When I got married almost 10 years ago, I became what I often think of as the least prepared stepmom in the world. I hadn’t planned to have children or even to be married. Love—and God—had a different idea. But when I looked in my arsenal for mothering tools, it was almost empty, save one little thing: food.
I love food and love to cook, so much so that I made a career out of it for 20 years as a food writer. Everybody eats, so cooking for my family became my saving grace.
I had been lucky enough to grow up in a family who ate dinner together every night. My mother was the stay-at-home kind, and she was always putting the finishing touches on the meal when my dad came home from work. The food wasn’t fancy, just dishes like spaghetti with jarred sauce and hamburger, meatloaf, chicken-fried steak, and chicken casseroles with a canned-soup sauce.
Most nights we ate in the dining room, with mom and dad at the heads of the table and the five kids filling in the sides.
Not everything in our family was idyllic, but those family meals were. We shared many things at the table from the food to our thoughts and feelings, worries and concerns, triumphs and defeats.
I started the tradition with my new family some 30 years later because food and cooking were all I thought I had to offer.
It turns out that food was a great way to learn about each other.
When I married Ken, he had been widowed for three years. Family meals had been one of thousands of things he had to take care of as a single dad to three young children. And in the years prior, when his wife, the children’s mother, had been sick, eating together had been even less of a priority.
Figuring out what each child liked became something of a puzzle to me. They liked tacos, so would they eat enchiladas? (The answer was no.) Spaghetti and pizza were favorites, so what about lasagna? (This was a yes.)
I took care to introduce them to new foods, too, expanding their palates in the hope of making them more adventurous and healthful eaters. But I was also determined to not make the dinner table a battlefield, so if I was offering something new, I also had a familiar dish on the table, too. If they didn’t like the new food, they had something to fall back on.
We prayed before every meal we ate together, and then played a game we called “high/low.” Each person got the chance to describe the best and the worst part of his or her day. As parents, it kept us informed on the little things going on in their lives that we might otherwise miss. And for them, they could see a little bit of their parents as people, too.
Many studies have shown that eating together benefits the family in many ways. Children get higher grades and are less likely to get into drugs or other risky behaviors.
I didn’t think about all of that when I made family dinner a priority in my family. But nonetheless, dinner, for us, became a great time of sharing not just food, but ourselves and our faith.
Makes 4 servings
The beauty of this recipe is its versatility. In addition or in place of the sausage, you could use cubes of boneless skinless chicken breast. Add peeled deveined shrimp toward the end of cooking the whole dish. And punch up the vegetables however you like. Use canned diced tomatoes with their juices (just be sure to measure the amount of liquid and reduce the water amount accordingly) or add frozen peas.
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 onion, chopped
1 red bell pepper, seeded, chopped
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 pound fully cooked sausage, halved lengthwise then cut into half-moon slices
1 to 3 teaspoons Cajun seasoning
Ground black pepper to taste
1 bay leaf
1 cup rice
2 ¼ cups water
Heat the oil in a heavy large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the onion and bell pepper. Sauté until tender, about 8 minutes. Add garlic and sausage. Sauté 5 minutes. Stir in seasoning, pepper to taste and rice until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Stir in rice and water. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat, cover and cook until rice is tender and liquid is absorbed, about 25 minutes. Remove from heat. Let stand, covered, 5 minutes.
Fluff with a fork. Remove bay leaf and serve.
SIMPLE SALAD WITH BALSAMIC VINAIGRETTE
Makes 4 servings
This is a great salad to serve with just about any meal. It was a staple on our dinner table.
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
½ teaspoon honey
Salt and pepper
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
8 cups mixed salad greens
¼ cup crumbled blue cheese, feta cheese or goat cheese
Whisk the vinegar, mustard, honey and salt and pepper to taste in a large bowl.
Gradually whisk in oil until well blended.
Place greens in a serving bowl. Add enough dressing to coat. Toss. Top with cheese and serve.