Memories of Family Dinner

April 30, 2013(updated on October 18, 2023)

All across the internet today, people are sharing their stories of family dinner in honor of the publication of Shauna and Danny Ahern’s new book, Gluten-Free Girl Every Day. I thought I’d post a little something I wrote ages ago about my parents and their devotion to ensuring that we ate good solid food for dinner and learned to be civilized people in the process.


I grew up in a family that ate dinner together nearly every night. My mom was the primary cook and she firmly believed in the power of squash, in the quick and filling effects of ground beef scrambled with canned tomatoes, fresh oregano and broken bits of cooked spaghetti and, when all other things failed, the reliability of a peanut butter and honey sandwich on whole wheat.

She cooked seasonally before it was universally trendy, mostly because my dad planted a garden every year but would lose interest in it just around harvest time. Never someone who was able to let good things go to waste, she struggled each summer to keep up with the tide of zucchini, spinach, tomatoes and string beans that flowed forth from the backyard. Many years there would be 12 to 15 quart bags of frozen stewed tomatoes piled in neat stacks in the freezer, ready for soups and pots of sauce throughout the winter.


She worked part time and then full time throughout my childhood but always made time to cook dinner. The meal rarely varied in that there was always a protein and a vegetable and frequently, but not always, a starch. When I think of the food from my early years, I see a plate with a chicken leg, a pile of steamed broccoli and small mound of brown rice. Sometimes there was a hamburger patty instead of the chicken, or string beans in place of the broccoli, but she relied on this formula almost exclusively.

My dad made a priority out of being home for dinner too, even in the days in the early eighties, when he was in the process of starting a business. Many nights, he’d drive home from work, eat dinner with us and then go back to his office for two or three additional hours, to plow through the never-ending pile of work. While my mom cooked, he attended to the development of our table manners. It was my dad who taught me proper handling of my napkin, to wait for everyone to be served before beginning, and that one should never use their fingers to shove food onto the fork. His mostly-patient training has served me over and over again in life.

dinner (6.19.11)

That said, there was one quick weeknight dinner that we often ate during which my parents relaxed the standards for table behavior. My mom dreamed up the idea of serving cold tuna salad with creamy mashed potatoes in the very early days of her cooking career. When asked what prompted the combination, she always said that she liked the textural contrast of having something crunchy along with soft mashed potatoes.

My sister and I most loved this meal for its sculptability. It was the ideal food for playing with. I would carefully cover my mound of tuna salad with a frosting of potatoes, making sure that it was perfectly smooth and even before carving it into pie-shaped wedges and eating it (admittedly, the potatoes would get sort of cold by the time I was done, but it was an essential part of the joy of the meal for me).

Raina would vigorously stir her tuna into the potatoes, until she had a plate full of unrecognizable mash, with just an occasional fleck of pale green or red from the veggies. Our parents never said a word about us playing with our food when tuna salad and mashed potatoes were on the menu.

dinner made with frozen pesto (320)

While we don’t yet have kids to bring into the family dinner fold, Scott and I eat dinner together nearly every night. Often, the meals we share are quite similar to the ones that my mom used serve (this apple didn’t fall far from the tree in terms of wanting to make food that tastes good, isn’t overly complex, and doesn’t take all day to make). There’s something so very comfortable about wrapping up a busy day with another person over a meal. I love many things about being married, but this is among my favorite aspects.

What does your family dinner look like?

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16 thoughts on "Memories of Family Dinner"

  • Funny, but mashed potatoes with cold tuna salad is called “causa de atun” in Peru, at least how my family makes it most often. Mashed potatoes pressed along the bottom and sides of a square or rectangular pan, tuna salad spread on top of that, then completely covered with more mashed potatoes. Cut into squares, served on top of a lettuce leaf, and garnished with a slice of hard boiled egg! The mashed potatoes and tuna salad are made a little different of course, but your mom was serving you Peruvian food way before Peruvian food was trendy!

  • Reminds me of a dish my mom would make….tuna and hardboiled eggs in a gravy of sorts over her homemade biscuits! Our dinners now are sit-down, all 6 of us around the table. I work on a meat and veggie and a starch (moving more towards brown rice and whole grain pasta) every day. We love to use the grill, and right now we are pulling canned green beans and beets regularly off the shelf. We are planning this year’s garden!

  • We eat almost every meal together here on the farm. Right now our favorites are hamburgers from our grass fed beef. We roast chicken regularly, then make stock, pour into mason jars and freeze. When tired we heat up that stock, add spinach from the hoop house along with leftover rice or pasta, yum! We bake 4-5 pounds of potatoes at a time, eat some that day then use as a base for other meals: eggs and home fries; reheated with toppings; smashed with chops. We will take a pork or beef roast and put it in a Dutch oven on top of the stove with a jar of our canned tomatoes over it, letting it cook until the fragrance demands that we add fresh herbs and eat!

  • What a sweet post- I had vivid memories of my family having dinner together every night also.. Our meals were mainly prepared by my dad (my mother was an invalid).. He certainly put his 4 children to work with dinner prep and household chores.. But dinner was on the table PROMPTLY at 5pm – and the children BEST BE seated at that table on time! thanks for making me smile (and tear up) this morning

  • We eat every meal together as a family even if that is after 7.30 lacrosse practice. My husband is the stay-at-home parent and our plates always have meat (except Mondays and Fridays), veg, and some starch. My mom cooked very similarly to yours – very little processed food – although she did boil the heck out of vegetables. My mom also made the budget stretch for nine which wasn’t always easy – hash parmigiana anyone? But dinner memories are still vivid in my mind and I hope my daughters appreciate our dinners we have together – the one time we can share our days and plan for the next one.

