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The B4FD Project features blog posts from guest writers that explore the far-reaching benefits of family dinner.

Family Dinner Month 2012: Sept 17 -- Oct 29, 2012

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June: Celebrate Dads, Influential Men and Family Dinner

This month on Blog for Family Dinner, we will host Dad bloggers as well as posts about influential men and family dinner. We are excited to offer a great giveaway this month. Check out the details here. Or just comment on any post in June or sign up to our mailing list on the side bar to win! Prizes are Michael Natkin’s new cookbook Herbivoracious and a cool retro T-shirt from B4FD co-founder, Time at the Table.

My Mennonite Mother and Dessert

by Melodie Davis

Many kids have glowing memories of the wonderful meals and dishes their mothers made for them growing up. Katie Boyts, creator of the The Shoefly Project blog helped me understand why I have wonderful memories of the desserts mom used to make, but not so much the meals.

Don’t be fooled though by this introduction: my mom was a fine cook who put three separate meals on the table every day of the week for a family of six and for that alone she deserves a medal of “she got ‘er done!” But she did not love cooking—she did it because that was her job, among others, and we needed to eat. She went into a mild panic when Dad would bring in a couple of hired hands at the last minute for dinner, or if Dad or us kids talked her into having company over for Sunday dinner. She was always inclined to worry about whether she would prepare enough, or would people like it, and how will I ever get all my other work done?

But a normal dinner (main meal of the day at noon on the farm) in the 50s and 60s in rural Indiana was just meat (usually home-grown beef or pork served baked/roasted, fried); potatoes (mashed, plain boiled, baked, or fried) or perhaps noodles or macaroni; and a vegetable, boiled. Period. If we had salad, it was iceberg lettuce with homemade salad dressing. In the summer we joyfully added fresh tomatoes, radishes and garden lettuce to our meals. But no spinach, kale, or other yummy greens. No broccoli, cauliflower, squash or other “exotic” vegetables at our house. Usually plain corn, beans, peas. No casseroles other than macaroni and cheese. Later in life we got into lima beans and plain casseroles combining noodles, potatoes and a vegetable with a can of soup on top. We were getting fancy.

For our evening meal in summer we ate one of a variety of fresh fruits with bread and milk or maybe with a cobbler or shortcake: strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, peaches. We ate local most of the time and didn’t even know that was something to be proud of.

However, (and I’m told by my peers this was common for many a Mennonite mom,) desserts were special. As Katie Boyts pointed out at a Mennonite writers conference recently, if you look at cookbooks or recipe boxes from the era you will see separate chapters of recipes for 1) cakes, 2) pies, 3) cookies/brownies, and then one just called “desserts” (as if all those other chapters weren’t really desserts). Even a relatively well-rounded book like the now classic Mennonite Country-Style Recipes (Herald Press, 1987) dedicates roughly 200 of its 500 pages to dessert type items (all categories). That is where the date puddings and hot chocolate pudding and something we called George Washington Pudding (or “cherry delight”) and much more were found. This is where the fancy came out. I recall learning how to whip real cream for mom to plop at the last minute onto the already decadently rich date pudding when company came, so it would be poufy and fresh. Or helping her dish up hot chocolate pudding for a church committee meeting at the house– a warm Bisquick-y base with melted chocolate syrup oozing over everything like what you would find at Applebees with ice cream on top. I have never made date or hot chocolate pudding for my family. They would think both are too rich.

But when your meal was rather plain and you did hard physical work on the farm, you could indulge in dessert. Every week she would make either a cake or homemade pies for the basic dessert for the week and then if we ran out, we’d have home canned peaches, pears, apricots or cherries for dessert with a cookie or two. Those desserts bring back fond memories too because I have never gotten around to canning fruits. If Mom goes to a potluck, even at age 87, she doesn’t feel right just bringing a store bought pie or deli potato salad (or heaven forbid a bag of chips): she has to make her usual pecan pie.

