Food and Family

An action plan for eating dinner together.

Since Mario Batali was knee-high, he considered food and family inseparable. “My aunt, uncle, sister, brother, grandma— everyone cooked,” recounts Batali. “We were foragers, hunters. Grandpa would go out and kill an elk; then one of us would cook the elk.”

Fast forward a few decades and to a restaurant empire with more than a dozen acclaimed kitchens at his helm, and the culinary maestro is no longer regularly making meals from game slain by his kin. However, family mealtime remains a priority. Batali, his wife Susi and their two sons have dinner together five to six nights a week. The Iron Chef personally cooks for the clan four of those nights.

If overseeing restaurants from New York City to Los Angeles, starring on TV shows and publishing cookbooks has done little to deter Batali from relishing family dinners, he personifies that any parent can make quality mealtime a constant.

Why is this important? According to Share the Table: The Barilla Family Dinner Project, which Batali champions, family members who eat dinner together are more likely to be satisfied with all aspects of their lives. Unaffiliated studies show that children who have frequent family meals excel in the classroom, have higher test scores, exhibit healthier overall lifestyles, maintain stronger social ties, are less apt to have sex at an early age and are less prone to experiment with drugs and alcohol. But what’s a busy parent to do when it comes to dishing out wholesome family meals night after night? Rather than succumb to takeout and prepackaged meals that generally pack in preservatives, parents can commit to serving homemade meals— even if it means cutting corners and pinching pennies. The physical and emotional benefits endure well into children’s adulthood.

A hallmark of Share the Table are the pasta dishes that Batali created for the initiative. He reasons that all parents can carve out time for adapting pasta meals. The following are ten additional tips from the James Beard Award-winner and other culinary whizzes who celebrate family mealtime.

Invest children in dinner

Giving suggestions like spaghetti or fish, Batali asks his sons, ages 13 and 11, what they want for dinner. This summons excitement about what’s being served. Escorting the brood to the grocery store or farmer’s market broadens children’s investment in the meal, says Batali, as does encouraging kids to try new ingredients. Batali promotes designating certain nights for the essence of a meal— perhaps pork on Tuesday, steak on Thursday— “creating a dish as a milestone.” And, the half-Italian half-French-Canadian chef advocates changing the ingredients weekly, rekindling children’s interest in eating while expanding their palates.

Ramp up the interaction by cooking with kids

Children’s cooking programs have been cropping up across the country in recent years. Children are not only competent to cook, learning how develops patience, creativity, math and science skills by way measuring and mixing ingredients, and nutritional wisdom. Batali fosters familial interest in food by laughing about culinary blunders, rather than chastising, when cooking with his kids. He suggests making home kitchens kid friendly, such as by bringing lower work stations or step stools into the area as well as safe and easy-to-maneuver kitchen tools.

Write a grocery list

“The key to creating hassle-free family meals is to get organized,” says Jessica Moore of Superwoman’s Secret, an online menu-planning service. “If you only have 30 minutes or less each night to make dinner, plan out quick recipes that work into your schedule. Then make a list and head to the store to shop for the week.” Moore notes that food shopping with a list saves time and money. It limits mindlessly searching for ingredients and spending on unnecessary items. Save additional time, says Moore, by organizing the list by aisle, determining an order for snagging poultry, pasta and ample produce.

Keep a well-stocked pantry

“Once you have a good pantry,” says Batali, “a little prosciutto, a little salami, bread crumbs, quality balsamic, Parmesan cheese... You can add anything from string beans to quality protein.” Semi-Homemade host Sandra Lee adds, “Keeping a few key items on hand like seasonings, baking mix, condiments and lean protein will ensure a tasty meal is just a mixing spoon away.” For a quick healthful fix, combine pantry staples with fresh ingredients— even produce frozen at peak quality.

Use the freezer

Leanne Ely, author of Saving Dinner (Ballantine Books), deems the freezer part of the pantry. Purchase wholesome frozen foods, Ely advises, and customize freezer bags. Want fajitas? “Buy cut-up frozen bell pepper blends, add cut-up chicken or beef plus the seasonings, mark the bag and freeze,” she says. “When you want it, dinner’s in the freezer, ready to thaw.” Sandra Lee agrees, commenting on the low price point of frozen foods. “In season, four ears of corn run you $1,” according to the Food Network star. “Out of season, one ear costs you $1. In the frozen section, you can get a bag of corn [roughly equal to four ears] that is frozen at the peak of freshness.”

Consider a slow cooker

Lee’s Semi-Homemade Money Saving Slow Cooking (John Wiley) features 129 satisfying dishes that can be made for dollars. “Follow a simple recipe from my new book, using inexpensive cuts of meats, all-in-one seasonings, prepared soups and stocks, and a meal in the making is simmering in home-cooked flavor all day— yet the time you invest is minimal,” says Lee. “When it comes to convenience, the slow cooker is the best bargain around. It’s an undemanding helper that cooks all day while you work or shuttle the kids from activity to activity.”

Want to cook— or at least maintain family mealtime

“It’s a very easy thing to spend dinner with the family if there’s the voglio, the wanting to,” Batali reasons. “Parents have to want to cook and eat together, and it’s not about the food. It’s about the quality time together.”

Get mileage out of hearty meals

Soups and stews have great staying power, whether as leftovers, appetizers or foundations for sauces later in the week. Make extra of all types of dishes says Ely. The certified nutritionist reasons that different components of meals can bulk up dinners served on subsequent nights. “Leftover meatballs make great meatball subs,” she says. “Use leftover fajitas in soup or add a can of black beans and recycle the meal into burritos.”

Enlist help when necessary

Even gastronome Batali recognizes he cannot personally put dinner on the table every night. And while the chef admits his family occasionally orders in, Batali praises his housekeeper’s hand in making family dinners. From Aculpulco, the housekeeper dishes out a mean fried fish with guaca-salsa, according to Batali, adding that eclectic dishes expose children to culinary diversity and food in other cultures.

SHARE THE TABLE

For quick-prep dishes courtesy of the Iron Chef, turn off the stove and head to www.sharethetable.com. The site also has invaluable guidance on improving the quality of family meals in terms of raising the bonding quotient and minimizing distractions.