Being There for Dinner

The boiling water bubbled over the saucepan. Sssssss! The stovetop hissed.

Grace screamed. Anna followed suit.

“Everything’s OK,” I said, grabbing the pot. I drained the just-cooked pasta in the colander in the sink.

The timer on the oven began beeping: the meatballs. The girls crowded into the kitchen.

“Girls, you need to move…”

The front door opened, then closed. “Dad!” The girls rushed out of the kitchen. Someone tripped and fell on the way; crying ensued.

Welcome to the end of the weekday in many families’ homes, right? Mine. Maybe yours too.

For a while, I would finish making dinner around 6 o’clock. Stanton usually would be home by then. I’d set the food on the dining room table, encourage my family to help themselves, and then retreat to the kitchen to begin cleaning up everything that had gone into preparing the meal.

And, I won’t lie: I often would enjoy a few minutes’ peace to eat by myself without one of the girls climbing into my lap or grabbing from my plate.

Then one evening, about a month ago, I glanced at the dining room table. Anna was sitting on Stanton’s lap, snuggling against his chest. Smudging his dress shirt with her sticky fingers, but they looked cozy and happy nevertheless. Grace was talking about her day at preschool, her eyes wide and excited.

I glanced at that dining room table, and…I missed my family. I wanted to join them. Pots and pans and even some Play-Doh littered the kitchen countertops, but I ignored the chaos in the kitchen and sat down with my family for dinner.

Such a little thing, such a Captain Obvious moment—to sit down for dinner with the people you love the most. Probably not even worthy of being written about, right? But I couldn’t believe how much I enjoyed doing it. Clearly, I hadn’t done it all that much, because it resonated with me. Sitting face-to-face with my family, instead of standing alone a room away—what a difference.

Pots and pans and even some Play-Doh littered the kitchen countertops, but I ignored the chaos in the kitchen and sat down with my family for dinner.

A couple of weeks later, I was at the library and came across this book title: “The Surprising Power of Family Meals” by Miriam Weinstein. It was calling my name; I checked it out. During the next few days, I read through it. This book has a wealth of insights, but the ones that most struck me were these passages in which the author quotes theologian Bill Huebsch:

“‘Things work out when you cook and wash dishes together. It’s hard to sit down to table with someone you haven’t forgiven…In most of our lives, meals are also memorials. Almost everyone, when they speak of their lives, they speak about meals’” (pages 146-147).

Wow, I thought. And, yes.

Family, food, forgiveness, memory, life—all intertwined.

When my daughters are older, I’m not sure what they’ll remember about their childhood, or our family dinners. Like all parents, I hope they have many happy memories. I do know, though, that I want them to remember that I was there, at the table with them, instead of missing in action in the kitchen.

I’ve been trying to make this happen. Not every evening…but more often than not. Because life can get hectic. You can’t always be the ideal version of yourself.

Yet.

Being There for Dinner

“Don’t Blink” was a hit country song by Kenny Chesney, about 10 years ago. I heard it just the other day, and these lyrics have been replaying in my head ever since:

“…When your hourglass runs out of sand
You can’t flip it over and start again”

The theme of the song, of course, is that time goes by in the blink of an eye.

When I’ve been sitting down with my family now, I’ve been looking at them, really seeing them. There’s something beautiful about making eye contact with someone you love, and holding that gaze, and connecting. Really connecting.

“‘It’s the facing each other that’s important’” in how we eat, according to scholar Witold Rybczynski in “The Surprising Power of Family Meals.” “It’s the fact of sitting face-to-face, inviting interaction, give-and-take, that matters most” (page 87).

Family—food—face-to-face. Pretty simple.

Something I’ve learned, as I’ve gotten older, is that the simple stuff is the good stuff. This past Sunday, I made Hamburger Helper for Stanton and the girls for lunch—Stanton’s request. “It’s been years since I’ve had Hamburger Helper,” Stanton said.

“Huh, I wonder why,” the foodie in me replied (the foodie in me can be a bit stuck-up, and not much fun).

For years now, I’ve been experimenting with gourmet and/or novel recipes for my family—herbed lamp chops with homemade ketchup, lime chicken tacos, everything I wrote about here. Why would I bother with Hamburger Helper, when I could prepare something amazing from scratch?

…the foodie in me can be a bit stuck-up, and not much fun…

I made the Hamburger Helper. Sat down with Stanton and the girls. Anna took a bite: “Mmm!” Stanton was ready for a second helping within, it seemed, seconds. And Grace declared that she liked my Hamburger Helper almost as much as the frozen pizza I “make.”

The simple stuff is the good stuff. Family. Food. Face-to-face. Hamburger Helper or herbed lamp chops with homemade ketchup, it doesn’t matter.

As long as you’re there.

I want to be there.

What about you, friends?

Photo credit: Pixabay

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Like what you just read? Then check out Melissa Leddy’s newest short fiction e-book, “This Is Just a Story.” Fun, timely and thought-provoking.