It is interesting how food customs and favorites change even within the same culture—let alone add in the delightful multi-cultural mix of food that we enjoy in North America these days.

I’m grateful for all I learned from my mother in the kitchen even though she always felt she failed in teaching us four children to cook very much. These days, even my brother and one sister who was always out helping Dad on the farm, manage to get a meal on the table and enjoy it too.

No use to harken back to “good old days”—just enjoy and appreciate the foods you are blessed to have access to in 2012 and the plethora of recipes and cooking shows and websites to show you endless ways to prepare them.

Melodie M. Davis is the author of nine books, most recently Whatever Happened to Dinner? (Herald Press, 2010) available online here.

On Grandmas, Food and Memories

by Bettina Elias Siegal

This post was originally published on The Lunch Tray on April 9, 2012.

My paternal grandmother passed away yesterday. She was 96, a truly remarkable woman, and I was lucky to have had her in my life for so long.

My cousin was with my grandmother shortly before her death and told me that, amidst recounting snippets of her past (sometimes in Ladino, the Hebreo-Spanish spoken by Sephardic Jews and the language of her childhood), she also fretted about cooking. She worried aloud over who was going to soak the beans for a Sephardic dish that all of us, her children and grandchildren, grew up eating: “fijones,” the Castillian Spanish version of “frijoles,” or beans.

It was interesting to me that even in those last hours she was thinking about preparing a meal – maybe a reflection of the centrality of food and cooking to women of her generation, and to all of us, even now, who are responsible for nourishing loved ones on a regular basis.

bimble recipe cards
My maternal grandmother’s recipes on index cards — and a bank slip

Hearing this story reminded me of the family cookbook project I told you about in December 2010 (“Preserving My Kids’ Culinary Heritage“). You might recall that I’d been sifting through a recipe box from my maternal grandmother (who passed away in the 90s), and decided to compile those recipes, along with those of the other women on that side of the family, into a keepsake book for all of their descendants.

Well, in the end, it took me over a year to finish the project, not because it was so time-consuming but because it was harder than expected to find uninterrupted blocks of time to work on it. But I finally did finish it last month and realized yesterday that I never showed you the results as I’d promised to.

Here are a few photos just to give you an idea of what it looks like:

In the end, the recipes in the book were almost superfluous. What made it such a meaningful project to work on (and, hopefully, a meaningful keepsake for the recipients) was the wealth of memories each contributor shared. In the end I wound up devoting the first half the book just to those narratives, and the other half to the recipes. I learned so much about my mother’s heritage — culinary and otherwise — and was drawn closer to family members whom I didn’t know very well before I started.

If anyone is interested in taking on a similar project for their family, I did a fair amount of research on the various book publishing websites, including those which specialize in cookbooks. (In the end, I chose Blurb, a site for self-publishing all kinds of books, for the formatting flexibility it offered.) Feel free to contact me and I’ll be happy to share what I learned.

Before signing off, here’s a picture of my paternal grandmother, looking stylish in the 1960s. She’ll be sorely missed.

Bettina Elias Siegel is a former lawyer, freelance magazine writer and the parent of two children in Houston public schools. She blogs daily about “kids and food, in school and out” on The Lunch Tray, which has been recognized by Rachel Ray’s Yum-O! Foundation and as a Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution “Blog of the Month.” She is also actively involved in efforts to improve school food in her own district and reports specifically on Houston ISD school food news on her new blog, The Spork Report.

Sundays With Sparky – Abuelita Elena’s Cold Zucchini Soup

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My mother was a fairly utilitarian cook; as a university professor, she didn’t have much time to enjoy preparing meals the way I do. However, she believed that having a family meal was important, and she developed a repertoire of solid meals, mostly cribbed from newspaper articles and magazine clippings, that somehow still reflected her Argentine heritage. We ate foods my friends had never heard of (well, really – foods they called “weird.”) but that were delicious and good for us and that broadened my culinary horizons.

