Thursday, July 28, 2011

Family Eats--Encouraging Healthy Family Eating Habits

Credit: AP/Meredith Corp.
This past week I have noticed many articles about eating healthy.  This past Sunday, the New York Times had an article in their Sunday Review about what it will take to get America to eat healthier.  This month’s Better Homes & Gardens featured First Lady Michelle Obama with ideas on helping children eat healthy.  This seems to be a growing trend, and over the last few months I have connected with a few organizations that I believe echo the same philosophy that I spoke of in Coming Home: A Seasonal Guide To Creating Family Traditions; those of sitting down together as a family for dinner, living mindfully, eating locally produced seasonal foods, and truly connecting one with another. 

Family Eats & I connected to share ideas recently, and I’m proud to introduce them to our readers.

Rosanna:  Much of the Family Eats mission is to help others learn about the importance of sitting around the table as a family during mealtime.  What advice do you have for people trying to start this daily ritual?

Family Eats:  Numerous studies have confirmed that families who eat together at least once a week are healthier – both physically and emotionally. But despite this, many families continue to be caught in an endless cycle of running, running, running. Running to work. Running to a soccer game. Running to everything except dinner with the family.

Our goal at Family Eats is to help readers reconnect with the food we eat and the families we love. But it takes a commitment to do so. It takes a commitment to slow down and make the effort to gather around the table, whether it is for dinner, breakfast or lunch.  

Photos Courtesy of
John Granen Photography
Because the transition from eating on the run to eating around the table may seem daunting, Family Eats suggests taking ‘baby steps.’ Choose one day a week to sit down at the table for dinner, and keep that ‘date’ for several weeks running. Be it Sunday dinner or Friday night (homemade) pizza and a movie, after a few weeks, it will become a habit. Then you’ll be more likely to take another small step to gather for another meal together. Eventually, gathering around the table will turn into a great family tradition.

And, if dinnertime is too much of a commitment, then try something else – breakfast on Saturday morning, teatime on the weekends, or a packed lunch enjoyed in the park mid week.

Yes, memories can be made on the soccer field, but true connections are made at the table. Start the tradition today!

Rosanna: In the olden days neighbors used to stop by for a cup of coffee and for a visit.  Our lives seem so fast-paced that this practice has nearly disappeared.  What recommendations do you have for “spontaneous entertaining”?

Family Eats:  Just the other day while Greg was out front watering the garden, he ran into some friends returning from the library and invited them to come on in. When I offered them something to drink and eat, they refused, saying that they didn’t want to intrude.

The ritual of dropping by – or spontaneous entertaining – shouldn’t be an intrusion, rather it should be treated as a celebration, a time to connect with friends and neighbors. Unfortunately, I think the joy of spontaneous entertaining is something our society has lost.

Gathering with friends and family on a moment’s notice is about building community, building relationships and building memories. When it comes to offering food for guests, it doesn’t have to be anything complicated requiring much preparation, just something simple such as crackers and cheese, premade pastries or cookies that are stored in the freezer, or chopped fruit and nuts. My mother always has some sort of baked goods in the freezer ready for whomever it is that stops by, even it is me.

Welcoming guests into your homes for a bit of spontaneous entertaining doesn’t require too much effort – just a bit of planning. If you routinely keep your home stocked with healthy foods for yourself and your family, then you’re all stocked and ready to welcome whoever may stop by.

Rosanna:  Please share some practical tips on how to integrate healthy eating into our children’s everyday menu?

Family Eats:  It is very hard for parents to fight the ‘healthy eating versus junk food’ battle with their children. But a lifetime of healthy eating habits starts at home, which is why a discussion about food needs to be a continual discussion you have with your children.

We don’t lecture our kids about food, demonizing snacks and candy, but rather make them aware of the goodness that can be found in certain foods, and how they can help the body grow. (You know, the old ‘carrots are good for your eyesight,’ type of discussion.)

It is also important to surround your children with good food choices. Having a kitchen stocked with healthy choices, and making meals at home is a great way to involve the children in the discussion about foods. Because children learn from all their parents do, it is important to make healthy choices yourself, so that you send a message to them that food is important.

And, when it comes to snacking, we don’t keep cupboards stocked with an endless supply of boxed cookies, crackers, chips and other convenience foods, allowing them to grab a handful whenever they want. Instead, we have set specific times for meals and snacks. I plan what and when snack time will be, then give them a specific portion of snack.

Because my children are young, I feel it is essential that I make the choices for them, guiding them to make better decisions. And, yes, I do allow them to enjoy ‘unhealthy’ snacks from time to time. It just isn’t an option on a daily basis.

We always have fresh fruit available, and prepare cut vegetables such as carrots, celery, cucumbers or red peppers ahead of time, and place them on a plate with a dipping sauce or hummus and crackers during late afternoon snack. On occasion, I make muffins or scones in the morning to serve for both breakfast and as an afternoon snack.

We talk about choices, we offer variety, and make healthy food choices a part of our every day lives. Now I find the kids starting food conversations among themselves at the dinner table. They ask for olive oil to dip their bread into instead of butter. They participate in a “Who can make the largest crunch with their carrot” competitions, ask for juicy apples in the afternoon, and tell me that they’d like my homemade granola bars in their school lunch the next day.

I feel that this is because we have had discussions about food on a continual basis. And by making the connection with food a positive experience, I feel confident that they will be equipped to make better decisions when they are away from home.

Rosanna:  How often do you serve your family vegetarian meals?  Do you have a favorite recipe to share?

