Small, Good Things: Come Together

by Joe Dizney

Coming down from a full season of communal feasting, I was again reminded of one of the cardinal rules for healthy eating: Don’t do it alone.

As Michael Pollan puts it in Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual — “Rule #78, Eat With Other People Whenever You Can.”

Aaron E. Carroll, a professor of pediatrics writing on “The New Health Care” in the New York Times, phrases it a bit differently: Eat with other people, especially people you care about, as often as possible. But he elaborates: this simple rule has benefits beyond nutrition, suggesting it will also make you more likely to cook and actually make you happier.

It is interesting to note Mr. Carroll’s specialty — pediatrics — for as interesting and important as this rule is to adults, its ultimate effects are even more meaningful to childhood and adolescent development and behavior.

International studies consistently reveal that children who eat dinner with their parents regularly not only eat healthier but exhibit better academic and physical performance, social resilience and self-esteem and have fewer problems with truancy, teen pregnancy, depression and drugs or alcohol.

Pot roast (photo by J. Dizney)

Pot roast (photo by J. Dizney)

As we all tend to regularly eat “on the fly” (the average American eats one of every five meals in his or her car!), and this tendency only increases with each ever-younger, over-scheduled generation, this all makes a substantial argument for family dinners.

I hear you groaning. I don’t mean to paint some paean to Norman Rockwell-iana or suggest another stress point for overworked and overloaded families. The Family Dinner Project (, a project of Harvard’s School of Education, has been studying the process and results for three years and offers a free online program designed to gradually get you started.

Some general tips:

Schedule it (just like any important thing in your life), but be flexible: If schedules don’t match, stretch it out: dinner with one parent, dessert with the other parent after work.

It doesn’t even have to be dinner: consider family breakfast or lunch on the weekends.

Keep it simple: Pre-make meals: a double batch of soup or casseroles. Freeze half for later in the week. (But do make them!)

Turn off technology! The table is one of the choicest places to have meaningful conversation.

Here’s a classic mid-winter Sunday night dinner to get you thinking. And if you don’t have a birth family handy, an extended family of chosen friends is a fully operational substitute.

Sunday Pot Roast

Serves 6

¼-½ cup dried porcini pieces
4 cups stock (beef or vegetable)
1 3-to-3½ pound beef chuck roast
4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 large yellow onion, diced
4-5 garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon chopped rosemary
1 tablespoon chopped thyme
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1/3 cup soy sauce
2 tablespoons molasses
2 large carrots, peeled and cut into rough 1-inch pieces
2 medium parsnips, peeled and cut into rough 1-inch pieces
3 celery ribs, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 large rutabaga or turnip (about 1 lb.), peeled and cut into rough 1-inch pieces
2 cups pearl onions (ends removed and peeled)
1 bay leaf, whole
Juice of one lemon
2 tablespoons chopped parsley

Position rack in the lower half of the oven and preheat to 350 degrees. Reconstitute dried mushrooms in 2 cups stock — simmer for 10 minutes, allowing to sit for another 10 and strain. Add the strained stock to the remaining 2 cups of stock and reserve. Roughly chop the reconstituted mushrooms and reserve.

Pat meat dry and season on all sides with salt and pepper. Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a large Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add beef to the pot and sear on all sides (4-5 minutes per side) using tongs to turn the roast. Transfer to a plate when browned.

Lower heat to medium and add a splash more of olive oil. Add onion, garlic, mushrooms and herbs; cook, stirring often, until onions are soft.

Add about 2 cups stock and scrape browned bits from the bottom of the pot. Add tomato paste, soy sauce and molasses; stir to incorporate. Return roast to the pot, adding stock to a bit more than halfway up the meat (amount will depend on the size of the roast); bring to a simmer stovetop.

Once simmering, remove from heat. Cover first with a sheet of aluminum foil and then with the lid. Transfer to oven and cook 2 to 2½ hours. (Check at about 1 hour that the braise is simmering — not boiling — and that there’s enough liquid to prevent meat from drying out.)

Remove pot from the oven and arrange the vegetables, bay leaf around the meat. Re-cover and return to the oven for 30-45 minutes.

Transfer meat to a plate, tent with foil and allow to rest for 15 minutes. While meat rests, add lemon juice and parsley to the sauce and vegetables. Slice roast against the grain or pull the apart into chunks with a fork and return to the pot. To serve, spoon beef, vegetables and sauce over mashed potatoes, buttered egg noodles or rice.

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