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Cooking Traditionally With Little Time To Cook

By Joette Calabrese

As time marches on, I enjoy the various phases, stages, and changes life brings. In this ebb and flow, there have been times when I haven’t been able to live out my ideal as food provider to my family. Let’s face it, nourishing a family with traditional food practices—procuring and preparing ingredients of superb quality—can be a nearly full-time job (not to mention costly). Throw kiddos who are not accustomed to real foods into the mix, and it can be quite the adventure! Where is the middle ground— the compromise of doing the best by your family and avoiding battles? How can families eat foods they enjoy, yet still supply their bodies with life-imparting nutrients? And don’t forget about tight schedules, which make things even stickier. There are still ways to make wise choices without giving in and rolling through the closest drive-thru just to survive the day.

Is This You?

A friend of mine is raising four lovely, thriving children. The various sports and clubs they are active in keep the family so on-the-go that meals together are hard to schedule. Another mom I know works hard in the kitchen to prepare nourishing food but is run ragged with other responsibilities. Moreover, when it comes time for her family to sit down and eat, the kids balk at her creations. Perhaps you can recognize another friend who came to traditional foods later in life, when her children were older and less than receptive, making changes surrounding food a tedious chore. Everyone has a story.

I don’t claim to have walked in anyone else’s shoes, but I do know that each family must find its own balance and flow in life, including the areas of food and wellness education. The evidence that supports the acts of preparing food and instilling its value into children is clear: The more they know and appreciate the hows and whys of food, the better equipped they’ll be to live fully with highly functioning brains, vital bodies, and steady emotions.

What helps me make food a priority in my family is keeping life simple. This looks different from one family to the next, but the idea remains the same. But implementing this simplicity is the tricky part. Can something be changed to allow for more time in the kitchen? Schedules trimmed? Allowing only one sport or club per child each semester? How well can you get to know your slow cooker? Can a social volunteer position be given to someone else for a season? There are many possible choices, but a different answer for everyone.

Sacred Gathering

Author Molly Wizenberg reminisced about her family’s dinners growing up in A Homemade Life: “It was the steady rhythm of meeting in the kitchen every night, sitting down at the table, and sharing a meal. Dinner didn’t come through a swinging door, balanced on the arm of an anonymous waiter; it was something that we made together. We built our family that way—in the kitchen, seven nights a week. We built a life for ourselves, together around that table.”

Wizenberg’s sentiments hit home for me, weaving delicious food into everyday life that unites my family. This means that all things “food” take up a big part of my day: buying, preparing, cleaning, planning (which might include a little creative flair), researching recipes and food experimentation, setting a welcoming and fun table, and thinking up ways to include my children in the whole process. Oh, and I can’t forget having the mental room left to remember to pull out the red “You Are Special” plate when one of my boys has done something extraordinary! This encompasses my food objectives—minus the wind-blown, easily flustered Mommy rushed from an over scheduled, busy day.

These food-focused undertakings support what I believe to be a fundamental real-food truth: Food does more than nourish our physical bodies; it also feeds our souls.

Connecting around a table ties our heartstrings to family and friends alike, and provides those increasingly precious opportunities to engage in good old-fashioned face-to-face conversations.

Time magazine published a piece, “The Magic of the Family Meal,” wherein author Nancy Gibbs asserted, “there is something about a shared meal—not some holiday blowout, not once in a while, but regularly, reliably—that anchors a family even on nights when the food is fast and the talk cheap and everyone has someplace else they’d rather be. And on those evenings when the mood is right and the family lingers, caught up in an idea or an argument explored in a shared safe place where no one is stupid or shy or ashamed, you get a glimpse of the power of this habit….”

The benefits achieved from consistent family meals come by way of teaching kids civility, bestowing wise judgment, and imparting core family values. Experts in adolescent development have found through studying this table-centered practice that the more often families share a meal, the more likely children are to choose to eat vegetables, maintain a healthy weight, and do better in school. In fact, a report from Columbia University states, “Compared to teens who have five to seven family dinners per week, those who have fewer than three family dinners per week are nearly twice as likely to report receiving mostly C’s or lower grades in school.”

Children who experience shared family meals are also less likely to eat trans fats, drink sodas, develop eating disorders, smoke, abuse alcohol and take drugs. Those youngsters gathering at the table with their parents at least five times a week are two times less likely to use tobacco or to drink alcohol and one-and-one-half times less likely to smoke marijuana.

