Making Dinner a Family Affair

The first detail in making dinner a family affair is to turn off the TV. Before our daughter, Heather, turned 18, we only had her on weekends, so we decided that dinnertime would be a great time for the family to gather and reconnect. It started with together planning the menu, preparing the food, and being at the table.
My generation is a bit more thoughtful and methodical. Preparing all-day lasagna never would be an issue, but for our daughter, whose attention span lasts a nanosecond, easy food best served her interest. Besides, I want to encourage her to cook, and enjoy the preparation process—not just the consumption.

We start with adding music that everyone enjoys—usually Ultra Lounge, which means no Broadway show tunes (the dads) or Goth (the daughter). Dancing is allowed in the kitchen, as long as no one is holding a knife. Everyone has some type of pasta in the pantry or on the food shelf. We always begin with a simple pasta sauce. One night, it may be red, and another night, white.

One of our favorites is my Easy Alfredo Sauce. Everyone should have ingredients for it on hand, or be able to get them at the corner grocer. This recipe is creamy, cheesy, and full of garlic flavor. The entire sauce will be ready before the pasta has cooked to al dente. I promise. You can add any leftover cut-up chicken breast or meatballs for protein.

Everyone defines family differently. Our daughter has moved out, on to bigger and better things, but we recently invited a young friend to move in until he’s back on his feet financially. We still adopt the “dinner is a family affair” attitude with him, as we did with our daughter. Off goes the television, and we discuss issues or problems that occur in our daily living together.

A couple of times each week, you should plan several cooking sessions centered on a specific dish or meal that two or more people can prepare together. Cooking with someone else magically can open a door to your imagination. Throwing in this and that becomes the theme of an incredible evening.

I started cooking because I wanted to understand the mystery of the food I was eating and enjoying. Invite everyone in the kitchen to taste, smell, and analyze the ingredients you are using for a recipe. Talk about the effects each ingredient can have in a dish. If it’s too sour, add sweet, and so on. It will help everyone in your family understand the technique of accomplishing great things in the kitchen.

Most importantly, don’t be afraid to attempt new ideas. If someone wants to try a new combination or technique, then do so. You will have encouraged someone in your family to add another tool to their kit. If the combination or technique fails, think about why, and what could affect the outcome in the future. It is through our failures more than our successes that we learn. This is especially true in the kitchen.

While your pasta is cooking, and your Alfredo sauce is resting, prepare my Basic Biscuits recipe. It’s simple and a yummy way to soak up the extra sauce from your pasta bowl. It’s also a wonderful way to teach basic baking to anyone in your family who is hesitant about turning on an oven.

I love salads. Serving a salad with your pasta is one way to get greens into everyone’s diet. My Perfect Vinaigrette recipe will create a delicious dressing for any salad greens. You can sweeten it or sour it depending on your family’s tastes. In our family, we don’t begin with a salad, but rather with my pasta dish, and salad is served afterward. Perhaps the influence of living in Italy so many months of each year, it’s a refreshing way to end the meal.

Of course, no meal is complete without some type of dessert. Instead of 2,000-calorie carrot cake or chocolate cake, try my Shortbread Cookies. It’s another easy and fun recipe for everyone to make in the kitchen. While they cool, you can enjoy your pasta and salad. Nothing is better than a warm plate of cookies everyone has made together, passed around the table at the end of a very satisfying meal.

So, no matter how you define your family, or who the members in your family are, these recipes certainly will make your dinner a family affair. Bring everyone into the kitchen, and share the spatula. Laughter and fun will ensue, someone might learn something, and you’ll provide an important lesson for everyone: how to cook or bake. But turn off the TV. Too many times have I been invited into homes where the volume of the TV is much higher than the conversation of the people in the room. Make dinner with the family a reality show.

John Michael Lerma is a local chef, author, “lifestyle guru,” and Food Network personality. His company Garden County Cooking offers cookbooks, cooking classes, consulting, and private events, as well as culinary vacations to Italy and the Caribbean. Visit Check out his “Word of Mouth” Blog under Extras at
Easy Alfredo Sauce
1/2 c. unsalted butter
1 (8 oz.) package cream cheese
2 tsp. garlic powder
2 c. milk
3/4 c. Parmesan cheese, grated
1/8 tsp. freshly ground black pepper

Melt butter in a medium, heavy-bottom saucepan over medium heat. Add cream cheese and garlic powder, stirring with wire whisk until smooth. Add milk, a little at a time, whisking to smooth out lumps. Stir in Parmesan and pepper. Remove from heat when sauce reaches desired consistency. Sauce will thicken rapidly—thin with milk if cooked too long. Toss with hot pasta to serve. Serves 4 to 6.

Basic Biscuits
2 c. all-purpose flour
1 tsp. fine sea salt
1 tsp. white sugar
1 tbsp. baking powder
1/4 c. unsalted butter
3/4 c. whole milk
Preheat oven to 400° Fahrenheit. Combine dry ingredients. Blend in butter with a whisk or pastry blender. Add milk until incorporated. Roll into 6 to 8 biscuits. Place on baking sheet. Bake for 15 to 20 min. Makes 6 to 8 biscuits.

Perfect Vinaigrette
1 1/2 c. extra virgin olive oil
1/2 c. red wine vinegar
2 tbsp. Dijon mustard
1/4 c. flat leaf parsley, chopped
1 tsp. dried herbs (any one of thyme, marjoram, basil, chives, or tarragon)
1 1/2 tsp. Kosher or sea salt
1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper

In blender, or medium mixing bowl with a whisk, combine all ingredients for about 10 sec. Serve right away, as oil and vinegar will begin to separate as soon as you stop mixing. Makes 1 pt. of dressing.
Note: Any oil labeled “vegetable oil” or “salad oil” is fine for this basic recipe. You also can use any light, neutral-flavored oil like safflower, canola, or soybean oil.

Shortbread Cookies
2 c. all-purpose flour
3/4 tsp. sea salt
1/2 tsp. baking powder
3/4 c. unsalted butter, softened
2 tbsp. honey
1/2 c. confectioner’s sugar
2 tbsp. granulated sugar
Preheat oven to 300° Fahrenheit. Whisk together flour, salt, and baking powder in a bowl. Mix together butter, honey, and confectioner’s sugar in a large bowl with electric mixer at low speed. Add flour mixture, and mix until dough resembles coarse meal with some small (roughly pea-size) butter lumps. Gather dough into a ball, and transfer to a large sheet of plastic wrap. Roll dough in plastic wrap. Place in the refrigerator, or freezer if planning to store for a longer time. To bake, cut dough into 1/4 in. disks. Sprinkle with granulated sugar. Bake shortbread in middle of oven until golden brown—20 to 25 min. Slide shortbread on parchment to a rack. Cool 5 min. Makes about 16 cookies.

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