Carmen Miller
(Carmen Miller)

Feeding your kids is one of the most fundamental parts of parenting. But in today's fast-paced, fast-food society, it's all too easy to outsource family meals. This is unfortunate, because the dinner table is one of the best places to be a parent. "Family dinner," quite simply, is when families in any form sit down at a table together and enjoy a meal which has been prepared at home. It might not happen every night, and it might even be pretty simple.

Family dinner is not mundane but an important ritual which should be celebrated. I think Family Dinner should be a proper noun. Barbara Kingsolver wrote about it in "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle," discussing the importance of family meals and how it has even been cited as one of the common factors among National Merit Scholars -- the students consistently came from families who ate dinner together on a regular basis.

Family Dinner is educational for both parents and their kids. For parents, the dinner table provides a captive audience and an invaluable opportunity to connect with kids daily and find out what's going on in their lives. There are also many important life skills learned at the dinner table: How to have a conversation, how to set a table and how to sit at a table, which translates into how to behave in a restaurant, or in countless other settings. Start early -- introduce your baby to Family Dinner by pulling the high chair up to the table, even if the tray is just filled with Cheerios. Before long, Cheerios are replaced with real food -- not just kid foods separately prepared for them to eat on their own. Family Dinner can reform picky eaters and produce healthy well-balanced diets and well-rounded palates, which result from lifelong exposure to a wide variety of foods.

Family Dinner should not be a chore but a family project. Get the kids involved in shopping, cooking and cleanup. Bring the homework into the kitchen, and pretty soon the buzz of dinner preparation takes on new life and becomes the centerpiece of your daily routine. This is never more true than in the summer, when grilling, al fresco dining and picnics provide a whole season's worth of family-friendly food options. Here's just one example of great Family Dinner cooking for summer.

Grilled Summer Napoleons

Serves 4


1 large eggplant (Japanese eggplants are a great option), sliced into 8 1/2-inch slices

1-2 red onions, sliced into 8 1/2-inch slices

2-3 fresh ripe tomatoes, sliced into 8 1/2-inch slices

1 8-ounce ball fresh mozzarella cheese, cut into 8 slices

5 ounces (or less) arugula

Extra virgin olive oil

Balsamic vinegar (optional)

1. Brush both sides of the eggplant and onion slices with olive oil, and season with salt and pepper.

2. Grill the eggplant and onions over medium-high heat until slightly charred, about three minutes per side depending on your grill temperature. (Note: The onions are the trickiest to grill, but don't worry if they fall apart. If you don't have eight perfectly grilled slices, just separate some of the rings and arrange them on top of the Napoleons.)

3. Scatter your desired amount of arugula on a large platter. Stack the tomatoes, cheese, and eggplant into eight stacks, matching the slices by size. Top each stack with some of the grilled onion.

4. Drizzle with olive oil, or a combination of equal parts olive oil and balsamic vinegar.