For his birthday, I always allow my son Sparky to choose the meals for the day. I always expect fried foods or cheese-gloppy tacos and other “kid” foods which cause involuntary shudders in nutritionists and parents alike. This year, while lunch was predictable enough: nutella and banana-filled crepes, for dinner, he surprised me by asking for homemade sliders with caramelized onions, and Abuelita’s cold zucchini soup, bell pepper wedges and of course, @bronxzooscobra cake. (Truthfully, that was AFTER I told him he couldn’t have his first choice dinner: pecan pie followed by birthday cake. Upon reflection, he agreed that he might not sleep too well after that meal.)

My Mom’s zucchini soup is a summer staple in our house, it’s mostly vegetables in a bit of chicken stock. I’ve streamlined her version to make it even simpler. As soon as we had a free Sunday, I took the opportunity to teach Sparky to make it himself.

Ingredients:

2-3 bright green zucchini (approximately 1 lb)
1 red onion
2 cups chilled low-salt chicken stock
1 small handful fresh parsley
salt and pepper to taste

This soup starts with the most fundamental vegetable preparation: a sauté of onions and zucchini in a bit of olive oil. Almost any vegetable can be prepared this way, from tomatoes to potatoes to bok choy to kolhrabi – a quick sear over high heat with an aromatic (onions, garlic, celery, peppers and sometimes carrots) is a delicious way to showcase your produce.

010The first step is to cut the vegetable into pieces that are all about the same size and shape – for zucchini, this means removing the stem and the small button at the end, and then slicing them into disks.

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Then the onions were loosely chopped, and both were put together in a hot skillet. Since in this case we are hoping to soften everything, we crowded the pan, added a bit of salt, and allowed the natural juices to steam and soften the zucchini as we moved it around. (If you’re going for sautéed zucchini instead of soup, leave some room in the pan and allow it to brown a bit before you stir or flip it to sear the other side; salt it when it’s done. In that case, you want it to be slightly crunchy.)

021When the zucchinis were soft, we added them to the blender and blended them into mush. Sparky added about 2 cups of chilled chicken stock (low-salt canned is fine) and then a good handful of fresh parsley to help keep it nice and green. Then we tasted it and added salt and pepper as needed (overseason just a little bit; chilled foods tend to taste bland.)

024After it was blended until totally smooth and creamy, we poured it into a pitcher with an frozen insert originally intended for iced tea, and set it in the refrigerator to chill for two hours – it tends to thicken slightly, so have some more chilled chicken stock on hand in case you need to thin it a bit.

We served it as a starter with homemade croutons and a dollop of sour cream. It’s smooth and cool with a hint of sweetness and completely delicious on a hot summer evening.

Michele Hays believes that any dish, even one that’s strange to you, communicates the care of the farmer, forager, market and cook who brought it to your plate. At her blog, Quips, Travails and Braised Oxtails, she puts on her explorer hat, rolls up her sleeves (and sometimes the sleeves of innocent bystanders) and shares her adventures in cooking, eating, and understanding our relationship to food.  Michele also offers in-home cooking classes and parties for the culinarily challenged in the Chicago North Shore area.

Cooking Does Not a Great Parent Make

by Amy Kover

When people read my blog, they often say: “You’re such a great mother. You cook all the time.” Ha! I laugh! I may, in fact, be a good mother but not because I cook. (Verdict is still out.) Like exercising and drinking wine, I cook solely for myself. For me, cooking is a vital source of creativity and personal enjoyment. It’s got little to do with my kids.

My mother’s most heroic period took place when she barely cooked at all. For one year, Jeanne raised us kids, dealt with the aftermath of a divorce, worked full time, took nighttime college classes at night, and cared for her dying mother. Did I mention I was an incredibly obnoxious, slightly rebellious teen? I get exhausted just listing it all.

