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Burger salad night: Cheaper, healthier and just as good as going out for grub.
Burger salad night: Cheaper, healthier and just as good as going out for grub.
Family meal time is important to every member of the household.
Family meal time is important to every member of the household.

Give "Dining-at-home" Month a try

For the sixth straight year, October is Dining Month on OnMilwaukee.com, presented by Concordia University. All month, we're stuffed with restaurant reviews, delectable features, chef profiles and unique articles on everything food, as well as the winners of our "Best of Dining 2012."

All this talk of food during OnMilwaukee.com's Dining Month has me fantasizing about my favorite places to go OUT to eat: Silver Spring House in Glendale for their chicken wings and French onion soup, carnivorous delights from Ward's Downtown, the tempeh reuben from Beans and Barley on the East Side, BBQ ribs from Speed Queen on Walnut Street, my beloved chocolate malt custard from Kopp's, Sunday night Prix Fixe dinner at the Capitol Grill, Mexi and Margs at Botanas on the South Side and Sunday brunch from really anywhere ... the list goes on and on.

But, frequent eating out wreaks havoc on my waistline and makes a major dent in my wallet, so I choose to cook at home, three meals a day (and snacks) most days of the week.

The vision of me cooking in the kitchen on a daily basis is contrary to what a lot of folks think my life is like; so much so, that it often leads to gasps of "YOU doooooo?" when I declare that sitting around the table as a family for at least one a meal a day is priority in our home.

I'm not sure what is so unbelievable about the fact that I plate a meal every night – if it's a personal thing, or a sign-of-the-times cultural thing – but the effort is well worth the rewards. Even if I choose to drown our food in a pound of butter, use conventional pasta or add sweetness with real sugar (none of which I ever really do), I am still far more in control of what goes on our plates than if we dined at a restaurant together.

And physical health benefits aside, our souls are healthier from the time we spend together talking candidly in the comfort and privacy of our home. Our dinner talks often start with "So, honey, how was your day?" and segue to much grittier, more explicit topics unmentionable here so as not to incriminate the innocent. The kitchen table affords us an invaluable intimacy, often tackling tough issues over fresh fish with brown rice and broccoli.

I believe that time gathered feasting on one of my rotating specialties – taco buffet night, salmon night, burger salad night, crispy baked chicken night, Asian seafood stir-fry night, dry-rub rib night, grilled whatever night, breakfast-for-dinner night or Dad's spaghetti night – is not only healthier calorie/fat/portion/sugar-wise but, more valuable for the precious family time it allots us.

We are lucky that when Chuck is home, we sometimes get to enjoy three meals a day together as a couple. Alisha makes a point of eating dinner at home with us if she's not working or at an athletic practice. In fact, it's an expectation. It's one of those "you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone" paradoxes. Our family's opportunity to break bread is limited because of the time we are forced to spend apart due to Chuck's work or weeks Alisha is at her mom's house. So, sharing a meal is a real privilege that we've learned to cherish.

Does it sometimes feel laborious, like a repetitive pain in the frying pan? Yeah, but to ease the burden, sometimes I'll throw dinner in the oven or a slow cooker early in the morning, so all I have to do is set the table and serve it when dinner rolls around. I like easy, so I make it easy. You don't have to make complex recipes that take all day to prepare. Utilize the slow cooker and crock pot. Make large one-pot meals like hearty soups and chilis. Prepare a huge salad to use for a few days in a row. I make big batches of main dishes and freeze portions, if necessary, for homemade "frozen" dinners.

I've made the freezer my friend and come to terms with using the microwave to reheat items. Move the store-bought TV dinners and other frozen novelties aside. Think of the freezer as longer-term storage for your own version of Stouffer's meals. I always have proteins frozen, ready to thaw at a moments notice. And frozen veggies can be a lifesaver when you are in a pinch to get something green on the plate. I even make batches of Stevia-sweetened, no-flour cookies and keep them in the deep freeze for when the sweet tooth strikes.

I keep my kitchen stocked so that we don't have an excuse to just grab something on our own (individually) or are forced to pick something "quick" up. I shop a big shop once a week so that I have all the necessary components for my family's favorite meals always on hand. I store fun meal "holders" like taco shells, tortillas and whole grain wraps for easy, "load it up with whatcha want" meals. My pantry is filled with a variety of rice, quinoa, beans, marinara sauce and pasta so I have a bevy of good-for-you carbs on hand at a moment's notice. The cheer squad shows up for dinner? No problem. We're not ordering pizzas. I'm making build your own tacos, a whole grain pasta buffet or pile-up wraps.

How do I make it happen with our family's busy agenda – around a teenager whose priorities don't always include a meal with her dad and stepmom? We set a time and all schedule around it. We make it work for everyone – even if it means eating earlier or later than "normal."

When it comes down to it, it doesn't matter what you cook or even to what extent you actually forge the meal. You could sit together over bowls of cereal and still garner that valuable family time. You'll be surprised who wants to participate – see photo.

Why not challenge yourself and your crew to a Dining-at-home Month? Report back to me with your results!

Talkbacks

Food n' Focus | Oct. 24, 2012 at 10:15 a.m. (report)

I'm a huge fan of eating in! If you're looking for some good home cooked meals, check out my blog: www.foodnfocus.com I'm a Milwaukee food/photography blogger.

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