  • We have dinner together every night, unless there is something unusual going on.

    We have the stomach virus going about our family, so last night I made toast and eggs, with a jar of applesauce I canned last fall. It was SO EASY and quick! I told my husband I could do that every night, and he protested. 😉

  • I grew up much the same as did you; Daddy still has an acre garden (and he’ll be 85 this year!) and Mom still cans 400+ jars of produce (she’ll be 78 this year!). They taught me well. Fortunately, we ate very little out of the grocery store, preferring to eat from the garden and buy beef from the slaughter house. Daddy also hunted and venison, turkey and other wild game frequented our table. He’d buy a fresh ham from someone he knew and then proceed to cure it himself. My parents taught their children well; my sister and I still put up food, our brother gardens. It’s a healthful lifestyle, rich in nutrition and memories.
    Excellent post, thank you.

  • Excellent post. Growing up we all had dinner together, even on the weekends. If you weren’t there for dinner you would be hungry till breakfast. We ate well but there was no extra food to be wasted with five children and three adults to feed. Mother taught us all how to prepare food. We all assisted in cooking, baking, preserving and curing. I tried to instill the same in my children. Also, we had a huge garden with a matching freezer and pantry to store the bounty. Mom and dad grew vegies until they had to move into a retirement home. My siblings and I all garden as well. Currently I rent, so grow in pots on my small porch fighting the squirrels and other ‘stealers’ off. lol Thanks for sharing, it brought back a lot of memories.

  • We had family dinner together every night – four sisters who sometimes got the giggles so badly we would be excused from the table to settle down. My parents had a big garden; I remember picking green beans for dinner and I still love digging up potatoes. Our dinners ran to lasagna, tacos (from beef we raised) and cheeseburgers on homemade buns. Now we sit down to eat together almost every night, frequently recreating dinners I grew up with (taco salad the night after tacos). Even if it is toasted fresh mozarella on delicious bread (mine topped with basil and fresh tomato, my husband’s with pepperoni) we try to sit down and eat together. Tonight dinner will be spaghetti from tomatoes we grew and canned this summer.

  • My partner Brent and I sit down every night for dinner when we are together. Our meals vary greatly. We have a freezer full of local grass fed beef , local pork and at times lucky enough to have someone give us venison. We can in the fall from our garden and enjoy our goods in soups,side dishes and sauces. It is all so much enjoyed. I value this time together. As a youth my family meals were full of chaos and tension – not enjoyable at all. So for me to now have peace at mealtime is a wonderful experience !!

  • We were a big family dinner family, too. Almost always steak ( that was mostly what my father would eat) with a cooked vegetable and a salad. There was never, under any circumstances, a starch – my mother was always on a diet. There were a few other interesting things for dinner – we were all very fond of artichoke with drawn butter night, for example.

    Now I still cook dinner every night. We’re mostly meat two veg, but I do serve starch sometimes, also. Tonight was slow-cooked pork ribs, potato salad, cooked carrots, and an apple brown betty for dessert. Last night was meatless monday: homemade broccoli cheese soup, fresh bread, and clementines and shortbread cookies for dessert.

    1. I should add – one of my three kids is picky and winds up with a lot of peanut butter as a result. Also, Sunday night is exactly what my mother usually made for Sunday night dinner: popcorn. Sunday lunch was late and a big meal, so she never felt like doing a dinner afterwards. I do it more or less the same way.

  • We eat dinner together every night – my husband is a stay-at-home dad, so this is both economical and pleasant. We were both raised on the salad, meat, starch, veg dinner format of the 60’s, and generally do some variation of that during the week. We have a rotation of basic meals for the weekdays that my husband prepares, and then I (who loves to cook when it’s not after a long day of work) fix different, “special” things on the weekends. We also have always had pizza and movies every Friday, eaten in the family room in front of the TV. Our kids are teenagers now, but they are still home for dinner just about every night, including pizza night, which we thought would fade away as they got older. I think it’s made us a closer family – we are certainly much closer to our kids than I was to my parents.

  • We eat our family dinner at the table with our 6 year old twin girls. I usually prepare the dinner with my husband helping if he is home. My girls clean and set the table and usually provide the meal time entertainment.
    Our meals are a blend of Irish meals from my childhood and fun new recipes we find online. Our girls love “salad sandwiches” (Salad in a pita) and any “breakfast for dinner” meal. We live in Texas, so the grill is our friend for most of the year!

  • My husband and I both work at least 40 hours a week out of the home. But we almost always eat dinner together with our three kids. The exception being Friday night is pizza and movie night in front of the tv. When the weather is nice, we’ll eat outside on the patio table.

    He considers me a bit of a throwback, but my meals are usually simple as you described. He calls it my “Midwestern” cooking. He grew up on casseroles and other one dish heavy meals.

    I’m also a stickler for manners, and while the kids may think that’s boring, I know it will serve them well in the future.