sit down dinner

Food Friday: Grocery Store Reverie

I am back in Palo Alto, California for reunion and I hardly have time to think about food. But, in the course of my travels, I have come across some of the most beautiful grocery stores ever. 

I have never been to Italy. But I have been to France. In these places, people care deeply about food in a way most Americans don't seem to. However, here in Palo Alto, these are my people. I watched in the stores how twenty something men would converse over the quality of fruit. Or how professorial types moved about with one meal's carefully chosen foods in a basket. I saw others asking questions about cheese, and the butcher explaining a fine point or two to some prospective buyers. I saw bakers, hatted in white,  displaying desserts for the evening's customers. Even the checkers would comment on the items in my basket, like a Sommelier complementing my choice of wines. 

I enjoyed this throng of like minded people. The beautiful displays of foods engendered conversations all around the store. Many people had phones to their ears, checking with companions elsewhere about what to purchase. These were not just grocery lists. They were menus that were being executed. Several were doing what I had been doing earlier in the day, holding a phone out in front sending a live video to another who would look over the wares and voice their preferences. 

There were thoughtful conversations here and there, but at the same time, the group had a bit of hustle and bustle as if they all had somewhere to get to. People were expecting them. Within the hour, so many well considered tables would be set. 

This would be my wish for every one on this evening of travel. The food you buy and the place you buy it should mean something. Moreover your dinners should be special in some way.  Finally, do what you can to have special dinners with special people, in a special place.  

Food Friday: Family Dinner

It’s summer and the kids are home. Why not take advantage of their company and get serious about some awesome family dinners ? Sounds like fun, right ? But it’s much more. According to a considerable body of research on the subject, family dinners are important to well being. (Reference:

Family dinners are associates with the following findings: 

  • Better academic performance 
  • Higher self esteem
  • Greater sense of resilience 
  • Lower risk of substance abuse 
  • Lower risk of teen pregnancy 
  • Lower Risk of depression 
  • Lower likelihood of developing an eating disorder 
  • Lower rates of obesity 

Let’s think about why. 


The family dinner is a testing ground for the performance of a family group as a team. And yet, pulling it together to make a family dinner is not all that hard. It is within most every person's or every family's reach. Engineering the family dinner is an exercise destined for success. Most people are grateful when someone makes them something to eat, no matter how simple. It is a primal act of caring, usually free of strings, that one person does for others. Thus a dinner is easy to produce and easy to accept. 

Children and teens can and should help prepare the dinner, even if is just setting the table. They learn preparation and cooking skills, and they learn to pitch in. They also learn that if they don’t pitch in, they will stand out. 

The family dinner is a time when most families put aside conflict, since conflict at the dinner table just doesn’t work. The ritual and the food cause us to make a deliberate change in our behavior for the better. We cease to be isolated individuals and come together to make something more, a family or a even a social group. Thus, it is very hard for someone to be lonely at the table. At the table, it is graphically obvious that you come from somewhere, and that you have a place. 

Our family table has extended into the adulthoods of our children and to the younger cousins and their friends. We are very lucky in that regard. Most of them have gone off to college and have come back, bringing spouses, girlfriends, friends and grandchildren in tow. They have each developed family table specialty skills. Echo bakes and is an award winning amateur chocolatier. Forest is lately enamored of our Instant Pot, a cool pressure cooker, which enables you to make impressive meals with little planning or tending. Geri does veggies and my son in law does smoked meats and salads. Vale is smoothie man. Hanna my niece is a cake decorating expert. They are all serious students and professionals, but they have all come to be serious foodies too.

Stepping back, I see that no matter what their fancy, the whole thing is one big shared hobby, and when we do food, everyone is pretty happy. A happy hobby. Moreover, while it was simple and easy when they were little, they have, on their own, leveled up, as the gamers say. They relish the acquisition of skills needed for their culinary hobbies, and that gives them social confidence. Finally, they relish the presentation of their dishes to others. The “ breaking of bread” has always been a bonding experience and in a family this is nothing but good. 

