My 6-year-old son Ben asks me almost daily “who’s coming over for dinner tonight, Mom?!” or “whose house are we going to for dinner?” We are lucky enough to have a close network of friends within our community, as well as family close by, which means that my kids are constantly surrounded by loved ones. The more the merrier in Ben’s mind (and he comes by this honestly—I’m the same way!).
For us, the term “family” has evolved since having kids and moving into our neighborhood, to not only include our immediate and extended relatives (who we’re extremely close with), but also our close friends and neighbours. And we’re not alone—over the past 150 years, “family” has taken on several meanings here in Canada—traditional, and not so traditional—something that I think should be celebrated!
Last Sunday, I decided to host a DIY pasta night—a unique “family reunion” with friends and family. There were six adults and nine kids all together—crazy, fun and, overall, a huge success.
My favourite way to serve meals is “family-style”, not only because it makes preparing and servings meals much easier for us, but it gets our kids involved! As a pediatric dietitian, I know the importance of letting kids serve themselves sometimes (and not micro-managing their choices or portions). It gives them say in their meal, builds their eating competence, and boosts the chances of them being adventurous. Family-style meals also tend to decrease power struggles at the table, and in general, make meals happier for everyone.
Here’s 5 Steps to Hosting a Successful DIY Pasta Night:
1) Prepare your protein:
Choose at least three protein choices. I chose ground beef, chicken and lentils. Pre-cook meat and prepare beans or lentils ahead of time. Place each type of protein in a separate bowl or container once it has cooled, and chill until serving time.
Tip: the week before, when you’re preparing your dinner meals, cook double or triple the amount of meat, poultry or fish so that you can use it for your pasta night!
2) Prepare your veggies and garnishes:
Choose at least four or five different vegetables with a variety of colours (eg. tomatoes, mushrooms, broccoli, spinach, orange peppers, zucchini etc.), rinse, chop or dice them, and transfer to individual bowls or containers. Fresh and dried herbs, and other garnishes were prepared in this step too. Chill veggies, fresh herbs and cheese until serving time.
Tip #1 : to save on time, buy pre-washed, pre-chopped veggies, or rinse and chop them as soon as you get home from the store so they’re ready to go.
Tip #2: Make sure there’s enough space in your fridge for all of your chopped veggies and meat!
3) Prepare your pasta:
Choose two to three pasta varieties and cook until al dente (a bit firm).
Tip: When draining, leave some pasta water in the bottom to help the pasta not stick together. I also added some olive oil and tossed the pasta gently to help with this.
4) Prepare your sauces:
Choose at least three sauces, keeping in mind everyone’s tastes and preferences (as well as nutrition). I chose to have a traditional marinara sauce (which was by far the sauce-of-choice), as well as classic alfredo, pesto (my favourite) and a homemade avocado white wine sauce.
Tip: If you’re making sauces from scratch, make sure that you do so ahead of time so that you’re not scrambling at the last minute (which will also add to your dishes and mess!).
5) Get set up!
About 10 minutes before supper, set up an assembly line of fixings, pasta and sauces. Start with protein options, then veggies and sauce. I put the cooked pasta and the garnishes at the end of the line and set up a portable induction burner to individually sauté everyone’s veggies, protein and sauce before they chose their pasta (you can easily do this on your regular cook top). This worked well for a few reasons: everyone’s meal was hot before they ate; each child got to choose their own fixings and help saute them when it was their turn, and then got to choose their pasta, which I topped with their fixings. Lastly—garnish sprinkling! Even though we had nine kids all together, this system worked really well and kept things relatively organized.
Tip: Get all the pots and pans washed and out of the way before you set up – there will be lots going on and the more organized you can be, the better. Lay out the plates, bowls and utensils prior to serving.
Us parents served up after the kids, and enjoyed a glass of wine with our meals. We spread out over the kitchen, ate, visited and laughed. There were quite a few “seconds”, which spoke to how delicious our meal was. I was amazed at how brave my kids were with trying unfamiliar ingredients and surprised by some of the interesting combinations that all the kids chose. It reminded me of how fun and beneficial “family-style” meals are, and that we should serve them more often.