By Real Simple
Updated February 04, 2009
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At the risk of sounding like Pastor Bob of Pigeon Knob, I have to say the best thing about Thanksgiving is the thankfulness part. It certainly isn’t your loud relatives and their embittered children, and it isn’t the weather (overcast, with a 50 percent chance of snow). It is the sheer gratitude for the fact that you have somehow, once again, navigated the treacherous channels of life and avoided the greasy hand of death and have not thrown your savings down a rat hole or contracted an insect-borne disease so rare they plan to name it after you.It’s an unjust world; mortality has us all by the tail; we live in a culture of complaint; and yet, as we all know, there is much to be grateful for—though we’re reluctant to say so, fearing it may sound smug or boastful.In my childhood, Dad bowed his head and gave thanks to God—for the food, for redemption, and other stuff—a fine custom that I have discontinued. My prayers sound pompous to me (“O Thou Who didst create the growth hormones that produced this enormous bird…”), and I feel odd saying them in front of Jews, agnostics, atheists, “spiritual” people, Uncertains, Rosicrucians, ophthalmologists, and the tired old Anglicans at our table. But I also feel odd if the food is hauled into the dining room and we simply dig in and feed like jackals at the carcass of a fallen gazelle. There should be a graceful pause, a meaningful look around the table, an appropriate word or two. To that end, I had a table grace painted on the dining-room wall above the mantel. O Lord, we thank Thee for this food,For every blessing, every good.For earthly sustenance and loveBestowed on us from heaven above.Be present at our table, Lord.Be here and everywhere adored.Thy children bless and grant that weMay feast in paradise with Thee.If I printed the prayer on cards and passed them around, it would feel like a school assignment. Instead, I just look up at the wall and start singing (to the tune of the doxology), and everyone else in the family chimes in. If it sounds good, we might segue into “America the Beautiful” and “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” And toss in the hymn “Praise God From Whom All Blessings Flow,” sung to the tune of “Hernando’s Hideaway.” It isn’t a party unless you sing a few songs. Group singing is one more thing for which I am grateful. It’s civility in its purest form. If you have a few hairy-legged baritones and basses, you can launch into “Old Man River” or “On the Road to Mandalay.” Although you must all resume toting the barge and lifting the bale tomorrow, it’s inspiring to hear 15 people find harmony around the Thanksgiving table. And it sets a tone. No crying in the cranberries. Lighten up. It could, as we say, be worse.Garrison Keillor is the longtime host of public radio’s Prairie Home Companion and the author of numerous books, most recently Pilgrims: A Wobegon Romance ($17, amazon.com). He lives in St. Paul.
Coral Von Zumwalt

Just three years ago, family dinners were nearly nonexistent at the Chiles home. “The nanny fed the kids early, and we ate popcorn at the kitchen counter―late, after the kids were in bed,” Denene recalls with a shudder. The couple lived in the hectic Northeast Corridor and commuted between their home in New Jersey and jobs in New York. “We never sat down to eat together except for Sunday dinners,” she says. “This was not the family life we had envisioned when we were married.” So the two writers moved their family to a quiet town outside Atlanta and close to relatives.

Now Denene works from home, and Nick’s office is just a few blocks away. Denene shuts down her computer at 2:30 p.m. every day and spends 30 to 45 minutes prepping dinner. “That way, all I have to do is throw it in a pot after we finish after-school activities,” she says. She maps out her menu for the week over the weekend. Not only does this make life easier, she says, but “it also helps me save money at the grocery store, since I know exactly what to buy.” Denene cooks many one-pot meals, such as chili and beef-and-oxtail stew, that can be left to simmer all afternoon. Another time-saver is the grill, which she uses at least twice a week.

On Wednesday afternoons, Denene shares meal-making duties with her sister-in-law Angelou, who lives 10 minutes away. The children in the two families spend an hour learning Mandarin Chinese with a tutor at Angelou’s house. Then, at around 5:30, the two families sit down together and have a meal of fish, tacos, or a pasta dish such as pesto pasta with shrimp.

Whether they’re at a relative’s house or at home, Nick and Denene want their children to think of dinner as a time for conversation, laughter, and checking in. “Years from now, my kids can look back on our family dinners fondly, as the time they had great food and Mommy and Daddy’s full attention,” she says. “Just what we always wanted for them.