Sunday, October 17, 2010

Family Meals- the Forgotten Ritual

When's the last time you sat down and had a meal with your family? And what defines a family anymore, anyway? On a cool, crisp New England afternoon at the infamous R.J. Julia's independent bookstore in Connecticut, I had a chance to sit down with Food Network superstar Tyler Florence. We talked about the many versions of family in his life -- from his kids to the staff at his restaurants to his friends and neighbors who gather for sumptuous potlucks, he loves to feed them all. Florence recently released a wonderful "cookbook for the soul" called Family Meal: Bringing People Together Never Tasted Better.

According to Florence, "Today, there is no single way to define a family. In the simplest terms, it's the people you spend a great deal of time with, care for deeply and trust with everything. Now more than ever, families need to stick together."

To make your mouth water, check out this quick video of Florence describing his personal take on the importance of a family meal:

Touché. The fact that I interviewed a famous chef was something of a joke to my family. As my kids will attest, I can't bake even the simplest Pillsbury cookies pre-made in plastic wrap without burning them, and once I tried a recipe for "chocolate bird's nest" cookies that looked exactly like teeny piles of dog poo. I am adequate at cooking, but I can tell you, I love to eat, and I love to have meals with friends and family together. It is the ritual of sitting down together around a table that nourishes more than the morsels on the plate. Besides, the comedy of some of my creations makes for fabulous dinner conversation!

Home-made food calms us down. Sitting down to a share meal releases the left brain's dominance and allows the gastric juices to soften the edges. Casual conversation blossoms, laughter is easier, and our brains begin to think more creatively after having a break from screens, deadlines and crazy schedules. It has been proven that there's a direct relationship between the well-being of your kids and how often you have regularly scheduled family meals. I also believe a neighborhood that eats together sticks together, and co-workers who share meals have stronger and more productive working relationships.

Let's explore each area of family one by one.

Nuclear Family

Having a family meal together couldn't be more vital these days. Many families have delegated the dining room table to store bills, projects and junk and haven't pulled out a roasting pan in years. As kids get older, the teen years are a frantic sprint from one event to another, with lots of meals in the car along the way. Yet studies continue to show that making time to sit down together at a dinner table sets an important foundation for life.

The National Center for Addiction at Columbia University released a decade-long study in 2008 that remains true in showing teens who have dinner with their families fewer than three times per week are twice as likely to use tobacco and marijuana than teens who have more frequent dinners, and that infrequent family dinners raises the risk of depression and eating disorders. "It is a tragedy that family dinners decline as teens get older," said Joseph A. Califano, Jr., chairman and president of the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University.

Even if the meal feels more like bickering than languishing, a foundation of connection, comfort and security is being created when a family sits around the table together on a regular basis. Clear off the dining-room table, grab the cloth napkins, light some candles and dish up the mac 'n' cheese -- who cares? Start the meal by asking everyone to share something for which they are grateful, and watch the atmosphere change for the better.

Family of Friends and Neighbors

Vive le potluck! Whether we live in an apartment complex, home or condo, the people who live around us either become a support network or a reminder of isolation. I find it tragic to weave through so many pre-planned neighborhoods filled with neighbors who daily drive into their garages, close the door, and do not know one another. In such challenging times, neighbors can support each other simply by coming together over shared meals.

Many of us get stressed out thinking that in order to invite anyone over, the house has to be immaculate and the meal a Martha Stewart perfection. Forget it! Instead, try the "stone soup" potluck: call a few friends on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon, and invite them to bring over whatever they were going to have for dinner and share it as a big smorgasbord. Our neighborhood did this last week, and we had a hilarious combination of pork chops, meatballs, chili, salads and chips and salsa. The kids had a blast, the parents unwound with a few beers, everyone pitched in to clean, and all left deeply satiated.

Family at Work

In my work in training and community development, I have seen time and again that food can be used as the magic glue that brings everyone together in a way that is more authentic and satisfying than can often be achieved in traditional professional settings. Let's face it, most of the food we eat at work sucks! Power bars for breakfast, soggy sandwich pinwheels for lunch, Snickers bars for snack and coffee, coffee, coffee to fill the gaps. Instead, choose someone on your staff to prepare a home-made specialty for the next committee or board meeting, and watch the energy change dramatically.

A friend and colleague of mine teaches medical residents at Yale Medical School. Each year, he asks the students to prepare a meal from their historical roots, and hosts a poolside BBQ that has become the event of the year. With such a cultural diversity, the meal is a mouthwatering blend of Asian, Italian, Indian and American treats that push the stresses of the hospital to the side and tightens the bonds between colleagues used to unrelenting stress.

How about you, HuffPost readers? Do you make time to share a meal with your friends and loved ones? Who do you consider to be your family? Pull up a chair at our table, grab a glass, and let's share a few stories in the comments below.

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Friday, October 8, 2010

Budgeting Tips- De-Stress and Live with Less

Despite the relatively high closing levels on the stock market, and assurances from Washington the recession is officially over, most Americans are feeling the squeeze more tightly than ever. The days of swinging by Home Depot to spontaneously renovate a bathroom, cruising through the mall on a spur-of-the-moment shopping spree, or sampling the latest restaurants every other night is a thing of the past.

