My Top 10 Rules for Foolproof Family Dinners

published Sep 25, 2021
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This week I’m dropping off my youngest at college, which means, among other things, family dinner in my house, which we’ve had religiously for 15 years, and which I’ve been writing about for over a decade, will now look a lot different. Instead of focusing on how strange it will be to have only two place settings instead of four, I thought instead I might share a few rules I’ve collected along the way.

1. Make the table a pleasant place.

This is not a rule that I started out with, for obvious reasons. I was feeding stubborn, messy toddlers, mediating sibling squabbles, figuring out the hard way what foods they liked and didn’t like. But over time, it became one of the most important ways I thought about dinner. If the kids were going to look forward to dinner — if I was going to look forward to dinner — I wanted to control any controllable variables I could. That meant if they didn’t like the minestrone I spent the better part of an hour making, I wasn’t going to force them to eat it. I had no interest in making dinner a showdown, when I could just as easily supplement the meal with peanut butter on a piece of toast and make everyone happy. (Plus, you can freeze leftover minestrone.) Later on, this rule translated into creating a rare space for my kids where there were no phones or screens, and where their mother (me) tried her hardest not to nag or interrogate. Not even about the quickly approaching college application deadlines. That was hard!

2. Take the pressure off with the food.

We do not live in the 1950s — no one expects you to produce a hot, made-from-scratch meal every night. But if you are one of those parents who finds it extremely satisfying to produce a hot, made-from-scratch meal for your kids, then do it when you can and let it go when you can’t. In my mind, almost more important than cooking is establishing consistency with the ritual of family dinner, no matter what that dinner looks like. 

3. Cook what you’re comfortable with.

In the beginning, the name of the game is taking out any variable you can — so don’t start with a meal that requires special equipment or asks you to hunt down some sort of special heirloom mushroom at the once-a-week farmers market two towns over. Start with something you can make without a recipe. Start with an omelette, or a killer sandwich, or pasta tossed with fresh tomatoes. And once you do decide to try, say, some 75-ingredient Ottolenghi eggplant showstopper, do it on a Saturday when you don’t have all the demands of a weeknight.

4. If you are cooking, ditch the old formula.

Dinner does not have to be the default meat-veg-starch triumvirate that we’re all so used to. In fact, it doesn’t even have to center around meat at all. For me, becoming weekday vegetarians in our house has been extremely liberating. It used to be that I’d pick an animal protein as a starting point, and then fill in the blanks with a salad or potatoes or rice or a roasted vegetable. Now I just pick the vehicle — more like, I’m in the mood for a grain bowl, a sandwich, a pizza, a salad. It makes it much easier to come up with satisfying vegetarian dinner ideas that way, like the pizza with cheddar, caramelized onion, and egg from The Weekday Vegetarians, or the satisfying chickpea and wheatberry salad that uses what’s in your pantry. I’ve also been very into small-plates night, where I just assemble a few vegetable-forward salads and maybe some hummus or lentils, and call it dinner. That is, in fact, my favorite way to eat. And my favorite chapter in The Weekday Vegetarians.

5. Use your hooks.

There is an entire section in The Weekday Vegetarians dedicated to this concept, but the rule boils down to this: It is crucial that there is always at least one thing on the plate that is exciting, no matter how simple it is. For instance, if you are debuting flounder to a fish skeptic, serve it with a side of mashed potatoes. If you want to convince the kids to love your coconutty stewy red lentils, it might be worth the small amount of effort it takes to make simple homemade yogurt flatbread. (Who isn’t rendered completely powerless in the face of warm bread?) Your hooks don’t even have to be homemade. They can be a can of Bush’s baked beans if that’s what it takes. It can be as simple as a favorite Soyaki sauce from Trader Joe’s or that bottled ginger-miso your kid would drink like Gatorade if given the option. The point: Capitalize on the power of hooks to cast a warm, happy glow on the rest of the food on the plate.

6. Flex their adventure muscles.

I wrote a whole book (Dinner: The Playbook) about the month I decided to debut a new recipe every night for 30 days. I was in a rut and I was sick of the rotation of turkey burgers and breaded chicken cutlets, so I told my 3- and 5-year-old kids: “We’re going to have an adventure.” I wanted them to eat new, fun, delicious foods! And they were game! But in the end, adding new recipes to the repertoire was beside the point. The result of our experiment ended up being something I had never expected: Over the course of those intense 30 days it became normal for our kids to try new things, to flex their adventure muscles. We discovered meals like crispy, smoky tofu sandwiches and a cheesy bean bake that’s perfect for cooler weather — both so delicious that they made their way into The Weekday Vegetarians. And when we had kids who approached the table with that mindset, we found ourselves in a whole new world.

7. Stock up on security blankets.

Along the same lines, I found that the key to expanding my childrens’ dinner repertoire was knowing that if they didn’t like, say, the baked miso-butter tofu, I could always fall back on something I didn’t have to cook or prepare separately (think: turkey slices, edamame, hummus, avocado, cheese and crackers). It’s much easier to do the high-wire act with new foods when you know there is a safety net.

8. Enlist the whole family.

If you are lucky enough to have a partner who likes to cook as much as you do, then great: Divide and conquer with the cooking. But even if you don’t, there are still ways to make sure you’re getting some crucial assists. There are so many ways to help make dinner happen without making dinner itself. Like coming up with dinner ideas, which personally I find to be the hardest part. Hand them a cookbook and tell them to flag the pages they like. Your kids or your non-cooking partner can also make a point to say, “Remember those crispy chicken sandwiches we had in Charleston? Let’s try that.” Or “Remember that pasta with butternut squash we had that one time, can you make that again?” Then there are all the satellite duties around the ritual: Anyone can set the table, clear the table, unload the dishwasher, and place a bottle of ketchup on the table. Enlist the family, and make it happen.

9. Deconstruct.

I get some of the nicest notes from people who have been reading Dinner: A Love Story this past decade, and one of the most common is “Thank you for introducing me to the concept of Deconstructing Dinner.” All the best ideas, of course, are stupid-simple, and that is the case with this one, too. If you love that salmon salad all flavorful mixed with the warm potatoes and cucumbers and green beans, but your kid absolutely does not want the salmon touching the beans or the cilantro leaves anywhere within a one-mile radius of the table, it’s elementary: Just extricate the ingredients they like, before tossing the salad together, and serve it to the stubborn little monster in separate piles. This way everyone is happy and you are not (really) catering to the lowest common denominator at the table and cooking separate meals like a short-order cook. Try it with soups, salads, and pastas.

10. The important thing is that it happens.

When my oldest daughter left for college last year, she was so used to thinking of family dinner as her everyday north star, she found herself recreating the ritual with a few of her new friends. Every night they met for dinner in the dining hall at the same time. It was something they could count on and derive comfort from. When she told me this, do you think I asked her how the chicken was? No, I did not. As much as I love to cook, it’s really, truly not the food that matters.