Dinner was often thrown to the wayside during these stressful days. So much so that whenever we ate a traditional meal, Mom would proudly exclaim: “Look, kids, we’ve got three things on the plate!” Most nights, we ate tortellini with veggies. Others it was Kraft macaroni and cheese.

My kids eat their fair share of mac and cheese too. My reasons, however, are not nearly as valid as those of The Jeanne. Usually they won’t eat the fancy stuff, and I don’t have the energy to (a) convince them that Artic Char is awesome or (b) invent a homemade, healthy alternative for them. So, while my husband and I dine on gourmet meals, the kids often eat garbage.

That’s not to say I don’t care about what my kids eat. I am aware of the child obesity epidemic; concerned about the health impact of too much processed food; and actively support the local food movement. However, eating is a deeply personal thing, and I have my own quirky definition of acceptable children’s nutrition. In our house, Mom’s three-things-on-the-plate rule still applies. (My motto: “A vegetable on every plate.”) I also try feed them whole foods 65-70% of the time. The rest goes straight to the chicken nuggets fund.

Frankly, I am sick of hearing Militant Dietary Moms yammer on about their kids’ affinity for seitan and carrot juice. I want to holler back: “You win!! You win the Mommy Competition. Mazel Tov!” As a generation of women raised to believe we could ‘have it all’, we collectively suffer from the delusion that everything in life can be ranked. Alas, unlike GPAs and executive compensation, there is no ranking system for successful parenting, but there is for healthy food. For years, the FDA has provided pyramids and color wheels outlining the best way to feed your children. How easy to call that great parenting.

Personally, I think the hardest part of being a Mom isn’t feeding your kids, but getting to know them as they constantly change and learn about the world. (For instance, my five-year old son walks around rapping to himself and performing bizarre dance moves. Will he be the same at fourteen? Stay tuned.)

I’d like to think Jeanne taught me this lesson particularly well. Aside from serving as an amazing role model during those difficult days, my mom kept one thing constant: She talked to us about everything. She never tired of hearing about the most recent social drama in my life, nor did she hold back from sharing her unvarnished opinions (which normally annoyed the crap out of me). My mom always knew me.

That is the true gift of The Jeanne. More than the recipe, that is the fruit of my blog.

Amy Kover is a ”recovering journalist,” who spent five years as a staff writer at Fortune magazine, followed by several more years writing for The New York Times, Real Simple, Smart Money, and Women’s Health. After a stint in PR, she returned home to raise her two children in NYC. “Cooking With Jeanne” is based on the legacy of her mother, a wonderful – yet imprecise– cook.  May Jeanne’s wacky humor and ageless wisdom serve us all well in our daily lives.

Aunt Sandy’s Cherry Banana Pie

By Serena Ball

During the month of Mother’s Day, I must share my Aunt Sandy’s recipe for cherry pie. It’s not your typical cherry pie. It’s Banana Cherry Pie flavored with cinnamon and almond extract and it was my very favorite pie as a child. I even occasionally asked for it for my birthday, instead of cake.

Aunt Sandy was an amazing cook. Her homemade chocolate bonbons were memorable – and so was her spaghetti with meat sauce, her elaborate birthday cakes for my cousin and her repertoire of delicious hamburger casseroles recipes. (Since she and her family lived on the same cattle ranch as did we – there was always a need for another variation on the hamburger casserole.)

My aunt also had diabetes. She managed it very well. But I’ve never forgotten what she told me when I announced I was going to college to be a dietitian; she said “I don’t like dietitians.” When I got over the initial shock, I found her to be an inspiration – to always, always think about the feelings of person on the other end of diet advice I was dispensing – and to make sure that guidance was realistic for them.

And in the end, it turns out Aunt Sandy may have known more than a few of her dietitians back in the day. She was able to manage her diabetes well by eating a fairly ‘normal’ – but healthfully home-cooked diet, and making sure she had quality protein at every meal and snack. That’s pretty near where recommendations for people with diabetes stand now: Eat the same healthful diet as the rest of the family – just monitor carbohydrates, fats and protein more carefully.

