What Are Your Family’s Signature Dinners?

Family Rituals Jenny Rosenstrach

My friend Jenny Rosenstrach is warm, wise and a genius when it comes to parenting. Her new cookbook, How to Celebrate Everything, dives deep into family rituals, and I read the whole thing this weekend, totally inspired. She talks about all things big and small — including one-on-one dates with kids, Thanksgiving chocolate pudding pie, Sunday meals and choosing a country for birthday dinners (and then going to a restaurant with that cuisine). But one chapter especially jumped out to me…

Toward the end of her book, Jenny writes about signature dinners:

When I was growing up, my mom made the best meatballs. And roasted chicken. And lasagna with the local market’s sweet Italian sausages. These days, when I take my family for dinner at my parents’ house, I beg her to make one of these dishes for me. How could I not? They were the tent-poles of my culinary upbringing — the family dinner rotation — and I must’ve had each of them once a week for eighteen years. If there were other things worth eating out there, I didn’t care to know about them…

In the past few years, I’ve made a point to pay more careful attention to the answer when I ask my kids “What do you want for dinner?” Because what I’m really asking is: “What foods will someday have the power to transport you back to your childhood?” (Or maybe “What foods will someday be powerful enough to make you literally transport yourself back to your mother’s dinner table, no matter how far away you live from her?”) The answers, not surprisingly, have nothing to do with what’s trending on Instagram. They couldn’t care less about ancient grains or bone broth. Their list can be reduced to what all kids want: pizza, roasted chicken, tacos or burrito bowls. Especially burrito bowls. So long as Mom and Dad are making them, they can’t get enough.

How to Celebrate Everything

So, I’m curious: What meals do you remember from growing up? What recipes do you hope your own children remember?

When I was growing up, with English parents in the Michigan suburbs, we had a mix of foods that I remember well. My mom would make chicken divan casserole (with water chestnuts!) that we all loved, and lemony roast chicken with crispy roast potatoes. She made crème caramel when relatives visited, and she always baked pumpkin pie for my birthday in January because it was my favorite. When my parents first got divorced, my dad wasn’t used to cooking dinner for three kids, and he’d make cream cheese and cucumber sandwiches for dinner (so English!). Later, he made bullet potatoes in aluminum foil over campfires, and on road trips, he’d bring a round of camembert cheese and French bread, which would taste delicious but make the car smell so barnyard-y, our eyes would water.

For my own children, I’m feeling inspired to pick some delicious recipes to start making regularly and get rooted in their sweet little heads! So far, we have two long-standing and much-anticipated rituals: a cake the night before the first day of school and a half cake on their half birthdays. (Basically, two excuses to have cake.)

How to Celebrate Everything

Thank you for the inspiration, Jenny, as always. (Here‘s the great trailer, if you’d like to see. The book is so, so good.)

P.S. An ode to rituals, and how to get kids to talk at dinner.

(Photo by Chelsea Cavanaugh.)

  1. Staci Smelley says...

    Being southern, my mom made a southern spaghetti sauce with hamburger,onions, and bell peppers. It had a secret ingredient of Worcestershire sauce. Every Sunday we also had a pot roast that cooked while we were in church. My favorite meal that i always requested was oven fried chicken with mash potatoes. My favorite dessert was a baby food cake that she made with plum baby food. It was like a spice cake that was so good for breakfast with a glass of milk. I remember cutting off slices of it to eat after school as well.

  2. A says...

    Being Irish spaghetti Bolognese and sweet and sour chicken felt very fancy as a kid in the late 80s. I remember visiting my older sister who lived in London when I was around 10 and going to a Chinese restaurant, it was like entering another world! In fact I think that was when my curiosity for food was probably sparked. My mom baked a lot with us as kids and I remember licking the wooden spoon and spooning the mixture into bun cases, though not in that order! :) With my kids, they love to help me make pizza dough and their favourite rotations are pizza, burgers and mussels with chips (fries!) and garlic bread.

  3. Melanie Bowman says...

    Chicken Marsala. It’s easy, creamy, savory and oh so Italian-American of us. There was something so fancy about dusting chicken in flour to me as a kid, and sprinkling crispy sage over the top of wild mushrooms for a garnish. I used to offer to do the dishes so I could mop up the earthy, buttery juices with a slice of bread before putting them in the dishwasher.

  4. I’m loving all these comments! I feel like they’re a little window into 70s and 80s American cooking! My parents are into healthy food and many of the things they made us as kids they wouldn’t touch anymore — tuna noodle casserole, grilled swordfish, pasta with ham and peas. Meals at their house are still delicious but a little more in line with Instagram trends as Jenny says!

    I also bought the cookbook already and I LOVE it. It makes you want the holidays to hurry up and be here, to throw fun family parties, and have lots of little family traditions. The recipes we’ve tried so far are wonderful of course. And I can see how someone might cry while reading it. There are so many words of wisdom tucking in the stories. My favorite being mashed potatoes and how Jenny’s mother advised her that the most important thing she could do as a parent was make sure home was the most comforting place on earth to her children.

