Surprise Your Guests with Holiday Theme Dinners

Family Christmas dinner

Holiday dinners don’t have to be exactly the same from year to year. By adding a theme to your big holiday meal, you can add even more excitement for your children and your guests.

Building family traditions doesn’t have to mean repeating exactly the same decorations, activities, and meals every year. We all look forward to some of our favorites, but the anticipation of seeing what will be new can be fun.

If everyone really craves a big turkey, you could keep the food the same and change the colors and decorations. If the family likes to travel—or wishes they could travel—you might want to eat holiday foods from elsewhere in the world.

In my family, we always have Christmas crackers because that is what my children love about Christmas with their grandparents in England. We always make the Swiss cookies that my grandmother used to make and all of my cousins still make. We generally use the nice china and silverware as well. But, that is all that is consistent. We like to eat foods from other places in the world.

The year of Hurricane Katrina, we had a Louisiana meal in solidarity with all of those who were still recovering. We had gumbo, which fits well with the green and red decorations, dirty rice, and other Cajun favorites then pecan desserts. One year, we couldn’t decide on turkey or goose, so we decided on a theme of Christmas is for the Birds. We started one night with Cornish game hens, the next with duck and goose in a kind of homemade Peking duck, then finally the more traditional turkey dinner. My English husband has a Finnish name, so we played on that another year with the theme I’m Finnish with Christmas. We had traditional Finnish soups and breads that we had not made before. I probably wouldn’t do any of them twice, but we love the brainstorming and planning as well as the meal itself. This year, I’m pushing for a medieval Viking meal with the theme Deck the Valhalls.

If you are looking for a way to add fun to your holiday traditions, consider what you want to stay the consistent year to year and what you might play with to surprise your children or guests at your big holiday meal. Did you travel recently? Do you remember what your grandmother used to make for holidays when you were young? Would you like to see if you really can have an entirely blue meal for a Blue Christmas? (You can! We have.) Look through the ideas that intrigue you, and include your children in the planning. Pulling together the big meal is one of the activities we enjoy the most about the holidays.

Happy Holidays, and eat well!

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Dinner on a Budget

Young family making dinner on a budget

When you are making a healthy dinner on a budget, you balance two needs: keep the quality high and keep the grocery bill low. The more work you are willing to put in and the more you plan in advance, the less you will end up spending and the easier it will be to keep this balance.


Grow It Yourself

Can you plan dinner a year in advance? Sure, sort of. It’s not too early to plan your garden for the year.

It’s nice to eat fresh vegetables, and you may also want to preserve your own food to save money. My mother always made pickles and salsa. We seldom bought these at the store. I guarantee we won’t need to buy mint tea for a long time, but there is nothing else we grew this past season that will cover our needs for the whole year. I aspire to grow enough of one food that I can make it worth the time and effort to preserve a year’s worth from our own garden. I have two ideas for foods I think I could cover out of my garden if I focus our efforts for the year: berry preserves or pickles.

Even if you don’t grow your own food, you can buy foods when they are abundant and prices are low then preserve them yourself. Some farmers markets are in their last few weeks right now.


Buy Ahead

One way to cut costs is to buy food as it is discounted. If you want to take advantage of daily specials (“Must be sold today!”), you will need somewhere to store the food. You don’t even really need to plan in advance, as long as you are willing to do a bit of improvisation once the moment of recipe decision comes.

A small, energy efficient chest freezer costs only a few hundred dollars. Chest freezers run more efficiently than upright freezers, and they freeze most efficiently if they are kept full.


Cook It Yourself

When you’re tired and hungry, you are much less likely to make the less expensive choice for dinner. Just to for comparison, and to encourage you to plan ahead, this is what my family of four pays for a chicken dinner.

  • Eat out chicken dinner, restaurant, $40-50 (if you are lucky)
  • Buy chicken dinner, fast food, $20-30
  • Buy chicken dinner, grocery store, $15-20
  • Buy a cooked chicken, grocery store, $6-8 + another $10 for side dishes for $16-18
  • Buy a raw chicken and cook at home, $5 for 2 chickens (on special) + $5 for tortillas, avocado, cheese, and lettuce for a total of about $10 (and, it lasts for a couple of meals)

I base this on the two chickens I bought this weekend (“Today’s Special”), which provided a great Sunday lunch and dinner for about $10. We didn’t really plan ahead, but we improvised around the best deal available.

