DinnerDork [ \ˈdi-nər\\ˈdȯrk\ ]

Family Dining Feature_Pic

We’ve always eaten together as a family, even when it was just my husband and I. What I started to discover is that eating together wasn’t enough.  Sure we’d all sit and start at the same time, but we’d also make trips to and from the table for extra helpings, drink refills and the like. In the name of efficiency and preserving bedtime, it became an unspoken rule that the first to finish would begin clearing their place setting and cleaning up. Table traffic was so rushed that we weren’t engaging in conversation as much as we were pausing around beverage refills and repeating what was said when someone left the table for a second roll. Then I started watching The Sopranos.

Now, I know I’m late to the Soprano party. Chalk it up to my general cheapness and refusal to pay for “premium” cable when NetflixAmazon Prime, and the hundreds of channels included in our basic service package already cost a small fortune. We’re late, but we’re here – on the Amazon Prime bus, and our nightly indulgence in the lives of our favorite fictitious Garden State crime family has become my newest mild obsession and role model. No, I’m not planning to make a go of supporting my family on the basis extortion, capital murder, flagrant adultery and tax evasion. But, I have been taking notes and vowing to be more Soprano-like at the dinner table.  Not just because Italian cuisine is both my favorite and a vivid reminder of my Long Island childhood (I know I’m not the only one getting hungry over the vibrant pots of “red gravy” and frequent references to baked ziti and braciole), but more because I aspire to make an occasion of dinner. An occasion that isn’t interrupted by re-ups and dashes to the next chore. I want dinnertime to feel more like a dinner party with fewer people, and I think the Sopranos are right that serving family style meals is one way to do it.

I decided rather abruptly during a scene where Tony Soprano reprimanded his sister, Janice, for being late to the table. I’m being completely honest when I say that my arrival at the decision to begin serving family style meals was in part fueled by wanting to have some of Tony’s mealtime cred for myself. I mean, no one really feels badly about arriving at my table late. In fact, we’re usually all a bit late because I start snatching smart phones, turning off tvs and issuing general (however idle) threats that escalate until everyone is seated at the table. But Janice apologized, and although I’m sure that her apology was at least partly due to her mooch status – I’m convinced that a sizable portion of her apology was both sincere and rooted in the way mealtime is held sacred within the Soprano family.  No one gets up from the table until the meal is ended, and that’s more about having your needs met at the table than it is about making un-refuse-able offers.

The Experiment | More dishes, more family time?

Family style eating is simply a way of bringing food to the table so that everyone serves themselves at the table. For me that used to read as – company style dinner, because who wants to wash the pot the rice was cooked in and the dish the rice was served in when we can all eat the same rice without a serving dish; because my daughter goes to bed at 8:00, which already slides to 8:30 (read: 9:00), so who has time to do more dishes every night; because the sooner she gets to bed, the sooner I can watch Tony and gang running corpses through the meat grinder and sticking it to the lame-feds trying to pin him with a RICO charge. Right? I thought it was right until I realized that we weren’t reaping the benefits of eating together, simply by sitting at the table together. But, before committing to the extra dishes, the scientist in me needed to benchmark this hypothesis that serving together would encourage us to remain at the table, engage in more meaningful conversation and get more out of mealtime. Read: I did a bit of pseudo research (Googling) because I perpetually need to justify the cost of my college education, by using the skills I paid for at home since I do not use them at work.   I thought it’d be a stretch, but low and behold there have actually been studies on the benefits of serving family style meals, combined with actual expert recommendations in favor of it, largely because of the benefits for young children:

Advancing motor-skills associated with the motions of serving themselves at the table

Encouragement to try “new” things because they don’t want to be left out of serving themselves the same thing that everyone is serving

Reinforcing portion control because of the juxtaposition of the size of one plate against the backdrop of the size of the serving dish

Now, we’re too early in our own foray into family-style eating to comment on the benefits supported by the experts, but we have found that with fewer excuses to leave the table, we immediately began remaining at the table for extended, uninterrupted conversation and family time. Here are a few tips that have helped us reap the benefit of family style eating:

  • Bring out the “good dishes” for dinnertime. Don’t save them for special occasions. Train the mind to recognize dinner as an occasion by the setting the table for an occasion.
  • Go for serving dishes that are microwave, oven, dishwasher and freezer safewhere possible. This gives you plenty of cooking, reheating and storing options when you need to go from the oven to the table to the fridge. Check the bottom of pieces before you buy– these days dishes are labeled to display their hardiness.

Plate_label2 Plate_label

  • Bring a pitcher to the table – even if you’re only drinking water. A pitcher on the table, means no excuses to leave the table. I usually fill ours with water and ice during meal prep, then store it in the fridge until dinnertime. That way the water is perfectly chilled when we sit down

Water_pitcher

  • Spoon rests aren’t just for the stovetop. Bring them to the table to hold serving utensils, minimizing clean-up. If you don’t have or use spoon rests – an extra salad plate will do the trick.
  • Eliminate extra clean-up up by serving food the way it will be eaten. If gravy goes with meat, serve them in the same dish – just include a ladle. If the veggies should be eaten over rice, place them right over the rice on your serving platter.
  • Choose lidded serving dishes, where possible. Lids help maintain ideal serving temperature, so even if mealtime is a bit delayed or prolonged, your food temperature will keep pace with your appetite.

Family_Style_Table

So yes, eating dinner family style means more dishes, and it certainly isn’t making us any stricter about sticking to my daughter’s 8:00 bedtime, but it is allowing us to enjoy dinnertime more than we have before. And that is worth every extra dish and delayed minute with Tony Soprano.

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