Think about all this this summer, when your kids are around more, and hopefully you have a little more time. All you have to do is start something fun in the kitchen. Put your heart into and it and invite others to join in the process of creation. It will take on a life of it’s own.  

Food Friday: Setting the Table

When I was growing up, my parents had a sit down dinner since that’s how they had been raised. My mother had nice china and table linens, but we rarely saw them since she used them only for special occasions. Instead we had everyday plates and cups, often plastic. The margarine was set out in its own tub. (Remember that this was the 70s, when margarine was thought to be healthier than butter. )

My father had business contacts from all over the world and they would come to visit us. In one case, a German guest showed me a photo of his daughter. She was sitting at their table. I would never have thought to take such a picture of a person at a table since our table was nothing special to look at. But their table was beautiful even though they had already finished their meal. Each plate was white glass, and crowded round each plate were clear glasses of various deep jewel tone colors and shapes, some cylindrical and thin, some globular, and yet others like cones. A light went on in my mind, and ever since then I started to see table settings differently. I began to notice the beautiful dishes and table settings in my friends' houses. 

Fast forward to college, when freshman year and dorm food banished all thoughts of table settings. Then came second year, when I moved into a campus co-op named Synergy. The house was organic and vegetarian way back in 1981. We had a big hippie kitchen in a huge hippie house right on campus. Since we were a co-op we cooked all our own food in a big kitchen in rotating teams. There would be no chefs or housekeepers for us.

The ethic of this house also required a communal sit down dinner as a deliberate act of culture. However the table settings in Synergy were like none I had ever seen. Since we were all about conservation, with reuse happening before recycling, our cups, plates, and serving utensils were a motley collection of all that had come through the kitchen. We drank from a selection of old jars, such as those from sauces or jam. Our plates were all completely mismatched. Bowls were just old plastic containers from things like bulk peanut butter. Most wonderfully, the center of the table held as many as a dozen great steaming loaves of bread: home made whole wheat bread. It was the signature of the house. We would cut slices or tear chunks, and slather it with butter, jam, hummus, or whatever mystery stew the cooks happened to create. Kids from other dorms would come by just for the bread. There is a reason for the expression, “breaking of bread”. It seems to bring people together.

Greg and I bonded while making this bread since it literally took all four of our hands to knead it. We had met while cleaning the kitchen at Synergy. We took it upon ourselves to clean this hippie kitchen, since he and I seemed to be the only ones who noticed how dirty it was. We met over a filthy sink, and there was something about me turning on the garbage disposal at the wrong time. No one was hurt, but he did have to take a shower after the incident. 

Greg sometimes ate a couple of houses down the row where there was a clean kitchen, a chef, and of course, meat. His sister lived there and she had made friends with the chef. I think they had an arrangement since not uncommonly Greg would go there and use their massive Hobart mixer which would hold a 16 batch of his mother’s chocolate chip cookies. As you could smell the bread of Synergy wafting down the row, you could smell the chocolate chip cookies coming from the other direction. From then on, our collective memory would be infused with the aroma of bread and cookies. 

After graduation, we married and lived in a little farmhouse far away from University life. It was a bit run down, so we repaired and decorated it. Happily, among our wedding gifts were many table linens and pretty dishes, so it followed that the table got set very nicely. The cutting boards were set with bread and platters filled with cookies. When our daughter and the boys came along, they helped with all of this. Ever since then we have set the table and had a sit down dinner. 

Today I believe in the power of the sit down dinner more than ever, to promote communication, coordination and peace in the family. And for me, all my best dishware is out all the time. I think it sets a festive mood and makes people feel valued.

What would I do if I were just starting out, of modest means, and wanted to bring some inspiration to meals ? There are two possibilities. First, I could go minimalist and get all clear glass dinnerware from the dollar store. Everything would match, and design interest would come from the food itself, the table, or the table linens.

A more colorful and more ecological choice would be to thrift. I would have a fantastic set of non matching antique plates. I would shoot for a reasonably common size, and perhaps a common theme, say a color scheme or a design element like birds. A physician friend of mine did it complete with mismatched silverware, and mismatched but coordinating goblets. It was nothing short of magnificent. It was all thrifted, very inexpensive, and truly delightful.