9 Easy Weeknight Dinners for Your Family

One of my goals for this New Year is to add some new recipes into my family’s weeknight rotation of meals. My three qualifications for these recipes are 1) quick, 2) easy and 3) healthy. Maybe you have this goal, too, friends.

Here are some quick, easy and healthy recipes that Stanton, the girls and I have been enjoying lately. I hope you and yours also enjoy. Dig in!

1) Tortellini, White Bean and Turnip Greens Soup

Winter is a wonderful time to make soup, isn’t it? I found this recipe while flipping through the current issue of Southern Living. As written, this recipe is vegetarian, but I used prosciutto and cheese tortellini instead of plain cheese.

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I didn’t see turnip greens at my grocery store, but collard greens worked just fine. And instead of chopping a carrot, I used pre-chopped carrot chips to save time. I served this delicious soup with fresh fruit (those red grapes, pictured!). Grace, my picky eater, opted for leftovers from the night before, but Stanton and Anna lapped up this soup. It is really good, friends.

One change for next time: I’ll add another 14.5 oz. of vegetable broth to make it a little “soup-ier.”

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2) Bucatini with Winter Pesto and Sweet Potatoes

Here’s another seasonal, vegetarian recipe for you to enjoy, compliments of the Country Living website. (P.S. Check out this Seasonality Chart, an excellent resource from a sustainable agriculture nonprofit.)

Some changes I’d recommend to this recipe: Use a different, kid-friendly type of pasta (such as penne or cavatappi)—bucatini, spaghetti and the like can get messy with kiddos! (I love this handy Pasta Shapes Dictionary, which details which pasta works best for different sauces, etc.) I also found the kale to be a bit too hardy for my food processor (although yours may work better!); next time, I’ll chop and mix everything myself.

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3) Chicken and Green Bean Stir Fry

Confession: I intended to make a different stir fry recipe—this one, 4) Chicken, Broccoli and Mushroom. But I forgot to buy broccoli at the grocery store. So I Googled for a stir fry recipe with chicken and green beans, which I already had on hand. This one from The Lemon Bowl came up, and it was delicious.

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I very much appreciated The Lemon Bowl’s link for “Stocking Your Pantry for Asian Cooking.” If you have soy sauce, toasted sesame oil, rice vinegar, hoisin sauce and a few other essentials on hand, you pretty much can combine any protein with veggies and a side of rice for a quick, healthy and satisfying Asian-inspired meal.

5) Black Bean Quesadillas

Let’s move on to Mexican cuisine. Eating Well has this amazing and oh-so-easy recipe for Black Bean Quesadillas (also vegetarian!). I was shocked—truly—that even Grace loved them.

One tweak I recommend to the recipe: Use a full cup of cheese, not just ½. If your kids are anything like mine, they’ll appreciate the extra boost of gooey flavor.

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6) Easy Beef Enchiladas

I love any recipe that begins with the word “Easy.” 🙂 Everyone in my family loves this recipe. One recommendation, though: Skip the can of diced green chiles if your kiddos don’t like spicy flavors.

7) Beef Tacos

I love this beef tacos recipe from Blue Apron. I make it all the time now, minus the cucumber-avocado salsa (I buy store-prepared guacamole instead, which saves time). Simply skip to Step 5 of the directions, friends, and you’re all set—all you need is thinly sliced beef and some Mexican seasoning (any brand will do, or you can make your own), plus tortillas and your toppings of choice (guacamole, lettuce, shredded cheese, etc.).

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8) Pasta Bolognese

The Italian-American in me would be remiss not to include an Italian specialty on this list. 😉 I love this recipe for Pasta Bolognese, which I found in the weekly flyer from my local grocery store, Hannaford. It is incredibly easy to make, and incredibly flavorful—the yellow onion, I think, is the key ingredient.

Of course, use your pasta and pasta sauce brands of choice.

Please note, in the following documentation, Anna digging in to a big bite of this delicious Pasta Bolognese—spinach included! You go, girl.

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9) Chicken Tikka Masala

I haven’t had, or made, Indian cuisine in a while and thought it would be fun to give it a whirl again. Chicken Tikka Masala is a delicious yet traditionally time-consuming Indian/British favorite. The time-consuming part is gathering and then working with all the ingredients for the sauce, which usually include yogurt, ginger, tomatoes, garam masala—to name just a few.

Luckily, I stumbled upon this jar of Tikka Masala curry simmer sauce at the grocery store, and used the recipe on the label to make an easy, three-ingredient version of Chicken Tikka Masala: this sauce plus vegetable oil and boneless, skinless chicken breasts. This is taking the easy way out, but…ta-da!

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Stanton and I loved this. (The girls opted for the rice with leftover black bean quesadillas, again—their new favorite weeknight dinner!)

I’ve included nine recipes here, friends, and I hope you’ve found one or two (or maybe even more!) that you and your family can dig in to in this New Year. Here’s to easy weeknight cooking.

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Like what you just read? Then check out Melissa Leddy’s newest short fiction e-book, “This Is Just a Story.” Fun, timely and thought-provoking.