This pie is certainly not a low-carb pie. But it is chocked full of fruit and a moderate piece can obviously be worked into a healthful diet. I like to serve it to my kids as an afternoon snack along with a glass of protein-packed milk, which this month we will raise to mothers, grandmothers,  great-grandmothers and Aunt Sandy.

Serena Ball is half of the Teaspoon of Spice duo of “Two dietitians who love food as much as you do!” and blogs at TeaspoonofSpice.com. She is co-founder of the monthly healthy recipe challenge The Recipe Redux. Serena lives in a Chicago suburb with her husband, three young children and a haphazard garden in which only rhubarb and raspberries seem to thrive. She loves cooking with her kids and blogging about healthy, simple food that must be delicious.

Author’s note: This post originally appeared on President’s Day holiday weekend at: http://teaspooncomm.com/teaspoonofspice/2012/02/presidents-day-cherry-pie/

A Full Indian Meal

By Neha Dedhia Shah

I am a stay at home mom of 3 beautiful young children and a wife of a fantastic husband. I try my hardest to provide for my family but the one area I cannot seem to pull it together is meals for my husband and I. I can handle making dinner and feeding my children – yes I do cater to them and make them different foods than I make for us. I have extremely picky eaters and I will do anything to get them to eat a healthy meal – even if that means making them something different. Now dinner for my husband and I is a whole different story. I cannot manage to find time in my day to make dinner for us. How do people do it?

One person I know who did an amazing job with full meals every day is my mom. Growing up, my mom worked a full time job as an Engineer yet she still managed to come home every evening and make a full Indian meal for our family of 4. I admire her for that because it is a lot of work making a full Indian meal on a daily basis – after working all day and then coming home to two young girls. I aspire to be like my mom when it comes to cooking but I know I will never get there. I appreciate her hard work and the time she took to make sure her family ate healthy everyday.

A recipe that I use (modernized version of what my mom used to make) that is fast, easy and works for my whole family is chapati quesadilla. It is something my kids as well as my husband and I enjoy! Since Chapati’s are healthy and made of whole wheat flour and we eat them with a lot of our foods – I use them a lot.
Chapatis:
1 cup of whole wheat flour
1 tsp oil
pinch of salt
warm water
For the chapatis
  1. Mix the flour, oil and salt and make a dough by adding warm water as needed.
  2. Knead the dough well and let it sit for ½ an hour.
  3. Make 2 ” flattened balls and then with a rolling pin, roll out until they are thin like a tortilla
  4. Cook on both sides of a tava (griddle) until its golden
  5. Add ghee (butter) after cooked.
Potatoes and Corn Quesadillas
Ingredients

1 Potato peeled and cubed into small pieces
1/2 cup corn (I prefer frozen over canned)
2 tbsp chopped onion
1 tsp of garam masala (mixture of spices – can buy it from any Indian store)
Pinch of cumin and mustard seeds for seasonings
Pinch of salt
Shredded cheese as desired

Method
1. Heat a tsp of oil in a pan and when it is hot add cumin and mustard seeds. When the mustard seeds start to pop add the onions and saute until translucent.
2. Add the salt, garam masala, potatoes and corn, sprinkle a tbsp of water, cover with a lid and let cook until the potatoes are soft.
3. When the filling is cooked, heat a skillet and place the chapati in it. Add the filling, sprinkle cheese (as desired) and place another chapati on top. When the cheese is melted, the chapati quesadillas are done.
4. Cut into 4 pieces and serve.
I sprinkle chili powder on the filling after I make my kid’s quesadillas since they do not like it hot. You can also replace the potatoes and corn with any other soft and cooked vegetables and it will taste just as great!