Let's face it, living on a budget is hard, saving is stressful and wondering when the tides will turn strains even the staunchest optimist. In my last post, I wrote about the importance of making change in life fun, and living with less is no exception.

Financial strain ranks as one of the highest stressors out there along with divorce and death. Clearly some stressors cannot be helped, but part of the stress of living with less is adjusting habits and expectations. We want to get the new G4 phone -- like, today. We NEED to have an iPad -- really? Many of us remember growing up with less "stuff" than we have now, and doing just fine.

Ratcheting down consumer expectations and mindless habits of spending money as entertainment is a very real issue. The temptations are everywhere. We have far more strip malls than parks, and the temptation to buy something mindlessly is a common way to spend a day. Many children expect to buy something every time they get in the car.

We should take a few tips from the Europeans, who spend their leisure time strolling through the park, or enjoying a single cup of coffee at a local café for hours; entertaining themselves for very little out-of-pocket cash. Americans race here and there to places like Costco and BJ's Warehouse, lug home giant shopping bags of stuff to shove in our houses, and then flop down exhausted in front of the TV to recover.

Penny pinching, however, can be fun -- and current trends in homemade, or do-it-yourself are popping up in almost every industry. Reduce, reuse and recycle is IN, and waste is out -- not because we have become high minded -- but because we can't afford not to.

Everyone is in a similar boat, so why not explore a few fun and creative ways to ease the stress of living with less -- and have a good time to boot. Here are some tips to help curb excess spending, and improve quality of life all at once.

Create a realistic budget. Look at some of the easy "trim" you can take right off the top of your weekly spending. Starbucks lattes, dinners out, or that extra pair of shoes you really don't need. Often it is easy to justify low cost items as inconsequential, but they add up.

Put less cash in your wallet. If it is not in there, you are less likely to spend it. Decide how much cash you need per week, and once that is gone, go home.

Stop buying all bottled beverages. At $2.50 a pop for sugared water, make a vow to prepare all your beverages in a reusable water bottle. Make your iced tea, lemonade or iced coffee at home and take it with you. Saves a bundle in the wallet, and in the landfills.

Start making dinner at home. Even if it is for one or two people, the saving are substantial to make a pot of soup and bread for literally about $10, and have leftovers to freeze, or share at the office.

Grocery shop with a list, and stick to it! I am the worst at this. Do not shop when hungry, as it leads to throwing in extra bags of cookies, snacks and items you don't really need. Figure out a menu and purchase only those things. It is a healthier way to eat, and will save money.

Consignment shopping is hip! Whether you have access to the coolest shops in Greenwich Village or live in the Midwest with boutique strip malls, consignment shopping is a blast. There is something triumphant about finding a favorite label for a fraction of the price. Bring in those skinny jeans and earn some money to buy a new scarf or sweater.

Consolidate errands. Stretch out a tank of gas by consolidating all errands together. Throw the dry cleaning, library books and Good Will items into the trunk and incorporate them into a single trip. Park in one central place, and walk to the various stores within a mile radius instead of driving from one parking spot to another. Don't tell me you don't do this! I know you do!

Trade in the gym membership for a pair of sneakers or a bike. Let's face it, gym owners are not stupid. They know most people pay their monthly dues, and only a fraction of die-hards actually go. If you are not using your local gym more than once a week, ditch the membership and get outside. The stress relief from a daily walk offers mental therapy as well as exercise.

Have a "potluck re-gifting party" with neighbors. Have a potluck evening where everyone brings leftovers to share, and any re-gifting items taking up space in their closets. Put everything in an open living room and have a swap! Grab a new pan, neck tie, band saw or crock pot. A fun theme evening sure to pack in a lot of laughs, and totally free!

Make your own beer or wine. For mere pennies per pint, homemade brew is the new hobby de jour to save on the alcohol bill, and have more fun than a Corona can ever offer. Check out simple recipes and How To's at the Brew Your Own site, and save a bundle on the your beverage budget. Have a blast sampling new recipes as a great way to de-stress from the office. Great for those who do not spend much time in the kitchen -- brewing hops and barley could be quite an adventure!

Trim down the activities for the kids -- they'll thank you for it. All those cute little ballet lessons, soccer uniforms and lacrosse sticks can add up to a bundle. Teach the kids the value of a dollar, and give them some time off with fewer activities. They will discover how to fill their time, and the unscheduled hours can be funneled into something creative if the screens are off limits.

Living with Less can be a great excuse to get out of things you don't want to do. Being on a budget forces not only simplifying life, but also choosing only to invest in those things that have the greatest meaning. There is something very freeing about this, and allows permission to unhook, stay home and restore ourselves with quiet activities our overactive lives are craving.

What do you say, HuffPo readers? How are you trimming your pocketbooks these days? Any fun tips to share? Drop us a comment below and join the conversation.