Family Eats:  We try to incorporate vegetarian meals at least once a week into our menu. However, it doesn’t always turn out that way, partly because I don’t always have it in me to fight the vegetable fight with the kids.

With that said, we have made an effort to cut back on our consumption of meat, trying new recipes with the goal to incorporate more meat-free meals each week. In the process, the family has enjoyed more grains, beans, and vegetables. And, I haven’t heard them comment, “Is this all we’re having?”

It was hard to do at first, but once we made the decision to do so and followed through with it for a few weeks, it became habit. It is still a challenge from time to time, but it is a challenge that I think is well worth it.
Family Eats' delicious Greek white
bean soup.  Click photo for

Some of our favorites are quick, easy and familiar meals such as a vegetable stir fry, a Greek white bean soup, and Grilled Cheese with Smoked Mozzarella and Basil.

Another one of our favorite recipes is for Spicy Peanut Sesame Noodles, and one I have enjoyed ever since I interviewed Helen Chen for Family Eats. It appears in her book Easy Asian Noodles (John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 2010). It is a quick and easy recipe to prepare, and one that is a hit with my peanut-butter loving kids.

1 lb. Chinese wheat or egg noodles, or thin spaghetti
3 tbsp sesame oil
3 tbsp raw sesame seeds
½ cup creamy peanut butter
1/3 cup canned chicken broth, warmed
3 tbsp light soy sauce
2 tbsp Chinkiang or balsamic vinegar
1 tbsp chili-garlic sauce, or to taste
1 tsp sugar
3 tbsp thinly sliced scallions
1 tsp peeled and grated fresh ginger
½ seedless cucumber, shredded
¼ lb snow pees, ends snapped off, strings removed, parboiled 15
seconds, drained, rinse in cold water and shredded
1 medium carrot, shredded
¼ cup chopped cilantro (optional)

Bring 5 quarts of water to a boil and stir in the noodles. Cook until a little more tender than al dente. Drain and rinse noodles under cool water. Drain again and toss with 1 tbsp sesame oil, place in large bowl, and set aside.

Toast sesame seeds in ungreased pan. Transfer all but 1 tbsp of seeds to a mortar and pestle and crush until most of seeds are broken.

In a small bowl, blend the peanut butter with the broth, soy sauce, vinegar, chili-garlic sauce, and sugar into a smooth paste. Stir in 1 tbsp of the scallions, the ginger and crushed sesame seeds. Cover until ready to use.

When ready to serve, gently toss the noodles with the cucumber, snow peas, carrot, peanut sauce and cilantro, if using, and the remaining 2 tbsp scallions. Transfer to a serving platter and sprinkle with reserved sesame seeds.

Note: I leave out the chili garlic sauce and allow anyone who wants, to add to bowls individually.

Rosanna:  Your recent blog post is titled, “Gathering Around The Table in Style:  The Table and its Cloth”.  Share with our readers how your use of table setting has encouraged family traditions.

Family Eats:  The ritual of setting the table – with dinnerware and not to-go containers – is an essential part of creating a family tradition. Even if you bring a take-out dinner home, transfer the meal to serving dishes and set the table.

Simple table decorations set the stage for a pleasant dinnertime experience. Whether it is the everyday placemat with the day-to-day dishes, a holiday table decorated with Grandma’s tablecloth and set with themed dinnerware, or a small vase filled with flowers, creating an enjoyable atmosphere in which to eat is important.

I love my collection of tablecloths, but we don’t always use them (I’d be washing it every night!). When not covered with a cloth, I try to have something on the table that has a story to it. Sometimes it is a vase filled with flowers cut from the garden. Other times it is a casserole served in the cazuela I bought while in Portugal years ago, my grandmother’s covered glass bowl in the shape of a chicken, or olive oil and vinegar cruets from Italy. These little appointments make the table feel like home – and that is a wonderful tradition to have.

Rosanna:  What are your must-haves in the house for healthy eating?

Family Eats:  A well-stocked pantry is essential for healthy eating. If you’ve nothing in the cupboards, then you’ll tend to grab whatever you can find to munch on – and most likely it will not be a healthy choice.

I am a perimeter shopper, buying a lot of bulk foods – from rice to beans and grains. They are a versatile way to mix things up for dinner – and, when you have these items on hand, you’ll be ready to create a wide variety of healthy mealtime options from bean soup to barley salad or quinoa cakes. Other essentials for the kitchen include a healthy dose of olive oil, garlic, and spices, which can also help transform the mundane dinner into something different. As well, I keep a couple of cans of San Marzano tomatoes on hand. They are great for making a quick salsa when you don’t have fresh tomatoes on hand, are the perfect addition to a slow cooked pot roast tacos, as well as the go-to choice for creating great sauces, including my new favorite, Rosanna’s Tomato Vodka sauce.

Don’t forget the produce aisle. Although perishable, it is essential to have a healthy dose of fruits and veggies on hand, especially when they are prepared and ready to eat. If you shop on Saturday, make Sunday the day you wash up the veggies and chop them for the new few days. When they’re prepared and ready to eat, you’ll be more likely to grab them for a snack or a meal.

Finally, and perhaps the most important ingredient to have on hand to ensure calm nerves in the kitchen, is some chocolate. I enjoy breaking off chunks from a bar of bittersweet chocolate, or, when I find some time alone, I indulge in one (or two) of Fran’s Chocolates Smoked Salt Caramels.

While we were talking, Family Eats also asked me a few questions. To read their interview of me, and find my delicious and healthy vodka sauce recipe, visit the Family Eats blog.  For more information about Family Eats, visit their website at  They also have a Facebook page and a Twitter page.

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