  5. Vanessa says...

    My dad was in charge of breakfast on school days. Sometimes at my request, he would make “special eggs” which were a sunny side up egg on top of a slice of fried bologna with a slice of American cheese in between. Now I know this is not the healthiest thing to eat! but they were special because they were reserved for mornings that felt particularly grand, for no particular reason.
    Lunch was our biggest meal, and that was made by mom every day. The hits in her rotation were tuna empanadas (made with pizza dough), ground beef with spinach (amazing with a warm flour tortilla), and sweet and sour chicken (special occasions only).
    It makes me smile to think of them making these dishes, but it also makes my heart hurt because living really far from them these last few years has been excruciating :(

  6. Emily says...

    Oh, I love this.
    My dad used to make burgers every Saturday night, so now when we come over – even though we’re grown up – he’ll make burgers again. And he always remembers what kind of cheese we prefer! We also always made my great-grandmother’s cinnamon rolls the night before Christmas and let them rise overnight so we could have them fresh on Christmas morning.

  7. I was just thinking this very thing, with regard to how our family foods keep us connected after our loved ones pass on. I think of my Grandma so much when I cook, as I spent allot of time with her in the kitchen. I recently made her delicious “Pastiche” for my family and my daughter was in heaven, asking for it again. It’s one of those dishes that you can’t google a recipe for, a meal specific to an thrifty Italian household, using up the Sunday roast leftovers. Thanks for sharing the book info.
    I love those meatballs with polenta, in the photo.
    Is that a recipe from the book also?

  8. Like many other commenters, it is all about memory. Fried haddock (dipped in egg and flour, shallow fried), mashed potato, peas and parsley sauce. The ultimate home on a plate. I have tried, but cannot reproduce this staple from my childhood.

  9. krystal says...

    My mom’s shepherd’s pie is a classic I’ve grown to crave and was always our special Halloween night dinner (full warm meal before we trick or treat!) Browned ground beef with soy sauce for color and season, lots of pepper and onions and peppers. Layered with (gasp) canned creamed corn, and ‘niblets’ corn, and mashed potatoes with a fork swirl on top, I’ve made it in the same tradition for my stepkids and on chilly days when I crave it. My then 11 year old stepdaughter was treated for lunch with her grandparents at a neat pie place in town a couple years ago and saw shepherd’s pie on the menu, she got excited, ordered it and had to trade with Grandma when she got a taste that traditional sheperds pie is with Lamb and peas… It was so cute, she came home and asked if we could make our version, because she was REALLY looking forward to tasting it and got shocked by the lamb! That will always warm my heart and makes me love it even more.

  10. There are so many things that I grew up hating, but that I desperately love to do now because they’re familiar. I hated cold, wet, windy days (we had lots of those) – Sunday evenings, eating popcorn and fruit salad – etc.

    I love my mom’s chicken cream cheese pockets, her homemade hamburgers, her chicken & pineapple, her spaghetti sauce (which I hated as a kid), her fried fish, and my dad’s pancakes with real Québec maple syrup and Doritoes.

  11. I love my mom’s yam rice and fried beehoon. Extremely Malaysian and just the way I like them :)

  12. I LOVE Jenny’s cookbooks, I had pre-ordered this one and just got it! My husband already made a recipe from it – YUM (PS, I was really mad at him that day and he redeemed himself by cooking an amazing dinner).

    My 5 year old son will eat nearly anything without complaint. When I ask him what he wants for dinner, he regularly answers, “Let’s roast an entire chicken.” So we do.

  13. Cara says...

    This has been one of my favorite comment sections so far and gets me so excited to have a family of my own one day! My sister is also an avid CoJ reader and when we we’re talking about what we think our answers would be for this, we both immediately said my mom’s “peach chicken” — basically chicken breasts simmered with peach jam, balsamic vinegar, and scallions. Sounds weird but if you’re a sweet and salty lover this is the best. She also makes the best crab cakes in the world, with Ina Gartens caesar salad and she adds roasted cherry tomatoes to it. YUM.

    My mom is also always known for bringing her sausage balls (sausage meatballs in a tangy sauce) and her sweet and sour coleslaw (the ramen slaw that people always make different versions of.. hers is the best!) to any family party. These recipes seem so 90s to me but my siblings and I have each brought these dishes to more parties than we can count and they are always a hit.

    As for my dad, he was never a big cook but my childhood memories of him cooking always include breakfast for dinner or Sunday morning french toast, and instead of milk he adds a splash of OJ to the egg mixture. Funny enough, now that my parents don’t have kids to feed daily, my dad might cook more than my mom and has learned to make some awesome dishes that he loves to impress us all when we come home for holidays!