March 11, 2015

Bring the Family Back to the Dinner Table

This past fall my mom informed me that she was in charge of finding a few women to teach cooking-related classes at our church's Stake Women's Conference held every February.  I volunteered for a class and was assigned to teach an hour class entitled: "Meal Planning to Bring the Family Back to the Dinner Table".  Sweet.  I spent the fall and winter collecting freezer meal and crock pot recipes and trying them out (because some of them--like crock pot fajitas, yuck!--I would never share or recommend).  I also updated our family's list of favorite meals to share for my class.  I organized all the tips and tricks I had and could find about meal planning.  I then researched what leaders in our church have said about the importance of eating dinner as a family.

One of our apostles, Dallin H. Oaks has said the following:
"The number of those who report that their “whole family usually eats dinner together” has declined 33 percent. This is most concerning because the time a family spends together “eating meals at home [is] the strongest predictor of children’s academic achievement and psychological adjustment.” Family mealtimes have also been shown to be a strong bulwark against children’s smoking, drinking, or using drugs.  A poll was taken by the Reader’s Digest magazine to determine what factors contributed most to a child’s success in school. Surprisingly, one thing they found was that “students who regularly shared mealtimes with their families tested better than those who didn’t” (Rachel Wildavsky, “What’s Behind Success in School?” Reader’s Digest, Oct. 1994, 49). Simple questions during dinner conversation about a child’s performance in school motivated children to work harder and do better in their studies. In fact, families who eat together are more likely to take an interest in what all family members are doing.  Family mealtimes have also been shown to be a strong bulwark against children’s smoking, drinking, or using drugs.  There is inspired wisdom in this advice to parents: what your children really want for dinner is you."             

I was really fortunate to have a mother who cooked us amazingly delicious and healthy meals every night for dinner.  My father was usually home for dinner and we all sat down together to eat.  I believe that part of the reason I am so close to my family and all of my siblings is largely due to the fact that my mother made sure we spent time together daily as a family around the dinner table where we had nothing else to do but eat and talk to each other.  It feels like times are changing a little........I see friends rushing their children to a million different activities and sports practices into all hours of the evening (basketball practice at 7pm?!  What is this world coming to?).  A 9-5pm workday is not as typical as it used to be.  Finding time to sit down as a family for dinner is HARD and sometimes finding time to prepare nutritious meals is even harder.  Preparing this class couldn't have come at a better time for our family as we already seem to be busy and often struggle to make family mealtime consistent and organized.  Hopefully after this class I'll be a much better reflection of my own mother's awesomeness when it comes to family dinner. 

 So at the request of a few friends who weren't able to attend my class (kind of hard when you live out of state), I thought I'd post what I shared (and learned) while preparing my class.  It's a lot, so I'll break it up into a few posts. :) 

Meal Planning/Preparation Tips and Tricks

~ Have a meal list.  It’s helpful to have a complete list of all the family’s favorite meals on hand when planning your weekly/monthly menu.  You may organize this list by protein category, how fast or long the meal takes to prepare, whether or not it requires the BBQ, oven, stove, crock pot, etc.

~ Pick a designated time to do your meal planning.  Some people swear by a monthly meal planning session, some plan their meals at the beginning of every week.  Do whatever works for you, but meal planning ahead of time does save money, time, and the afternoon “what-should-I-make-for-dinner headache”.

~ Start today and work with what you’ve got.  Take a look through your fridge and pantry.  What meals could you make out of the items that you currently have?  You might be surprised by how many good meals you can prepare when it seems like you have nothing to make a meal with.

~ Once you’ve set your meals for the week/month, make a detailed and organized grocery list so that going through the store will be as quick and painless as possible (because if you’re like me and have three tiny kids, grocery shopping gets pretty painful sometimes).  Organized grocery trips with planned menus also helps keep down on the number of grocery runs and fewer grocery trips = less money spent.

~ If you’ve fallen off the meal planning wagon (we’ve all been there, and some of us actually live there quite frequently), it helps to keep your fridge and pantry always stocked with ingredients for a few favorite, go-to meals: ingredients for tacos, egg burritos, spaghetti, etc.

~ When doing your meal planning, consider having a category for each day of the week: Macaroni Monday (pasta/Italian food), Taco Tuesday (Mexican food), Waffle Wednesday (breakfast for dinner), etc.  Saturdays can be reserved for fancy sandwiches/paninis, you can make Sundays “Soup Sundays”, etc.  Just a little something that can narrow down decisions when meal planning.

