As a continuation from my last article, I hope you’ve taken the opportunity to reflect on your own evening meals and consider the important part they play in building your family life, far beyond just getting everybody fed. The recent articles here at Meridian, specifically regarding the Supreme Court’s decision on same-sex marriage and the updates of Bruce Jenner’s gender confusion, confirm for me in a more emphatic manner than ever: we must each, at every stage of our personal and family life, take the time to do things that matter both now and in the eternities! Mealtimes are an important gateway to family bonding time and memories that last forever. It doesn’t take a college degree to understand that Good Foods + A Good Moods = Happy Foundations

In actuality, a successful family meal provides not just food, but the equally (or even more) important elements of daily spiritual, emotional and social nourishment. How can we simplify the mechanics of food choices and preparation to allow freedom to enjoy each other’s company, as well as build relationships and character?

Though it seems simple equation, the realities are that 1) Many and easy-to-prepare and popular  family foods are not particularly healthy,  and 2)  Pleasing family members with different needs and preferences is a constant challenge for most of us that takes the fun out of family dinners.

After nearly 30 years of feeding my own family, I had to laugh when I read that even Sister Marjorie Hinckley joked that 4:00 pm and kids asking what was for dinner gave new meaning to D&C 38:30 “If ye are prepared ye shall not fear.” In fact my own sister, when I became engaged, joked “Are you SURE about this? Do you know that marriage and a family means fixing meals for a lifetime that do not have cereal and toast as the main course?” Of course, they’re both right!

Though our children are now grown and it’s just the two of us who prefer a whole-food plant based diet, for many years I provided meals for children of all ages, some who would eat anything enthusiastically and those that would eat nothing, with expressions on their faces that suggested intentional parental abuse. We had those that diligently counted calories, carbs, and fiber, and those eat everything in sight and lost weight in the process. We had kids that LOVED whole grains and veggies, and those that were sure they had medically authorized and documented allergies to certain foods, sure to cause permanent health traumas should they consume even a taste.

What’s For a Healthy Dinner? Soups, Salads, Stir Fry!

So what did we do then? What do we do now? Our best, just like you! And what do we eat? A lot of simple foods from scratch:  Lots of hearty soups and make-your-own salads, legumes (as in vegetarian chili or burritos that everyone enjoys) and pasta with a tomato sauce.  We enjoy veggie nights and veggie pizza (made with whole wheat afghan bread for a crust) with recipes from Everyone likes baked potato night where I often mix up some kidney beans with taco seasoning for taco-topped potatoes. Although Bob and I no longer cook meat for ourselves, if we have guests or family members, I do chicken or a little beef  – usually from my collection of healthy crock pot cookbooks. My favorite is “Fix It and Forget It – Lightly” by Phyllis Pellman Good.

We’ve found as we’ve evolved into a more vegetarian life that canned beans are a great substitute for any meat in almost any recipe. (My favorite resource for getting comfortable with cooking and eating beans is the book “Eat to Live” by Dr. Joel Fuhrman.)

We usually serve sliced fresh fruit in a bowl for salad and/or dessert. When it’s just Bob and I, a baked sweet potato is the best meal in town.

Fresh and frozen vegetables are staples, and have found that they are tastiest and easiest to prepare in a steamer. (These are very easy to find at thrift stores. We have and use two steamers constantly.) We all especially like lightly cooked broccoli!  Soups are made with a light broth (usually with a chicken or beef bouillon. vegetables, seasoning and a pasta or rice). If we want soups to be creamed, we puree a bit of it then, add it back to the pot.

Our favorite easy soup is simply taco soup using a can of refried beans, add a can of water, and 1 cup of salsa. You can top with chopped green pepper, onion, baked taco chips, etc. It is so delicious and filling!

1) Meal Planning and Family Home Evening:  Healthy recipes and menu plans are easy to find in books and online.  We’ve actually had meal planning be part of family home evening where everybody gets a say in what we eat that week.  We check out books from the library (or buy from thrift stores or yard sales for next to nothing) and have everybody look through the pictures and recipes.  We then create a weekly menu to post on the refrigerator.  This saves time and money, and is good for early readers!

2)  Kids Know Best: I found out early that little children really want to see and understand what they are eating. This is a divine law of health that actually makes meal preparation easy as the less prep and cooking is the best for our health too!  For example, they much prefer a cut-up apple with some raisins and a stick of celery rather than an apple salad with mayonnaise, or to see a little pile of peas and carrots, rather than have it in a casserole.  Perhaps this is why salad bar night is always such a hit at our house, as everyone sees and chooses exactly what they want.  Once again, we started putting sliced fresh fruit on the table at dinner when our children were young, and still do almost every night.

I’m not one that particularly enjoys cooking, so early on I had kids help with all of these meals.  It’s a fun way to be together and the warm fuzzies that go with spending time with a parent and contributing to the family meal are significant.  Who cares how the veggies are chopped for a salad or soup?  No need for perfection here!   In addition, they learn how to cook! It’s been a revelation to them to go off to college and on missions to find out how little their roommates and companions know about kitchen basics.

