With the holiday season among us, our kids find themselves with us at holiday dinners and events. Getting them to sit at the table is often a challenge. I spoke with Caterina months ago, and she gave me advice on how to get them to the table, and KEEP them at the table- and it really worked! She is a true gem, and her passion for food and family time goes beyond. Read the following interview to find out all about Caterina, and her program Return to the Table. Follow her on Instagram @caterina.defalco. Stay tuned for her BOOK launch, and sign up on her website to get up to date information and inspiration! 

How many children do you have and what are their age(s)?

Three teenagers- ages 13, 16, and 17!

Please tell us about your program- Return to the Table!

A year and a half ago I found my calling which is to help families get to the table and have a regular family dinner routine with good home cooked food, and to show them how to get it done fast! This came to be because while I have been raising kids, I have seen so many families struggle with what to make for dinner, eating in front of the TV and not spending more than 10 minutes at the table, and relying more than ever on convenience foods. This saddens me because sharing good food together is the easiest opportunity that we have every day to connect with our children and find out what is going on with them. Plus, there are so many other benefits for our health and overall happiness. So, Return to The Table was (finally) born. I wrote a book last year which is coming out soon, doing one on one coaching and am going to be doing workshops in Birmingham starting in January.

What is your advice for how to make dinner a positive experience for families?

Today many families are experiencing stressful dinnertimes or are just eating whatever, whenever. It is often because they are busy and limited on time to prepare something or don’t know what to make and often it is difficult to get everyone interested in sitting at the table to eat. Here are some of the techniques that work to make mealtimes a great experience. Start by getting everyone involved, simply having your children set and clear the table or do some of the dishes helps us as parents a lot and it good for them to help and learn life skills. They can also get involved in cooking, chopping, stirring or plating food. Next the food has to be good, this will help get everyone interested. Creating a family menu with 5 dishes that everyone likes is great place to start. Because when we eat good food, we feel good and it creates a safe and comfortable place.

It’s not just important what you eat but how you eat, so set yourself up for success, make sure the TV is off and personal devices are put away. Play some music if you need a replacement at first. One of the tips I get the most feedback on is to serve in courses. This will draw out the meal naturally and keep everyone engaged and give us more time to sit and let the conversation unfold. It can be as simple as a soup or salad than a main dish and fruit or a piece of dark chocolate for dessert. Of all the changes that families have implemented from working with me, the thing that I hear the most is that eating in courses has been “life changing”. The other tip that I get a lot of positive feedback on is telling stories to get children engaged. For young children take their favorite story book (the one that you have probably read 100 times) and create a new ending or ask them how they would continue the story. Or you can create your own story book. Have them pick a topic and each night you can build on this story over the week. It will get them engaged, willing to sit at the table. Ask them to summarize where you left off each day and this will make it educational and will increase their cognitive thinking skills. For older children the story can be about your first date, broken heart or when you felt left out at school. These are things that our teens struggle with and sharing your stories over a delicious pan of lasagna is a great way to connect, bond and help them open up about a difficult topic. Dinnertime is also a great time to share what is going on in our lives as parents so that our children understand us better. My children have been through the ups and downs of Return to The Table. When I have had a bad day, and there have been many, I told them I am upset or in a bad mood and shared it rather than hold it in and just displayed my stress. It has enabled me to get through this and not take it out on my family. I think sharing what is going on in our lives with our children is so important because as parents our work and personal lives can be very stressful and sharing this with our children not only helps us relax but it opens up a great parenting and educational opportunity. We also may be impressed by the wisdom and the support that our children will have to share.

Eventually dinner time will become a time of day that is looked forward to by everyone and a coveted time to connect and find out what is really going on with everyone on a deep level. Sitting down to a table that is set, serving the food at the table and spending at least 20 minutes together will become the new norm, easy and natural. We need the time at the table so that the conversations can unfold, this is when we have the best opportunity every day to really connect with our children and really get to know each other. This is when the magic happens.

How long have you lived in Birmingham/Bloomfield Hills? What made you decide to live here?

We have lived in Birmingham for 10 years. I moved to Michigan after college and the first time I visited Birmingham I knew I wanted to live here one day. When my children started school, I enrolled them at the Waldorf school in Rochester, I needed to move closer to the school and I finally made the move to Birmingham and we have loved living here!

What’s your favorite family activity in Birmingham/Bloomfield Hills?

It is simple but one of my fondest memories is when my children were younger, we used to walk into town in the winter on the weekends. We would go to Starbucks for a tea or hot chocolate. It took about 20 minutes and we would run, laugh, talk and throw snowballs. It was such a sweet time together. There was something about the walk in the winter, we had to bundle up and we were always so happy to arrive and get into the warmth. We still enjoy walking into town for a drink or to the movies. The fact that we can walk almost anywhere is what we love the most about Birmingham. It reminds us of Europe and the lifestyle we have when we are in France.

What are your favorite places to go out to eat in your town for a date night? With kids?

Well, this may not surprise you, but we prefer to stay in and cook. There is always someone coming over, the kids’ friends or other families, so we don’t eat out very often. We just love being at home and sharing good food with family and friends! There is something special about being at your own table, its comfortable and relaxing. We have an old wood table that we shipped from Europe 18 years ago. We always say that our table is full of stories.

