10 Things My Mother Taught Me About Family Meals

From buying natural peanut butter to hiding treats in the freezer, Mom knows best.

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With Mother’s Day this weekend, I decided to reflect on all the things my mother taught me about cooking and mealtimes. Many of my adult patients don’t know their ways around the kitchen, so I consider myself lucky for the good habits that were instilled in me. Of course, as a child I thought much of this was somewhat torturous. But now that I’m older and wiser, I feel forever grateful. 

1. Start every dinner with a salad. No matter what we had for dinner, we always started with a salad. I was actually the one in charge of making them in high school, because my mother worked full time. I would cater to everyone’s individual preferences, like who likes onion and who doesn’t, but no matter what, I found it was an easy thing to do. To this day, I make a salad every night or order one as an appetizer in restaurants. 

2. Dinner should be balanced. Every meal had a vegetable, protein and carbohydrate through a combination like veal cutlets with spaghetti and spinach. Pasta was never the main course but instead served as a side. And probably the only night that a veggie was not served was on Saturday – my parents’ night out. Honestly, this night was my favorite as a kid, because at the time nothing beat wagon wheel pasta with butter and cream cheese for dinner.

[See: U.S. News' Best Diets.]

3. Make breading with wheat germ. Yes, we had veal cutlets, but not breaded in your typical way. My mother discovered wheat germ at some point in the ‘70s with as much enthusiasm as people today have for chia and flaxseeds. In our house, it seemed wheat germ was appearing everywhere, but the most popular place was mixed with oatmeal to make a breading. Today I have changed this breading recipe to still include the oats but have swapped the wheat germ for flaxseed. 

4. Blot excess oil in a paper towel. Whenever my mother fried something in oil, which was rare, she always blotted the finished product in paper towel to remove excess oil. Veal cutlets or fish cakes (fresh from the fish store) are what I remember most. It’s funny: I’m not sure how much of a difference this really makes in reducing fat or calories, but I find myself always doing the same.

5. Buy natural peanut butter. At the time, I think we were the only household (or so it felt) that had “natural” peanut butter. It was bought at the health food store, because it was not yet carried in regular supermarkets. While I longed for regular peanut butter as a kid, today I will only buy the natural variety. Actually, I often choose almond butter.

[Read: Are Al Nut Butters Created Equal?]

6. Have fruit for dessert. OK, honestly, most times it was canned. But nonetheless it set the tone for adding fruit to meals. My favorite was the canned pineapple, and I guess today you could say I still have a soft spot in my heart for it. As I tell my patients, dessert is the perfect opportunity for fruit – any type you will actually eat.

7. Wash the tops of canned foods. Sometimes it can be the littlest things we learn that are passed from generation to generation. I was taught that before opening anything in a can that you should rinse the top first. That makes sense, given that the can was originally sitting on a shelf somewhere. It brings a smile to my face whenever I see my daughter rinse a can of tuna before opening it.

8. Drink water with meals. If you wanted a beverage with dinner in our household, you drank water. It was actually encouraged to drink before the meal, since my mother never wanted anything to interfere with us getting too full during dinner. Juice or soda was never an option at our table. To this day, water is my beverage of choice with dinner, unless of course we are talking cocktails, then that would be a very, very dry vodka martini with olives.

[Read: How to Drink More Water Each Day.]

9. Eat oatmeal for breakfast. As long as I can remember, my mother has eaten oatmeal for breakfast. And like mother like daughter, I have done the same. I am happy to say that my husband (and dog) have now joined me in the family tradition.

10. Keep treats out of sight and out of mind. When my mother didn’t want us eating too many cookies or Halloween candy, she put the treats in the freezer. Her intention was good: Keep the foods you don’t want to eat too much of out of direct eye contact. The problem was that we all learned to love our chocolate treat frozen – especially my father. Now if I don’t want to eat a lot of something, I just don’t keep it in the house at all.

[Read: 10 Healthy Desserts – and They're Tasty, Too.]