Giving Thanks: Not Just for Thanksgiving

When I was writing my cookbook, Friday Night Bites, I spent months with a head—and a kitchen—full of archetypes and images of things that kids like. Amid the princess cupcakes and pirate meatloaf (with a treasure of cubed veggies inside), the dinosaur quesadilla and the deep-sea creatures made of puff pastry dough, there was one idea that I knew I wanted to include: giving thanks.

It was easy to work it into the book; the publisher had asked for a collection of 20 themed dinners, with recipes, a craft and other activities for each theme. Because it was book of family dinners, I decided to include trivia questions and conversation-starters for each dinner. As I developed each theme, I tried to imagine the kinds of questions a child might ask about, say, the origins of the teddy bear (or in the case of that dinosaur quesadilla, the origin of species).

Having been a parent for a few years by then, I’d already been thinking about how our kids have so much stuff and are so accustomed to immediate gratification of their every desire that it’s easy for them to take it all for granted. It was in this context that I imagined a conversation about appreciating what we have, and I developed a dinner titled “Thanksgiving Anytime.”

The meal consisted of variations on Thanksgiving dinner; the dessert, for example, was a twist on tradition—a made-in-the microwave pumpkin-vanilla pudding. The craft was a construction paper cornucopia filled with paper fruits, on which everyone was to write the name of one thing they were thankful for. The conversation-starter turned out to be fairly simple: going around the table thanking others for the nice things they had done, and emptying the cornucopia and reading its contents aloud.

We can all, grown-ups and children alike, benefit by cultivating the habit of giving thanks—and not just for Thanksgiving.  It sounds corny, but I’ve been doing it for a while now. I began a few years ago, when I was going through a difficult time. Lying in bed, unable to sleep, I forced myself to remember all the things I was thankful for. My goal was simply to distract myself and fall asleep, but very soon, I came up with a long list of wonders, from the cozy quilt that was wrapped around me to the loving parents who raised me, from the books in my bookshelf to the child sleeping peacefully a few steps away. As my mind flitted from sublime to ridiculous, my list grew longer (M. F. K. Fisher, Rodgers and Hammerstein, indoor plumbing, my third grade teacher who encouraged me to become a writer, dark chocolate, my sister and brother, the right to vote, dear friends, the bagel waiting for me for breakfast), and it occurred to me that life was really pretty good after all. I just had to take the time to remember it. Since then, every so often, I spend the few minutes before I drift off taking inventory and giving thanks. It’s a habit that refreshes my perspective.

And I see that I am not alone. In the run-up to Thanksgiving, social media was abuzz with “Thirty Days of Thanks.” Perhaps it’s the uncertain economy, or a reaction to the lows of the recent political campaign, or the ease of social media, but it seems like more and more people are taking stock of what’s good and sharing their findings. Or maybe it’s the weather.

During our few days without power after Hurricane Sandy, I had a chance to share my mood-lifting strategy with my daughter. At 11, she coped pretty well, but she had moments when the stress of no TV, no computer and no friends to hang out with just got to her. I took out my cell phone and used some of my precious remaining charge to show her pictures of houses destroyed by the storm and of people far worse off than we were. I reminded her that we were safe in our nice, dry house with our two cats curled up beside us, and that we had enough food, batteries and books to get us through. She fell silent—for a while, at any rate—and eventually, thankfully, the power returned.

When I looked back at “Thanksgiving Anytime” for the pudding recipe below, I rediscovered what I had written as a chapter opener. I don’t think I can say it any better than I did then, so here it is: “How lucky we are to have enough to eat—and such delicious things, at that! How lucky we are to have each other! When my day has been less than perfect, I try to remember all the things I can be thankful for—I make a mental list, and it always cheers me up. In a world where some are overly focused on getting more and more and still more stuff, while others don’t have enough, this is what I want to teach my child: let’s be thankful for what we have, for what is most important, and let’s make time to enjoy the important things together.”

Yumpkin Pudding Parfait

From Friday Night Bites: Kick Off the Weekend with Recipes and Crafts for the Whole Family (Running Press)

Makes 4 Servings

Vanilla Pudding

2 1⁄2 cups whole milk

1⁄4 cup cornstarch

1⁄4 cup granulated sugar

1⁄8 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

 

Pumpkin Pudding

2 cups whole milk

31⁄2 tablespoons cornstarch

1⁄2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1⁄2 cup canned plain pumpkin purée

1⁄2 cup granulated sugar

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

1⁄8 teaspoon salt

Graham Cracker Crumbles

8 graham crackers

1⁄2 cup packed brown sugar

1⁄2 stick (1⁄4 cup) unsalted butter, melted

To make the vanilla pudding, combine the milk and cornstarch in a measuring cup or small bowl and stir to dissolve. If there are any stubborn lumps that won’t dissolve, strain through a fine-mesh sieve. Pour the mixture into a microwavable container with a lid, and stir in the sugar and salt until dissolved. Cover and microwave on high power for 11⁄2 minutes, stir, cover again, and repeat the process twice more, for a total of 41⁄2 minutes; then add the butter and stir in the vanilla, cover, and microwave for 11⁄2 minutes. Stir to blend, cover, and microwave for 30 seconds. The pudding should be thickened and creamy and the butter should be completely melted and incorporated thoroughly. (Microwave ovens can vary in power, and some cook unevenly, so if by chance it is not pudding consistency, cover and microwave for an additional 30 seconds.) Remove from the microwave, let cool a bit, and refrigerate until ready to serve.