~ If you have children who are old enough to help in the kitchen, plan to cook a few easy-to-make-meals every week so that they can join in with the meal prep!  I have started doing this with my girls the past few months.  I notice that they are 10X more likely to enjoy and eat dinner when they helped make it and it has been a great bonding time for us. 

~ Always have some salad fixings stocked in the refrigerator so a salad can accompany your main course.  My go-to salad ingredients include: lettuce, carrots, apples, craisins, feta cheese, celery, sunflower seeds, and dressing.  The ingredients keep for a while and are easy on the pocket book when fresh produce (like tomatoes, peas, broccoli, etc) gets pricier during the winter.

~ When chopping up a salad, make a HUGE salad that will last for a few meals, saving you meal-prep time for the next night’s dinner.  (I definitely always do this because for some reason I absolutely hate chopping up veggies for salad but I love eating salad)

~ If I know I’m going to have a busy week, I’ll make sure to double the recipe when making dinner so that I know I will already have dinner for another night that week that will only need to be heated up.  

~ If you don’t LOVE cooking everyday, consider doing freezer meals a few times a week.  It makes the days you do take extra time to prepare a meal much more enjoyable.

~ Make and freeze some “white sauce balls” to have on hand when making creamy sauces and soups for meals that call for cream of chicken/mushroom soup:

            2 cups flour                        2 T salt
            2 cups butter

            Line 2 baking sheets with wax paper, set aside.  In a sifter or bowl combine flour and salt.  Use an electric mixer to cream in butter until smooth.  Drop by cookie sheet onto baking sheets.  Place in freezer until balls are frozen.  Remove from sheets and place in Ziploc freezer bag.  To make sauce to use in a recipe that calls for cream soup, place 4 frozen balls and 1 1/3 cups milk in a saucepan.  Heat, stirring with a whisk over medium heat until thick and bubbly.  Add appropriate seasonings and as in place of cream soup.  You can make a thinner cheese sauce by adding more milk and cheese for quick, homemade macaroni and cheese!

~ Create a stock of your own blends of spices to put on chicken, fish, etc.  For example, I mix up a big bag of spices for days when I want to quickly throw together blackened chicken/salmon.  I also always have some homemade fajita seasoning on hand for making some quick chicken fajitas.  The spice blends use a lot of common spices so it’s not too tricky but a time-saver for meal-prep and cheaper than buying seasoning packets.

        Fajita Seasoning Mix (equals 3 packets of commercial fajita seasoning)
            3 Tbsp cornstarch
            2 Tbsp chili powder
            1 Tbsp salt
            1 Tbsp paprika
            1 Tbsp sugar
            2 ½ tsp crushed chicken bouillon cube
            1 ½ tsp onion powder
            ½ tsp garlic powder
            ½ tsp cayenne pepper
            ¼ tsp crushed red pepper flakes
            ½ tsp cumin

            Blackened Seasoning (if you do a lot of Cajun cooking, you can double, triple, or quadruple this blend and keep in a small container in your pantry)

            1 heaping tablespoon paprika
            2 teaspoons salt
            1 heaping teaspoon garlic powder
            1 heaping teaspoon onion powder
            1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper
            2 teaspoons black pepper
            1/2 teaspoon thyme
            1/2 teaspoon oregano

~ Is sitting down all together as a family for dinner an absolute impossibility in your house?  They usually are in ours as my husband usually isn’t home until after the kids are in bed, so we make it a point to have family breakfast together in the mornings.  A few of our tricks to sitting down as a family for a nice breakfast when mornings are crazy:

-       If you bake or buy extra loaves of bread, you can pre-make French toast, freeze each piece individually on a cookie sheet lined with wax paper, then remove once frozen and place them in a large Ziploc freezer bag.  Then just pop individual pieces into the toaster for a quick breakfast. 

-       German puff pancakes are a quick, favorite breakfast that the kids think are fancy.  Preheat oven to 425 degrees, and melt ¾ stick butter in bottom of a 9x13 casserole dish.  In blender or with an electric mixer, beat together 1 cup milk, 1 cup flour, and 6 eggs.  Pour batter into casserole dish and cook for 15 minutes.  Remove from oven, cut into squares, and serve with syrup.  I like to dress up the pancakes by adding cinnamon sprinkled apples or berries on top of the melted butter before I pour the batter in.

-       Have fresh fruit on hand to serve with breakfast.

-       Buy large bags of frozen fruit/berries and whip up a few healthy smoothies to go with breakfast.

    (Even though I still prepare and sit down with the kids for dinner every night, I notice a huge difference in our day when we've started it off with breakfast where we're ALL together, Daddy included.)
Here are a few great websites with meal planning tips, recipes, freezer meal ideas, grocery list templates, and meal planning calendars:

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