Even if you only eat take out food once a week, that can add $100 a month to your food budget. If you actually eat out in a restaurant, you add closer to $200 a month. It doesn’t seem like much at the time, but it all adds up quickly

What you need on those evenings when you are tired and hungry is something you can pull from your freezer and heat up.


Divide Meals

If you need quick, easy to heat and eat meals, make them yourself. Before I was married, I could make a huge pot of soup on the weekend and eat it for a week when I got home late. With four people to feed, we can sometimes get three meals out of one pot of soup or chili or two meals out of a dish of lasagna.

Look at your family’s favorite foods and figure out which are most easily scalable. Then, make a lot, divide it into enough for tonight and later. Freeze the rest in the right amounts for a whole dinner, and you have a very easy meal for another night. It’s your own two-for-one meal deal.

It is possible to be frugal by buying the cheapest foods, but don’t fall into that trap. Eating processed and prepared foods costs you more in health and wellness in the long run. Stick with whole foods, single ingredients that you put together yourself.

Eat well and inexpensively!

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Reclaim Mealtime

Family preparing a meal

The busy life of a parent is a shock to a lot of us. It was to me. But, this was the life I signed up for. It’s up to me to figure out where busy-ness pushes too hard, where stress reaches in to squeeze me and ruin my health, and where I just need to gently but firmly push back and reclaim the parent I intend to be.

If you are ready to reclaim your natural parenting, start one place where you can model for your children, and, really, for yourself, that ideal you want. Start with time that matters for health, for calm, and for culture. Start by reclaiming mealtime from preparation through clean up. Make the whole meal family time.

Someone whose embrace of healthy, whole foods is really inspirational to me is Tamara, our own Nature Mom. She didn’t do it because she’s has some extraordinary will power that the rest of us lack. She experienced a problem as a parent (allergies), and she kept working on the fix. She developed habits of even healthier eating as the solution to allergies, and it didn’t happen all at once.


Question: How did you come to reclaim mealtimes and whole foods for your family?

We didn’t really have a choice but to get to this point with our eating, but it was a long process. My two girls (ages 3.5 and almost 7) and I have very long lists of allergies that had been causing health problems for years. It took 3 years to get to where I don’t have to constantly think about food because it’s our lifestyle now, not just a burden or challenge. It hasn’t been easy, but you do what you have to do for your kids. We were never big junk food eaters (I grew up with no pop, no fast food, no junk food) but learning to cook without processed foods (no cans, jars or boxed food) was the tough for me.


3 Steps to Reclaim Mealtime

  • Take it slow. Understand that food is more than fuel. Create a family habit of slow cooking and slow eating. If you want support from a community of people who also recognize the importance of the meal, look for convivia (chapters) in your area through Slow Food Canada or Slow Food USA.
  • Sit down together, face to face, when you eat. Reclaim that time with your children—and with yourself! Clear off the table so you won’t be tempted to eat elsewhere.
  • Embrace wholefoods. If it’s overwhelming to think of making all meals from scratch right now, just start by replacing one processed food a week as you shop. You can work on banning all boxed, canned, and other processed foods as you go.

This morning, as my husband was writing a shopping list and asking about food for the coming week, I saw him write canned tomatoes on the list.

“We talked about this. No canned tomatoes.”
“But, they don’t have whole tomatoes in glass jars.”
“I’ll tell you where they do have them.”
“Where?”
“In the vegetable aisle. Just buy tomatoes. It’s not that hard to blanch a tomato.”

I thought we were already past that decision. We’ve had the conversation before, and we might have it again. It is not easy to get to the point where everyone in your family is moving in the same direction. Cooking from scratch is a project in process in my house. Don’t stress it. Just move forward gently but firmly.

Just reclaim one meal at a time, and slow down.

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5 Ways to Get Your Child Involved in Preparing Meals

Mother and young child cooking together

Do you ever think that it’s just faster and easier to make the meals yourself than to have your small children help? Don’t send them away! Your children need that time at your side to eventually learn to prepare meals themselves.

My husband is the one who says it’s easier to do things himself. I just tell him, “If you don’t have them help now, you’ll pay for it later when they don’t have a clue what to do.” Later is now. He is paying for it. It took my children a while to figure out the most basic steps to cooking, but they are finally (in their pre-teen/teens) interested in feeding themselves.

Avoid that delay. Help your kids see meal preparation as a fun learning experience, and the extra minutes you spend now will pay dividends later. Plus, you get a great companion while you cook.


1. Have them measure ingredients.

Start with those ingredients that have the least potential for spreading all over, maybe beans, and work up to flour and oil.