What’s one thing people would be surprised to know about you? I am a very private person. In fact, I never used social media, even for personal use, until 10 months ago at age 50!. I have really had to step out of my comfort zone, and it’s been very challenging at times but my passion for what I do has given me the motivation to step into this. The other thing that people are surprised to find out that I don’t plan my dinners for the week. In fact, I wing it almost every day. I keep my kitchen stocked with high quality ingredients and there is always something in the freezer that we made or sourced like grass fed meat from a local farm and roasted tomato soup. Most days I don’t have a lot of time to cook so pulling things together with what I have on hand and repurposing leftovers is how we put most of our dinners together. It may sound disorganized or even stressful but being stocked and being able to create something out of what you have is actually fun and we have made some of our best dishes with last minute ideas and pulling things together. Being able to create homemade meals fast is what I teach in my system called Stock It! Prep It! Roll It! Toss It! ™ so trust me it’s possible.

What are 1-2 ideas of a good dinner that even a busy mom could prepare?

One or two simple ingredients can be all you need to compliment something and make a great meal or to transform something ordinary into extraordinary. Keeping your favorite ingredients on hand such as herbs, fresh garlic, a good olive oil or truffle oil, sauces and pesto in the freezer can help you make a meal in minutes. I always have butter that I mix with fresh herbs in the freezer and this is perfect for an omelet, or on baked chicken or steak. Add fresh crushed garlic or herbs to chicken or steak. Bake chicken and add some lemon juice, crushed garlic and fresh herbs or dried herbs de provence and you will have an amazing dish in minutes. Truffle oil or an herb oil on an omelet or pasta is fast, delicious and healthy. Pesto can be used on pasta, chicken, vegetables or as a sandwich spread.

Repurposing leftovers is another way to make a great meal quickly. Use leftover chicken to toss with a pasta or serve on Galettes or French bread pizzas. Galettes are a gluten free version of the French crepe kids love these and you can make them ahead and freeze them. Simply warm them up and top with anything you like. Ham and cheese, leftover chicken, roasted vegetables and even a fried egg, which is a French classic, or cheese, mushrooms and truffle oil.

Good food does not have to be complicated. We eat the simplest dishes in the south of France, the key is in the quality of the ingredients. Tomatoes, mozzarella, olive oil and basil is delicious and so easy. Think easy prep which is the Prep It! part of my system, where there is little to no cooking, as with prosciutto and sliced melon. You can make this a first course and serve a small plate of pasta or leftovers next and follow with some fruit or a small piece of dark chocolate.

I hear many moms say spaghetti and sauce and carryout or frozen pizza are go to’s on busy nights. So instead of using a jarred sauce try making a quick pasta dish that can be prepared in the same time but has more exciting flavors and is better for our heath and it will make the food more exciting. Pastas with fresh chopped basil, olive oil and fresh grated parmesan cheese. Sage and butter pasta or a quick version of carbonara made by tossing pasta with lightly sautéed chopped bacon and an egg. Use leftover chicken, meat or vegetables with some herbs and maybe a dash of cream and toss with pasta. Don’t be fooled by simplicity of these ideas they are good enough to serve for guests. Replacing carryout pizza with simple homemade pizzas on toasted banquette rubbed with a clove of garlic and topped with tomatoes, vegetables and cheese or leftover chicken and pesto can be made in minutes and create an experience at the table not to mention it is better for our health.

I always say the freezer is your best friend so think ahead. If you make a soup on the weekend and freeze it then you will have soup ready for those busy nights and a cup of soup, small plate of pasta or leftovers, finished with apple slices , nuts ( buy them in the shell, kids love to crack nuts) and a small piece of dark chocolate is a fast, easy and fabulous meal. You can freeze just about anything; sauces, pesto, leftovers, good bread. So, cooking a few things to freeze or freezing leftovers to use later is a huge time saver.

Serving small plates and in courses may sound complicated but it actually makes getting dinner on the table so easy. It’s perfect when there is a little bit of a few things but not enough for a meal for everyone. Serve a cup of soup or salad then leftovers or an omelet and finish with some fruit like clementines or fresh berries with cream.

I love using Instacart so if you take a minute to think of what you can make that night but you need a few more ingredients have them delivered so they arrive when you get home and you can spend that 15 minutes it takes at the store preparing dinner!

Anyone special you’d like to thank for helping you through parenthood?

That is an interesting question. I had a rather disconnected childhood which is probably one reason why I am so sensitive and passionate about creating a strong relationship with my children and helping other families strengthen their relationships. You get two chances at having a good parent child relationship, so I am taking this second chance as a parent very seriously!  I know so many amazing families and see such great parents in the community but what I am so concerned about is the what I have heard referred to as the silent tragedy in our homes today. The modern-day family is so busy, often over scheduled, we are relying more on convenience foods and many of us becoming addicted to our personal devices. So I see that we are at risk today, • 1 in 5 children have mental health problems
• A 43% increase in ADHD has been noted
• A 37% increase in adolescent depression has been noted
• There has been a 200% increase in the suicide rate in children aged 10 to 14 children are and simply sharing good food together every day is the best opportunity that we have to stay connected. So to answer the question while I did have some wonderful mentors who filled in some gaps in my childhood I would have to say that the adversity that I experienced was probably one of the greatest gifts in the end because I believe it is part of what led me here to create Return to The Table.

What do you do for “me” time? What recharges you?

I believe that as moms we have to take care of ourselves so that we feel good and can take good care of our families. It’s like they say at the airlines, put your oxygen mask on first then your children’s. It sounds counter intuitive but if we aren’t feeling good and our energy is drained then it’s difficult to have the energy to come home and make dinner and be present with our families. My top priority for self-care is yoga. I have been doing Vinyassa yoga several times a week for 15 years and it grounds me and keeps me in shape so that I feel good.

CONNECT with Caterina on Instagram @caterina.defalco. She shares amazing information and inspiration, including recipes, cooking tips, and a live Q and A. She has Facebook as well. On her website you can download the free 5 steps to getting started guide!

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