To make the pumpkin pudding, combine the milk, cornstarch, and cinnamon in a small bowl and stir to dissolve. If there are any stubborn lumps that won’t dissolve, strain through a fine-mesh sieve. Pour the mixture into a clean microwavable container with a lid and stir in the pumpkin, sugar, vanilla, and salt until dissolved. Cover and microwave on high power for 11⁄2 minutes, stir, cover again, and repeat the process 3 times, for a total of 6 minutes; then stir again, cover, and microwave for 30 seconds. Remove from the microwave, let cool a bit, and refrigerate until ready to serve.

To make the crumbles, combine the graham crackers, brown sugar, and butter in a food processor and pulse to coarse crumbs. Set aside.

To serve, spoon about 1 tablespoon of the crumbles into each of 4 parfait glasses or deep wine glasses (not the balloon shape). Top with 1⁄4 cup vanilla pudding, another tablespoon of crumbles, and 1⁄4 cup pumpkin pudding. Repeat, dividing the crumbles and puddings evenly among the 4 glasses, and alternating between vanilla and pumpkin. Top with a dusting of crumbles and serve.

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Dinner, The Best Umbrella

The night that the superstorm Sandy took the power out, there was still dinner to get on the table. I suppose I could have served sandwiches, but something warm seemed in order. With the winds blowing at 70 miles an hour outside, firing up the grill was out of the question. Instead, I got out my chafing dish and set it over five squat candles that I had arranged in an aluminum tray. In went a can of condensed soup and some water, and about 45 minutes later—voila!—lukewarm soup. My other chafing dish yielded warm slices of buttered French bread. I cup an apple into wedges and dinner was served. There we sat, my daughter and me, eating our soup, bread and apples by candlelight. The storm taunted us from outside, but inside, the familiarity and comfort of family dinner prevailed.

Having written two volumes that fall into the burgeoning category of books about cooking with and for children, I’ve become convinced of the importance of family dinner. And I’m equally convinced that that the style of the dinner matters far less than the fact of sitting down together to eat it. I’m a happy producer and consumer of books to help with every permutation of the evening meal, for every taste and every occasion: multi-course extravaganzas that are cooked from scratch with organic, local sustainable ingredients; quick affairs that are assembled in 20 minutes from jars and boxes; or special, kid-themed dinners that feature foods with silly names, whose architecture makes them fun to make and eat (as in my two books). But—dare I say this in a blog post about books?—I don’t think you need a cookbook to do family dinner. The occasional take-out meal or hurricane-chafing-dish-improvisation will also qualify.

The important thing is to sit down with your kids as often as you possibly can, to share a meal, talk about the day, talk about life and just be together. I could cite many studies that have proven the social and public health benefits of family dinner (and reserve the right to do so in a future post). But now, days after the hurricane that barged in on so many lives, in so many ways, I’m just thinking about family dinner and how it’s such a sweet simple, refuge from whatever storms rage around us, no matter what’s on the table.

Note: This blog post originally appeared on BookTrib.com, The All You Can Eat Literary Buffet

The Most Important Meal of the Day

When I was growing up, it would have been hard to imagine the proliferation of cookbooks that offer today’s cooks instruction in the art of the family dinner. In the past few years, food personalities like Rachael Ray, Laurie David and Sara Moulton as well as other less prominent folk (myself included), have issued volumes on quick dinners, slow dinners, special dinners and everyday dinners.  Each author takes a unique approach to the subject of dinner, and each book offers its own charms.

Back when I was growing up, family dinner was just what you did. Every night. Mom cooked a hot meal, the kids set the table, Dad came home from work and everyone sat down to eat and talk about the day. (Paging Norman Rockwell!) Sadly, for too many families today, the evening meal has gone missing, lost somewhere between soccer practice, the PTA Council and the 987 texts, emails and Facebook updates that come bleeping to the table as soon as we sit down.

 

But it’s worth taking time for family dinner, because, like the fresh produce my mother taught me to eat, it’s good for us. More specifically, it’s really good for our kids.  I’d always heard this said, but when I sat down to research the topic in preparation for a conference earlier this year, I was astounded by the number of honest-to-goodness public health studies that proved the point, over and over again. I’ll spare you the academic citations and sum up: regular family dinners reduce kids’ risk of alcohol use, tobacco use, obesity, and even violent and criminal behavior. Regular family dinners also promote well-rounded nutrition and, not surprisingly, better parent-child communication.

 

So bring on the books about family dinner! Our mothers and grandmothers didn’t need them, but it seems that we do. With the stakes so high and the rewards so great, why not seek some inspiration to get back to the dinner table together?

 Note: This blog post originally appeared on BookTrib.com