2. Bring them shopping and ask their help in choosing ingredients.

Have them help you check the basics off your shopping list. Also, make sure you have a couple of favorite recipes that have flexible ingredients, like infinitely adjustable pasta salad, so your child has real choices to make at the store.


3. Buy a kids’ recipe book.

A cookbook that includes foods with kid-appeal as well as step-by-step instructions with photos that make it easy to understand what to do will not only make the learning process smoother, but it will also give your child a measure of independence once they have a few skills.


4. Show them how to make sandwiches.

Sandwiches are the easy first step into meal preparation for a child. No heat or sharp knives necessary. Just show your child the simple steps to putting tasty spreads on bread. A peanut butter sandwich may seem simple to you, but it’s a mystery to a child who hasn’t made one before.


5. Teach them how to make a pasta salad.

Older children can make pasta salad on their own (sort of—neither of mine are excited to pour out and strain cooked pasta yet), but even a young child can stand on a stool over a bowl of cooked pasta and choose ingredients for a meal.

Baby steps! Help them now and your children will be confident in the future as they prepare their own meals.

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Importance of Family Meals

Family Mealtime

The average family mealtime lasts only 20 minutes, but that time spent together builds a foundation for a child’s health and well being. Benefits range from nutrition to language, culture, and even mental health.

Who wouldn’t want to set their children up for less likelihood of substance abuse, greater vocabulary, fewer behavior problems, less likelihood of asthma, less obesity, and better balanced meals with fewer calories than fast food.[1]

Family meals can do all of that? Yes, that is what research shows. Your investment now while your children are young will continue to benefit them as individuals and all of you as a family. As your children reach their teen years, you will be glad that you have created a strong family routine of sharing during mealtimes.

“A meal is about civilizing children. It’s about teaching them to be a member of their culture.” Robin Fox, anthropologist at Rutgers University in TIME Magazine.


Family Mealtime Education

At mealtime, parents share information about food and family without the children really realizing it. Just in passing, as kids ask “Why are we eating this?” we talk about our choices. Sometimes we might tell children why one choice is more healthy than another. Sometimes we might help them understand why we need quick meals on busy days.

My children love homemade rolls. They would love to have rolls every day at every meal, but this is a food that takes time to prepare. So, this is a Sunday routine because that is the day when we have more time. As they help prepare the rolls from live yeast, they learn the science of baking painlessly. I’ve also noticed over time that they smile just at the smell of baking bread. Baking bread means family and home for my children, and I think that is a great start.

When we eat foods from our own childhoods, we share information about multiple generations of our families. I like talking to my children about the foods my mother and my grandmother made. This often leads to talking about where our families came from, since food traditions are often passed down through mothers. We no longer eat a lot of heavy German food passed down from my mother’s mother’s family, but, when we do eat those old foods on occasion, I talk about how and why my family came to North America.

If my children moan about helping prepare meals, I like to remind them that by the time my mother was their age, she was in charge of making dinner for herself and four brothers. Sometimes this just quiets them into helping, but other times they ask more questions. Why was grandma cooking? (She was home first while her mother was working and her brothers were working on the farm.) What did she cook? (She told me the meal she cooked most often was pepper pot soup.) Can we make that? (Certainly!)

In addition to the benefit of healthier eating for families that sit down and eat together, the rituals families develop create a family identity and a closeness for all.


Dinner Time Fun

Here are a few quick tips to keep family dinner time fun.

  • Keep the meal stress free. Don’t spend more time than you have preparing a meal. Save elaborate meals for days when you have time to spend.
  • Involve children in meal preparation. This does take a bit more time, but the long-term investment is worth it. Children take pride in the work they’ve done—and they may find themselves less picky when they’ve helped make the food.
  • For young children, make the mealtime experience visual. You can do this simply in the way you arrange their food.
  • Don’t focus on foods your child doesn’t like. If you serve a food you know your child hesitates to eat, start a conversation about something completely different as a diversion. Involve the child in your stories to keep the focus off the food itself.
  • If your child is a fast eater, keeping them involved in conversation can help them understand that they are still valued at the meal even when the food is finished. A family meal, after all, is about far more than food.


Resources

I don’t usually suggest that you read an academic paper, but the one I read in preparation for today’s post is just fascinating because it reviews studies on family mealtime then goes on to make recommendations for public policy based on the irrefutable benefits. If you need to be convinced how very important it is to start sharing mealtimes with your children while they are young, read this article.

To read similar conclusions in a more popular format, see TIME Magazine.

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