Anthropologist Robin Fox, who teaches at Rutgers University in New Jersey, brings a historical perspective to family meals. He asserts that food is too easy to come by these days, giving a lesser sense of significance to a once sacred event. Fox says, “When we had to grow the corn and fight off predators, meals included a serving of gratitude. It’s like the American Indians. When they killed a deer, they said a prayer over it. That is civilization. It is an act of politeness over food. Fast food has killed this. We have reduced eating to sitting alone and shoveling it in. There is no ceremony in it.”

The act of building ceremony around meals is as nourishing to our loved ones as the traditional foods we strive to serve; it is part of raising well-rounded, compassionate children that grow into adults who make wise choices for a fruitful and enjoyable life.

Make Family Meals Work, Somehow, Somewhere

Does the idea of dinner conjure up a vision of the 1950s mom, dressed to the nines, from her lipstick to stiletto heels? Get rid of ideals—just making it happen is what matters. For me, amid the chaos of my personal surroundings, cooking dinner somewhere between 3 to 5 p.m. is when it is easiest for me most days (even in my ratty pajama bottoms and bunny slippers sometimes!). While my time frame may change as family life takes on new dimensions, this is my usual routine.

But for your family, in whatever age or stage it might be, dinner could look different. A picnic blanket spread out on a private grassy knoll before your child’s ball game might make do for the family table on occasion. Or your main meal together may not even be dinner. Families with a parent working night shift, for example, may choose breakfast to be their sacred family meal. Working around sporting events and after-school activities may mean some families eat dinner at 8 p.m. instead of the typical 5:30. Try one thing, try another, and keep trying until something works, and then stick with it.

Opting for Second Best

I admit I have a weakness for not settling for second best. I want the crème de la crème for my family, which usually means the most expensive ingredients and the most time consuming involvement. With every fiber of my being, I believe this investment is worth each nutrient-packed morsel and tick of time; however, as the busy-ness of life continues to grow along with the size of my family, there have been times when I have had to compromise. And that is OK! Suffering anxiety that every speck of food must be flawlessly prepared, organic/biodynamic, and soaked to perfection can be counterproductive to my overall goal of gentle, lifelong physical and mental wellness.

In her engaging book, The Happiest Mom, author Meagan Francis says this: “I’m not recommending that you completely give up your standards, but by embracing a slower pace and setting realistic goals, you’ll cultivate more happiness for the whole family.” While raising her five children, Meagan discovered that we need to be gentle with ourselves, and permit ourselves sometimes to compromise gracefully for the sake of family bliss. This is a lesson I am (slowly) learning.

First, stop comparing yourself to others. There are some families that appear to be real-food superheroes: baking sourdough bread, brewing kombucha, fermenting sauerkraut, culturing kefir, raising a backyard cow…you know who I mean. This may even be you, but if it’s not (which is most of us), let go of the belief that you must reach these same goals; give yourself some wiggle room to grow and change. Your time will come when these projects or aspirations will find their way into your days.

Next, take heart that “second best” is not necessarily “second-rate” (of course, this could mean something different to those healing certain health conditions). Using some canned foods (e.g., salmon, sardines and beans), brown rice pasta, jarred salsa, store-bought tostadas, bagged corn chips, serving a smoothie as a side dish, or eating the same meal three nights in a row may help you find a sense of calm and do-ability in the bustle of creating family meals. Refer to the Weston A. Price Foundation shopping guide for direction on the best and second best choices (it is available for purchase or comes free with Foundation membership).

Finally, rework any priorities that are getting in the way of regularly serving a soul-nurturing family meal at least five times a week. Purposefully schedule enough downtime to embrace everything under the umbrella of feeding your family well and make meal prep, cleanup, and inventive creations a team effort, while steadily elbowing out distractions (such as TV and phones). And when the going gets frazzled, frenzied, and fast, allow yourself to make “second best” adjustments where needed to ensure that shared family meals happen. Remember, you’re doing much more than giving your family vitamins and brain-building fats when you dedicate attention to food—you are gluing your family together with lifelong bonds, while slowly and surely launching your precious babies into the world with a strong sense of security, confidence, and belonging, and a solid foundation of Grandma-approved manners.