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Monday, September 24, 2012

A vote for the humble family dinner

We've become a society of foodies, to a certain extent. We've developed this notion that meals should be over-the-top, fantabulous, culinary delights. Well, frankly, I don't think food needs to be fantastic to be a good meal.

In our house, we eat quite a few humble, but delicious, meals every week. Sometimes we have pancakes, sometimes we have baked beans, sometimes a meal of plain baked chicken, and tonight, it's peanut butter sandwiches and fruit. None of these meals would star on the cover of Bon Appetit. But when you're truly hungry, and have no time or energy to cook, a simple meal tastes fantastic.

I think one of the best meals I ever had, was at the end of a long day, driving to my sister-in-law's house. We'd encountered a freak storm en route, followed by rush-hour traffic getting into the city. What should have been a 3-hour tour (key Gilligan's Island theme song), turned into a harrowing, at times, 5 1/2 hour nightmare. When we tumbled out of our car, very road weary, then trudged into her kitchen, she had a most delicious meal of pot roast, mashed potatoes and salad waiting for us. Everything tasted especially good. And we didn't hesitate to tell her so, to which she followed up repeatedly, "it's just pot roast and potatoes". You see our sense of taste was heightened by intense appetites. Did you read the Little House books? In one of the books, a visitor complimented Ma on her cooking. Her reply was, "hunger is the best sauce".

There is so much truth in this. When we are actually hungry, we eat voraciously, regardless of what is served. In fact, according to BBC News, a study at the University of Malawi found that taste buds are stimulated by hunger. Food actually tastes better when we are hungry. Anyone who's been on a calorie-restricted diet knows this.

So, why is it that magazines and cookbooks have us believing that every meal we prepare for our families, must be gourmet? Perhaps because a recipe for  Poulet Gourmet of the Day would sell more copies of a cookbook or mag, than say a recipe for plain baked chicken. I don't know about you, but I only need one cookbook that tells me how to bake plain chicken. So where's the repeat consumerism if I only need one, lone cookbook?

Most of what I prepare for dinner, I learned from my mother. Throughout history, this is how most women learned to cook. They didn't need cookbooks. They didn't need a book filled with 50 ways to prepare squab or rabbit or venison. The one way their mothers had always made it was enough for their repertoire. My mother's meals were delicious, yet most would not satisfy today's foodies.

I'm not against gourmet meals. I enjoy them too. But I don't let myself feel guilty or inadequate, if our family dinners are humble meals. And I don't think you should either. If time, or energy, or cost allow just a modest meal, then so be it. Your family will be grateful you cooked for them. And the long-term memories of the family table will not be about what was on the plate, but about the conversations, the laughs, the love and joy they always felt when they pulled up their chair.


  1. Hear, hear! Though I must say, a pot roast seems pretty gourmet to me. :-)

    1. That was the best pot roast I'd ever eaten. I've tried to replicate it many times. Thanks for reading!

  2. Absolutely!

    I've eaten food that would meet the definition of gourmet, but I can tell you if I could have one meal again I would go back to my grandmama's table and have her stewed potatoes and a piece of her cornbread. There is something about food prepared with love that always makes it taste better.

    Supper Saturday night was a simple potato soup with leftover bits of ham and cornbread (both leftovers from the freezer). Supper Sunday night was chicken and rice soup (compliments of the Neither were fancy meals, but they served their purpose and we enjoyed them.

    1. One of my favorite things about the weather turning cooler is having soup for dinner. Simple, but warming. When the house feels just a tad chilly, everyone is very appreciative of a bowl of steaming soup. And, yes, meals prepared with love always taste better.

  3. I agree :) When I'm hungry and busy eggs on toast or a baked potato are a wonderful meal. Actually baked potatoes are wonderful all of the time, they're probably my favourite meal :)

    1. Mmmm, I love baked potatoes, with broccoli or kale and cheese sauce. Yum! And the potatoes are finally harvested. I know what's going on the menu this week!

  4. Replies
    1. Thank you! Here's to a week of humble family dinners!

  5. I totally agree. Also, foodies should realize that the best meals are made from simple, fresh ingredients. The cuisines many hipster foodies romanticize are actually based on simple meals of a few ingredients, not elaborate sauces and expensive ingredients.