Even to this day, my mom will make dinner for my family and either bring it over or have us over to her house for dinner at least twice a week and I love her for it! It makes my life easier and our diet a healthy one.

My mom is an amazing cook and I thank her for all that she has provided for me growing up and now for my family!

Neha Dedhia Shah is a Co-Founder and Writer for BabyRecs. Quitting her job and choosing to be a stay at home mom with 3 young children allowed her to spend more time doing the things she loves. With a passion for creativity, Neha has found that among her love for arts, crafts and fashion, she also enjoys writing. Please visit her site to see more of Neha’s writing.

Ordinary Pleasures

by Jennifer Grant

Sitting down for dinner with my husband and children – or whatever combination of the five of them is home – is one of my favorite, ordinary pleasures.

Almost nightly, one of my sons fixes his gaze on the butter plate and then saws thick, neat squares from the stick and arranges them on his bread. My son’s passion for butter reminds me of my brother’s promise, when we were children ourselves, that he would someday name his first child “Butter” as a testament to his love for it. (Happily for all involved, he later changed his mind.)

Whenever she has spaghetti, my older daughter sighs with gratification after she sweeps up a strand of pasta, swirls it in the puddle of marinara on her plate, and closes her mouth over her folk. “Pasta,” she says, speaking the word as if it were made of silk.

My oldest child, the only picky eater in the bunch, is inexplicably fond of legumes, especially if they are prepared with curry. These foods add nice color to his repertoire of favorites, the same few foods he’s craved since he was tiny. Grilled cheese sandwiches. Boxed macaroni and cheese. Caesar salads. I get special pleasure watching him greedily consume a bowl of spicy split pea soup.

In watching my children eat, I’m reminded that not all mothers can do the same. For many women around the world, the task of securing food for their children is an endless, often futile, struggle. I’m also reminded that some parents in more affluent cultures bear the excruciating burden of having children with eating disorders. Those grim realities, paired with the undeniable satisfaction I get from watching my children eat well, make feeding them – and considering what I am doing to help those in need – all the more important to me.

From the moment my children came into my life, feeding them – literally keeping them alive – has been a responsibility I’ve been glad to shoulder. I’m aware of how fortunate I am to be able to do so. Of course now that they are tweens and teens – not the terrifyingly vulnerable infants they once were – I don’t track every ounce of nourishment that enters and exits their bodies. They are strong and healthy and can serve themselves bowls of cereal or reach into the fridge for a yogurt when hunger whispers at them.

I’ve recently become aware of another pleasure I derive related to feeding my family. It’s not – much as I love it – listening to the stories my children tell to describe their days, but it is played out in the half hour before we sit down to dinner. When children are very young, that period of time (also known as “the witching hour”) is possibly the most dreaded and dreadful part of a parent’s day, but when they are older, it can be a time to savor.

A few nights ago, as store-bought spanakopita baked in the oven and I spooned hummus into a bowl, I stopped for a moment to listen to and look around at my children. All four of them had congregated at the kitchen counter about thirty minutes earlier.

“When’s dinner?” they asked.

“In a little while,” I said. “Twenty minutes. Maybe half an hour.”

They wandered from the room. One began practicing the piano. Another flopped onto the couch to read. The other two went out back and started a game of whiffle ball. In a few minutes, drawn by the crack of the bat and the laughter outside, the other two had joined the game. I watched from the window above the kitchen sink as my nearly sixteen year-old son hit the ball and raced to first base (the pear tree) and then second (the play set). My youngest batted next and all four kids broke into laughter when she hit a foul ball over the fence into the neighbor’s yard. My oldest won’t be a part of these ordinary scenes in two short years. He’ll be away at college, rendering the whiffle ball teams – and the gender balance in our home – uneven.

After more than a decade and a half of mothering, as I sliced red pepper for the salad, I could hear echoes of those well-meaning older women at the grocery store who, on seeing me with my four little ones many years ago, took me aside and told me to cherish every moment.