3) Separate the Carbs: My best strategy to please everybody is to cook the carbohydrate portion (pasta, barley, rice or potatoes) of the soup or salad separately. This allows for those who want to control their portions (or no carb at all) to do so. For hungry teenage boys, make sure there is extra bread. Those that want/need more to fill up, simply fill their bowls with more of the carb or have another slice of toast, or another bowl of cereal … god bless their hungry little souls.

4)  A Pretty Table Is a Happy, Healthy Table and Serving It Up:  I truly believe that our Heavenly Father created a beautiful world because he knows we function better in lovely surroundings. We can follow that lead at mealtimes. It takes so little effort to set a pretty table. (That’s another article!)  For portion control, we use dinner ware with smaller-sized dinner plates and bowls, or even the salad plates for both portion control and saving space in the dish washer.  Children prefer smaller dinnerware as well.   It may take some serious shopping to find these, as so much of the popular china has over-sized dinner plates and bowls, but is well worth the effort. Don’t forget thrift stores as a great place to find wonderful dinnerware to keep things interesting.

As the years went by and our teens became more particular about and the amount they eat, we evolved into a “serve yourself” style. We call this “Every Man For Himself” or “Make-Your-Own-ee” We’ll gather around the set table for a blessing, then for the main course everyone usually takes their plate to the stove to dish up the portions that are right for them, then return to sit down. I do have fruit and salad at the table.  It saves on dishes at the end of the meal and clean up time as well.

5)  Dealing With Leftovers:  “I am a Child of God …”  For me the end of a meal and clearing up afterwards is a wicked danger zone where I can easily consume a second meal if I’m not careful.  I have three strategies:

i) When feeding small children just offer them less so you waste less!  Get down to the level that they see the dinner table and plates so you can see how BIG it all really it is and no wonder they’re overwhelmed!  If you start with about half of what you think they’ll eat (on the smaller plates) and let them ask for more when they’re read, they’ll eat better and you’ll waste less.  Ohhhh the many peanut butter sandwiches with one bite eaten that I’ve finished myself so food would not go to “waste” – who was I kidding????  It is not impossible to make a half or even a quarter of a peanut butter sandwich!

This approach works even better for grown-ups! Start with less yourself, then wait for a bit before serving more and you’ll often find that you don’t need more because it takes the stomach a bit of time to register fullness.

ii) With children’s plates that have remaining food, mentally visualize the reality that they are treasured friends or guests.  After all, you’d never think of eating off the plate of a non-family guest!

iii) My favorite strategy for dealing with children’s leftovers is to lovingly say to yourself “I am a child of God!  My body is not a trash can …. My body is not a trash can!”  This statement is especially helpful at the end of the meal clean-up where it feels wrong to just throw food away.  Eating it yourself is not a blessing for anyone.

We like to make clean up a snap with plenty of leftover containers with lids that fit and match.   We also like to use zip-lock bags as a handy temporary holding spotl for leftovers.

Of course mealtime traditions are as personal as the clothes you wear, so I hope sharing our family’s style and favorites is helpful for you!  And while there are more truly healthy recipes than anyone can begin to count, I would like to share our family’s all-time best-ever lemon chicken soup.  It is light and lovely for a spring or summer meal, yet so flavorful and filling that it’s delightful for winter meals too.

The Allen’s Favorite Lemon Soup
(Although this calls for chicken, we’ve found it’s even better with beans)

10 cups chicken broth
3 celery stalks, sliced
3 large carrots, peeled and sliced
1 large onion, chopped
1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breasts, chopped (or 2 cans of large white beans)
¼ cup lemon juice
1 Tbsp. dried oregano (although I always add more)
1 Tbsp. dried parsley

Combine broth, celery, carrots and onions in a large stockpot; bring to a boil.  Add chicken (or beans) and
simmer for 15-30 minutes. Combine eggs and lemon juice, gradually add to soup and stir with a fork until ribbons form. Sprinkle with oregano and parsley.  Cook the rice separately.  To serve, place
desired portion of rice in individual bowls, then add the soup.  Makes about 12 unbelievably delicious servings.

It’s worth repeating: Happy mealtimes are the gateway to happy times and memories that last forever!
Bon Appetit!

Carolyn Allen is the Author of 60 Seconds to Weight Loss Success, One Minute Inspirations to Change Your Thinking, Your Weight and Your Life, available HERE.

She has been providing mental and spiritual approaches for weight loss success both online and in the Washington, DC community since 1999 presenting for Weight Watchers, First Class, Fairfax County Adult Education and other community groups. She and her husband Bob are the parents of five children and grandparents of eight. They live in the Washington D.C. area where she is the Primary chorister and they team-teach Missionary Preparation for the Annandale Stake CES Institute program. 

Click HERE to learn more about them and the herbal detox product they share at Meridian