, with the subtext being that EVERY LEVEL QUALIFIES as family dinner.
Level 1: Sitting Down Together
This is where you start. Forget about the food and just focus on logistics. Get everyone sitting around the table at the same time. Try to make the event last more than six minutes. If you can pick three or four days during the week to make this happen, you can consider yourself ready for Level 2. Level 1 menu ideas: storebought Rotisserie Chicken with a basic salad; packaged dinners you feel good about, or something from the freezer like Meatballs.
Level 2: Sitting Down Together to Something Homemade
So you’ve mastered the logistics. Now it’s time to focus on the food. Don’t panic and don’t put too much pressure on yourself to make something overly complicated. (This is supposed to be fun, remember?) Take a step up from storebought foods and prepare something homemade that’s simple enough to make on autopilot (spaghetti with marinara? Omelet? Your grandmother’s famous curry?) Don’t feel bad about supplementing with a peanut butter sandwich if someone at the table protests. Just try to make that peanut butter sandwich with whole wheat toast and good-quality peanut butter. In our house, dinners that qualify for Level 2 are: Pizza, a Baked Potato bar; or a Roast Salmon with mustardy-dill yogurt sauce.
Level 3: Sitting Down Together to Something Homemade That Everyone Likes
OK, if we were talking college sports here, I’d say you’re getting into Division 1 territory here. If you feel like you’ve sufficiently nailed down Levels 1 and 2, you can start to think about cooking one thing that everyone will eat. This is, of course, where Deconstructed Dinners come into play: Indonesian Chicken Salad, Tortilla Soup, Salmon Salad (page 62, Dinner: A Love Story) are all great choices, but if you have meals that fall into this category I’m always interested in hearing about them. Always!
Level 4: Sitting Down Together to Something Homemade That Everyone Likes and that You Can Feel Good About on a Cosmic Level
This level is actually the whole reason I wrote this post. In fact it was supposed to be the whole point of the post — the idea that we have been going all flexitarian lately, eating less meat, following the philosophy of “meat as condiment,” and really paying attention to where our pork, beef, and chicken is coming from when we do eat it. I don’t know a lot, but I know enough to realize that being able to philosophize about what’s on your table (as opposed to just, you know, getting something–anything! — on your table) is a very luxurious way to think about dinner — especially when you factor in the costs of high-quality meat. If I had to categorize this level of thinking, I’d call it Premier League Family Dinner. And though I can’t play at that level all the time, I aspire to it almost every night. Most recently with this recipe which taps into the idea that a little bit of really good sausage goes a loooong way.
Lentils with Crispy Sausages
1 1/4 cup brown lentils
2 1/2 – 3 cups liquid (chicken stock, water) or enough to cover lentils by about an inch
1 1/2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
1/4 cup vinegar (I used white balsamic, but you can use tarragon, red wine, regular balsamic)
1/3 cup olive oil (plus more for frying)
salt and pepper
1/2 pound good-quality sausage (sweet or spicy Italian work well), removed from their casings
1 bunch scallions (white and light green parts), chopped
3 tablespoons chopped bell pepper
leaves from two sprigs of fresh thyme (or finely chopped parsley)
In a medium pot, boil lentils in broth-water combo, then reduce heat and simmer for 15 minutes until they are tender, but firm enough to still hold their shape. Drain.
While lentils are cooking, make your dressing by whisking together mustard, vinegar, olive oil, salt and pepper.
In a medium skillet over medium heat, fry sausage in a little olive oil, breaking up with a fork, until cooked through and crispy. Remove to a paper-towel lined plate.
Toss lentils with scallions, pepper, thyme, sausage bits, and vinaigrette. (You may not need all the vinaigrette — so drizzle it in instead of dumping it until it looks right.) Serve with crusty bread.