    1. True! Simple and fresh make for the best tasting meals!

  6. I love this post! :) I like a fancier meal at times also. Really though, why wear ourselves out every night to make gourmet meals when the husband and kids appreciate a simple meal?

    Some of my favorite simple suppers:

    Ham, eggs & biscuits
    French toast or pancakes with sausage or bacon
    Spaghetti/sauce with mozzarella cheese and garlic toast
    Chili with peanut butter sandwiches
    Potato soup with bread
    Vegetable soup with bread

    and I think one of my all time favorites:
    Tomato soup with grilled cheese sandwiches

    My husband works nights and he especially appreciates it when I make breakfast foods for supper. He is tired when he gets home in the mornings and usually eats a quick bowl of Cheerios or oatmeal and goes right to bed.

    Ok...talking about food is making me hungry. I'm ready for lunch now! :)


    1. Your list of meals is making me hungry -- and I'm on the west coast and just ate breakfast! LOL! My family would agree on the tomato soup/cheese sandwich combo. That's a great tasting and super easy supper.

  7. If my family would only eat gourmet foods, they would starve. :) My husband is far more likely to try fancy cooking than I am--he cooks Saturday and Sunday suppers so for him, cooking is a fun distraction. I like to cook ... somewhat ... but I don't love it. Guests eating at our home get the tastiest meals when he cooks and I bake.

    Guess what? My son has been helping a lot with pancakes the past couple of weeks! I think I'll try your trick and have him be in charge of Saturday morning breakfast (once he gains basic proficiency, that is).

    1. Hi Kris,
      it sounds like you and your husband have the cooking and baking thing all worked out! Win, win -- he likes to cook the gourmet stuff on weekends, while you take care of the rest of the week.

      That is great your son is enjoying helping with the pancakes. I'm not sure why, but kids seem to like making pancakes -- perhaps because they like to eat pancakes! Your son has a really great role model for cooking, his dad. He'll grow up knowing that men can and do cook, and he'll be a great catch for some lucky girl someday.

  8. Hi Lili- Beautiful post! I completely agree, as my blog name might suggest. :-) The mood and company when you sit down to eat are so important, and the food does not have to be fancy or require a shopping cart full of hard-to-find-or-pronounce ingredients to be stunning. My favorite meals, and those at the center of the (rightfully) trendy real foods movement, are those made with simple ingredients, just dressed up enough for an exciting presentation. There's something comforting about potatoes and pot roast that you just won't get from a tiny dish in the latest restaurant.

    1. Hi Alicia,
      Thank you! Yes, you are so right. Have you ever had to endure a meal, where some people at the table are not quite getting along? It's hard to choke down the food, let alone taste it. The love and warmth at the table are what really make a meal special!

      A simple meal of real foods tastes divine. Maybe that's why I love to eat this time of year. There is so much great produce coming out of the garden in its prime!

  9. When I moved out on my own at age 18, my grandmother gave me one paperback cookbook it was a better homes and garden cookbook that was well loved. This was quite old and most the recipes in there were simple meals which I was used to.

    When I had to change the way I ate, I needed cookbooks to show me how to cook these foods I'd never heard of. How exactly do you cook with dried beans? Now that I have learned how to use these new foods I don't have a need for cookbooks any longer as I usually cook with what's on hand at the moment.

    I read a study somewhere, that said people eat the same 7 dinners with an occasional different meal now and then. From the comments that seems to be pretty accurate.

    Here are my favorite meals:
    - home made soup of any kind, but especially a split pea with potatoes and carrots
    - fried potatoes with eggs
    - spaghetti
    - nut butter and jam on a tortilla
    - baked potato with steamed veggies
    - bowl of oatmeal with chopped up fruit (yep even for dinner)

    1. Hi Lois,
      7 basic dinners, hmmm. I guess I do prepare the same basic meals over and over, changing it up a bit as I have different ingredients on hand. I like your list of favorite meals. I'm a big fan of all of them!

  10. Agreed. The hard part is not snacking on junk food before dinner so that whatever I make tastes good enough to eat it all.

    1. Hi Mallory,
      oh I know. I snack all the way through making dinner some nights. Then when dinner's ready I'm not at all hungry. Some nights, I wind up putting my plate in the fridge to have for lunch the next day.


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