My mom is not a “good” cook in the traditional sense of the way. She doesn’t have a famous pie or cornbread or salad recipe that is always raved about at Southern Baptist church potlucks. I don’t have an old tin recipe box filled with family heirloom recipes. Most of her meals are inspired by Pinterest, not Julia Child.
While I don’t remember homemade biscuits or gourmet meals, I do remember eating together as a family every night. My mom and dad both were teachers at my school and supplemented their teacher salaries with after school activities. My dad would coach teams year-round while my mom tutored for hours after the final bell rung. No matter how late they worked, we would always travel home together and eat dinner at our kitchen table. Some nights we ate spaghetti, other nights we had chicken with boxed mashed potatoes. Most nights, we ate a form of Hamburger Helper and canned green beans. We all pitched in to get dinner on the table at a reasonable hour; my mom and dad both cooked while my younger sisters put out the condiments and I set the table.
Our family dinners weren’t elaborate. There was no homemade bread or “secret ingredient” chicken dish. My mom would pull out cans and boxes instead of seasonings and sauces. Yet even into my teenage years, I loved those dinners no matter how basic they were. I knew that at the end of every day, my family would share a meal together—share our daily life together.
As a newlywed, I brought many of my family traditions with me—one of which being nightly dinners. Both my husband and I were still in school, some of my classes lasting until seven o’clock at night. Even then, it was a joy to prepare meals ahead of time so that I knew when I came home, I would have dinner with my husband, my new family.
Only a week into our marriage, my husband asked me while we were eating how often would we have dinners together at night. I was confused by his question, then I remembered that he had come from a different family tradition. Led by a hard-working single mother, his family rarely ate dinners all together. But when they did all eat together, his mom made special homemade meals such as lasagna or fried chicken with a side of broccoli salad.
Our first night in our home together, I made his mom’s lasagna. It would be the first of many times we would eat lasagna together at night. It represented the two of us bringing together the favorite parts of our family’s food traditions—my family’s practice of eating together each night, and his mom’s cheesiest lasagna.
When I think of recipes I hope to pass down to my daughter, I don’t have many secret or special family recipes. She could find the recipes I most use bookmarked on my computer or flagged in my many Pioneer Woman cookbooks. But instead of a particular recipe, I pray she learns that it doesn’t matter what’s on the table; what matters is that she is eating with those she loves. Paul reminds the Corinthian church that it’s not about what you put in your mouth, it’s what is in your heart, “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31). Whether it’s homemade lasagna or Hamburger Helper lasagna, she can show love and hospitality to her family and friends just by putting a hot meal before them.
I’ve attended fancy dinners before where I felt out of place and uncomfortable. I’ve also been invited to eat barely edible dinners on couches, but I’ve never felt so welcomed or at ease. I love a fun recipe as much as anyone, but I’ve learned that dinners together are rarely about the food itself but the people around your table.
During the height of the pandemic, I was baking cinnamon bread and cooking elaborate dinner recipes, just to break up the long days of quarantine. One night, I made a “fancy” pasta dish from Ina Garten (the “Barefoot Contessa”) to serve to my family. As soon as they took the first bite, my sister made the comment, “This tastes like the Hamburger Helper mom made when we were kids!” At first I was offended—I had put much more time than just browning meat and dumping out a box—but then I realized that she was right. As I savored each bite, it took me back to late nights after volleyball practice in high school. I knew that there would be a hot plate of Hamburger Helper lasagna waiting for me to dump powdered parmesan cheese all over.
My elaborate Hamburger Helper meal reminded me not to get caught up in cookbooks, decorations, or place settings, but to instead focus on the people around me. The recipe for a good family dinner isn’t homemade rolls or special ingredients, but consistent and intentional time together.
This post was written as part of a blog hop with Exhale—an online community of women pursuing creativity alongside motherhood, led by the writing team behind Coffee + Crumbs. Click here to read the next post in this series “The Story of a Recipe.”