And that is the point: to delight. Making the food and setting the table is a gift to others, and a joy for you. 


Food Friday: Soup is Soul Food

Every cook should know how to make homemade soup, especially those on a budget and those interested in eating healthy.

Two weeks ago I wrote an unusual post about how to make soup stock. It might seem like an unusual post for blog on Obstetrics, Gynecology, and healthy lifestyle, but not when you take a closer look.

One pillar of healthy lifestyle is healthy eating and another pillar is a healthy home life. Home cooked food can help with both. Soup is one of the most comforting and potentially healthy home cooked foods. It is also one of the easiest, of course once you know how. Homemade soup is also one of the thriftiest things to make since you can utilize leftovers and assorted ingredients from the refrigerator, garden, or pantry.

How to start? As always, start by cleaning up any stray dishes in the kitchen, organizing, and assembling your ingredients. Thaw any broth you have frozen. If you have not made frozen broth you can obtain good organic broth in three different flavors at any natural food store. You can also get a jarred  broth concentrate, also organic, at most grocery stores and at Costco as well.

Determine the vegetables you want to include. I'm a fan of great variety, But you can also make a vegetable flavored soup and emphasize one or two flavors such as red pepper. Prepare all of the vegetables by washing trimming and cutting them to the appropriate size.

I try to ask my patients to emphasize the protein in their diet. Decide what the protein in your soup will be. Consider chicken, red meat, fish, seafood,or even eggs. Cut your choice into bite-size pieces.  If you can tolerate legumes like beans and peas and can handle the carbohydrate that they bring, those can be included as well. Prepare all these ingredients so that they are ready to put in the pot.

I like to try to make my soup with only one pot. Choose your pot based on the volume that you want to make. Make sure it is extra large so that when you stir it with a long wooden spoon nothing will spill out.

Use a good cooking olive oil to sauté your first ingredients.These would include garlic, onions, or chilies if they are in your recipe. You will do them first so that they will flavor the oil. Make sure to use enough olive oil on the bottom of the pan. After this, Add your meat, chicken, or fish. Sauté until golden brown, but not fully done. I like to add fairly heavy spices to the cooking meat at this point since the flavor seems to penetrate better than adding it later. Then add your vegetables one by one and cook them until partially done, going from the hardest such as carrots to the softest such as spinach at the last.

When everything seems partially and evenly done, add liquid. I usually add a a half a cup of either red or white wine first. This adds to the depth of flavor. Then I add my broth, at least enough to cover all the hard ingredients, and usually more. I may or may not add a can of diced or stewed tomatoes, depending on the flavor I want to achieve. All you have to do at that point is bring it to a boil briefly, then simmer until the hardest vegetables are fork tender. If you intend for your meats to get very tender, they will have to simmer at least a couple hours. 

This is a good general recipe for a variety of different kinds of soup. You can make it with a large variety of different vegetables and if you add beans and a little pasta it turns out like a minestrone. If you add only a few vegetables and a lot of beans, tomato paste as well as onions and chilies, you have chili. You can pick a vegetable theme such as green vegetables and limit yourself to just a few onions, leeks, spinach, and kale. If you make a broth-y chicken soup with napa cabbage, ginger and green onions, you can drop whisked eggs into it and have egg drop soup. You can do the classic pumpkin soup especially at this time of year. Or you can go with the popular roasted red pepper soup.

If you have athletes, children or adolescents in the home, you can afford to serve this soup with a good whole-grain bread. Otherwise, it should stand on its own. You can always add a side salad and cold glasses of milk, to round it out.

Have fun with your soup and add some garnish. Garnishes can be anything from grated cheese or sour cream to minced green onions, parsley, crumbled hard-boiled eggs, sliced almonds or Siracha sauce. 

You will find that people tend to gather around a kitchen table with a good homemade soup. Having a sitdown family dinner with soup is good for health and good for the soul.