“It goes by so fast,” they said, wistfully. “Are you sure you’re treasuring this special time?”

The familiar sights and sounds of my kids out back as I put the finishing touches on our dinner transported me to a place – unlike that exhausted, blurred land of caring for very young children – where I knew I would be able to answer those ladies at the grocery store with a confident “Yes!”

“Yes, I am cherishing these days! I know they are precious.”

I sprinkled a little feta cheese on the salad, tossed a dishtowel onto the counter, and called out from the open window: “Dinner time!”

Jennifer Grant is the author of two memoirs about family life: Love You More: The Divine Surprise of Adopting My Daughter and MOMumental: Adventures in the Messy Art of Raising a Family. Find her online at jennifergrant.com.

Spreading Mom’s Love Through Memories and Meals

by Shari Brooks

It’s amazing how much about my mom’s life I learned through her death. I always knew Mom was a very private person.  Yet, her funeral boasted myriad outsiders who were somehow touched by Mom; it was my window into her true depth of compassion for others, even during her personal cancer struggle.  The receiving line represented grieving people from all walks of her life:  the Russian manicurist who looked forward to seeing my mom every week for the last eight years (even during her marathon chemo infusion days), the dry cleaning lady who loved receiving my mom’s crafty hand-written recipes each week, teachers from my grade school (over 35 years ago) who worked with her as class mom.  As I looked out across the sea of people congregated, I realized that many of them had, at one point in their lives, sat around our dinner table and benefited from Mom’s gourmet cooking.  In fact, I’m certain that many friendships in the audience were even initiated around our table.

Our dinner table was effectively a communal table.  As quiet and reserved as my mom could be, my father is the polar opposite.  He is a people-collector.  Every person that came into contact with my dad was, in one way or another, invited over the house for a home-cooked meal (regardless if he informed Mom or not).  To this day, I have no idea how my mom put up with him.  On many occasions, she’d find herself cooking for people who didn’t even speak a lick of English but who my dad had met out: at the hospital, on the street, at the symphony.  Basically, there was no filter for Dad.  Whoever seemed remotely interesting would get the invite for dinner.  Often, Mom would be told the morning of the dinner and, without any hesitation, the table would be set and the kitchen would be overflowing with the savory smells from the stove and double oven – both in full swing.

For the last five years of her life, Mom’s quiet strength prevented most people from even knowing she was deeply suffering from a terminal illness.  She would drive herself alone to her multi-hour chemo treatments at the hospital.  Devoid of emotion, she’d “Plug into” her chest port and start reading her favorite book or finish a crossword puzzle.  Then, she’d shop for her groceries and come home and start cooking like it was any other day.  Cooking became her form of meditation and a way to escape the cancer struggles she faced on a daily basis.  When her hair fell out, she always had new wigs lined up ready to be styled.  When her eyebrows fell out, without hesitation new ones were tattooed on.  With the fifty-pound weight loss came new, vibrant zany outfits.  She didn’t outwardly pity herself.  She wasn’t willing to allow herself to give in. And so, the meals were cooked and people continued to gather around our dinner table.  As her illness started progressing, providing meals for people made Mom happy.  It gave her a sense of purpose when all else seemed doom and gloom. Somehow she was always a pillar of strength– to her friends, to her family and to cancer.

After Mom’s funeral four years ago, I vowed that I would do anything I could to preserve Mom’s memory and to share her abundant culinary legacy.  In the process, I have had to sort through hundreds of handwritten recipes, frantically scribbled on everything from post-it notes to Dad’s prescription sheets.  Reading her recipes, filling in the gaps, cooking them, sharing them, I am connecting with her in ways I never thought possible.

The emotional journey through Mom’s recipes reveals her quiet strength and determination as a wife, mother, grandmother, friend, and, of course, celebrated cook!

