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Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Dinner Dance

As I speed towards the fourth decade of my life, I've become increasingly obsessed with the everyday rituals of life. The trivial things, such as when I sleep, when I wake up, and when I eat, and what I eat, are all suddenly important. I never gave these things much attention when I was growing up, mostly because I didn't have much choice. Bedtime was set by Mom, as was the morning alarm. Mealtimes were set by Grandma, who lived with us and was our family's executive chef, and the menu was a balance of meat, vegetables, and a starch, all consumed at the dining room table once Mom arrived home from the office. Once in a while, we kids could make a special request for hamburger night, but that was all of the input we were allowed. And life was good, uncomplicated and good.

Now, it seems like that kind of approach is no longer the norm. I know of families where the dinner table is a constant battlefield, where kids refuse the food on offer, and the parents throw up the white dinner napkin of surrender and settle on a feast of take-out pizza and fast food. I've dined at one home where a picky 6 year old refused to eat the homemade dinner and was then served the fried bologna sandwich he requested. Have it your way? Hell to the NO!! I've even had people show up to our home for Thanksgiving dinner armed with microwave corn dogs (you know who you are!) because their kids are so used to processed foods that real turkey and vegetables aren't to their liking - HUH??!!

So what gives?

While I could write chapter and verse on the need for discipline in the parent-child relationship, the real issue is our over-reliance on fast food and dining out and how it's changed our perceptions of taste and of time. This is one of those chicken vs. egg type arguments. Cooking at home requires a lot of steps - research recipes, plan meals, make a shopping list, go to the grocery store, cook the meals. Trips to the grocery store are time-consuming and meal prep times can vary between 20 minutes to several hours. Compare that to the 30 minutes it takes to get a pizza delivered to your home, or the 5 minutes waiting at the drive-through for a bucket of fried bliss and it's clear that in the home cooking vs. fast food time challenge that fast food emerges the winner.

But what about taste? Well, fast food has some advantages, but they're all unfair advantages. Fast food companies have an army of chemists and taste-testers at their disposal making sure that their food products achieve the highest level of yummy to appeal to the majority of taste buds. I'm convinced that the more you eat fast food, the more acclimatized you become to the taste so that you crave that food and that taste.

So why should I even make dinner? Why fight against the tide of golden arches or the oily scrumptiousness of a $1 taco allegedly comprised of less than 30% of actual beef?

While the obvious answer is for the sake of better health and nutrition, the better answer is that the whole exercise of making our meals and eating them together creates a sense of community and family. It feels good to watch people enjoy something that you cook - it's like you're giving them a gift. Even on those nights when a dish isn't as successful, all is not lost because the act of preparing a meal for others generates those same good feelings. Now, I'm not ignorant to how busy and fast life is these days, and I'm not advocating a return to the days of high-heeled, crinolined skirt wearing ladies of the house cheerfully whiling away the day in the kitchen. But there are ways to have a more convenient style of home cooking. My Grandma used to prepare the largest meal on Sundays, portioning and freezing or refrigerating the leftovers which would be used for meals throughout the week. Sunday's whole-roasted chicken became Monday's chicken legs and vegetable, Tuesday's chicken thighs and dumplings, Wednesday's chicken stew, and Thursday's chicken pot pie.

And while my Grandma had more than 60 years of recipes in her head, today there are all sorts of online resources, like my favorite, Recipe.com, as well as websites for The Food Network and its' shows. Epicurious.com is another great place to get inspiration for menu planning.

Now, if you're observant, you'll notice something missing from this discussion, and that's dear old dad. While this may be 2011, I suspect that the steady march toward fast food and delivery food was created from a sense of frustration on the part of the wives and moms who were saddled with the lions share of menu planning and preparation, and dads and husbands who wanted a way out of feeling guilty for that imbalance. But, that's a discussion for a different time! I'm just saying:)

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