One of my real-life friends tried my suggestion to have an entrée with her family dinners for a couple of weeks: set out a dish at the beginning of the meal as a first course.
She reported that it had an incredible effect on the pleasantness of the dinner. I'm paraphrasing her comments here from memory:
- They had time to begin with a prayer and to talk about their day.
- They didn't start off their meal by frantically grabbing to get the best stuff before their brothers and sisters could eat it all.
- Her kids' medications start to wear off towards dinnertime, and that leaves them with a suddenly ravenous appetite. The slower start, she thought, worked better with their hunger levels and kept them from eating too much right away.
- The kids began to look forward to dinner with interest, asking, "What are we having for appetizer tonight?"
We both agreed that this one little change has a number of different effects on the pace of the dinner, and it's hard to find an explanation for all of them. It just... alters the environment.
Because we don't clear away the first dish until (a) everyone has eaten at least a little of it and (b) no one is still working on theirs, we all become a little more aware of the other family members' pace.
There's usually a pause at some point, where we find ourselves talking to each other instead of head pointed down into our bowl, and when we become aware of that we know it's time to get the next course.
Because the rest of the meal arrives somewhat gradually -- I have to get up, take away the salad dishes, and bring the serving dishes to the table one at a time -- the dishes begin to be passed as they arrive, and instead of a free-for-all it's more orderly.
No one is positively starving when the "good stuff" arrives, and that means everyone has the patience to wait for their turn to help themselves.
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My friend took it even farther than I do and served dessert, too. I'm not sure what she made each day, but knowing her family, it might well have been a homemade sweet some days, a packaged sweet on other days, and fruit on yet other days. She reported that the formalization of the dessert course also added to their enjoyment of the meal.
Dessert is not part of my family culture except on special occasions or sometimes when we have guests. Instead, Mark and I linger after dinner over our drinks, chatting, as the kids finish up and excuse themselves and run away; later, we call them back to help us clean up (unless we'd rather do the dishes ourselves while we polish off the bottle and continue our conversation), and then we have "bedtime snack." It's as good as dessert, but it's after dishes; that's just the way we do it. Ice cream, milkshakes, cereal, the occasional plate of nachos. I can't see us changing that anytime soon. It works great for us.
But I've been persisting in the "first course" habit too, despite having to streamline my cooking quite a bit on school days.
The entrée is sometimes just an afterthought. A couple of times so far, the first course has just been applesauce from a jar, made slightly fancy by a shake of cinnamon sugar. (In that case, Mark and I skipped the applesauce and started in early on our wine.)
Yesterday I thawed some leftover chickpea curry, and we had that with rice and greens; I served the grated-carrot-and-lemon-juice salad, usually my go-to-with-curry side dish, as the first course (and replaced its sweet-and-sour flavor in the main course with a bowl of canned pineapple chunks).
This coming week, my son is making hamburgers and tater tots for dinner, and he's going to start us off with a Caesar salad (from a bagged kit, but hey, it's his turn to cook and his turn to decide).
I'm going to make some kind of a beef and pepper and rice skillet on Saturday, and I think it'll be easy enough to do a black bean and corn salad at the same time. I'll add avocadoes if any are ripe by then.
I'll make black-eyed pea soup on Tuesday with bread. I'll buy some bagged baby spinach and mandarin oranges, and hope that the spinach stays crisp long enough to turn that into a salad; but if it wilts, we'll just have extra oranges and I'll put the spinach in the soup.
Not much fresh stuff will be left by a week from today, so Wednesday's appetizer will be a cabbage-apple salad -- or just a coleslaw if the apples have all been eaten by then.
I have a few emergency things up my sleeve, too -- the aforementioned applesauce is one, but I also have some frozen edamame in the pod, and I think perhaps I might buy some frozen cooked shrimp and some cocktail sauce to have on hand, too. The whole thing has been very fun, and hasn't added a lot of work. Try it and let me know what you think.