Shari Brooks left a 15-year career as a marketing executive in the television industry in NYC to raise her two crazy kids. Four years ago her mother passed away from breast cancer and left behind a treasure trove of her celebrated hand-written recipes.  With these recipes in hand and a desire to learn how to really cook, reclaim meal time in her family, and share her mother’s culinary legacy, Shari launched her own blog My Judy The Foodie.  You can also follow her on Twitter (@myjudythefoodie) and Facebook

My Family’s Non-Family Meals

by Natalia Stasenko

We did not eat meals as a family when I was growing up. We did not have TV dinners either. In fact, TV dinners were non-existent in rural Russia 30 years ago. One of the reasons for not eating together as a family was practical – our tiny table in the kitchen simply could not sit comfortably more than 3 people at the same time and we were 4.  Another reason was that family meals were not seen as important, and, in fact, talking while eating was discouraged. So when, after hopping around the globe for a little while and finally settling down in New York, I got around to having my own kids, I had very little idea about what family meals were about.

What I did have however was a good understanding of what a balanced meal should look like. I was lucky to witness the most effective nutrition education in action thanks to the hard work of my mother who aside of her full time job also had to grow, harvest and preserve the produce that made the bulk of our family’s diet. It is difficult for me now even to imagine the amount of hard work she put daily into putting the “non-family meals” on the table. Needless to say, the same meal was served to all family members. In fact, picky eating was unheard of and seen only occasionally in city kids who came to visit their grandparents in summer months. I was starving after having spent all day playing outside and would swallow anything, be it stewed cabbage, beet soup, fried fish, meat cutlets, sauerkraut – you name it.

My mom had very little access to nutritional information of any kind and the meals in my family were a no-nonsense practical way of getting calories. We were presented with a plate of food and were expected to finish it. That’s it. No alternatives, no cajoling and no discussions about how carrots make you see well in the dark. In fact, my mother never really worried about nutrients. Vegetables were considered somewhat inferior to more filling options such as meat and rice and I have no memories of her ever bothering to tell me that greens were healthy.

She never restricted sweets, either. But they were expensive and we could not have them often. When I craved something sweet, some bread and homemade jam seemed to be just right.

Now in the environment I am raising my children the pyramid is turned upside down: my children are surrounded by processed snacks conveniently available around the clock and bombarded by confusing nutritional messages, often carefully crafted by food manufacturers and marketers.

So what do I do in order to raise my kids as healthy eaters? Interestingly, the same principles my mother followed, willingly or not, seem to work beautifully in my Spanish/Russian/American family. Cooking from scratch and not fixating on nutritional properties of foods became customary family mealtime principles for us. I am a registered Dietitian with a Master degree in Nutrition Education but I never speak to my children about nutrition.

Instead, I speak to them about food, the flavors, colors and textures they are happily exploring. I make the food taste great by adding good amounts of seasoning and fat, just like my mother did. I spend a considerable amount of time in the kitchen but I consider it a long-term investment in my children’s health and eating habits. I am not looking for perfection or elaborate combination of flavors when I cook, but I make sure to put a meal on the table everyday despite our busy schedules and tempting stacks of takeaway menus in the lobby.

I am thankful to have a dinner table that is big enough for all of us to sit at the same time and we are putting it to a good use. All activities are scheduled around our family time at dinner, because my husband and I believe that eating together is at least as important as piano or swimming lessons, if not more.

And I know my mother enjoys sitting down to a meal together with my family when she comes to visit. And I hope she can feel the love and care I put into preparing our simple dishes just like she did many years ago for me.

Natalia Stasenko believes that helping children adopt balanced eating habits early in life is essential for their future relationship with food and for healthy family dynamics. As a mother of two, she has a first-hand experience trying to feed her family nutritious meals without losing her mind. Her mission is to help parents guide their children towards balanced eating habits in evidence-based, simple and delicious ways while keeping their own wellness goals in check. You can connect with Natalia on Twitter (@NataliaStasenko) and Facebook.