NEW YORK -- Busy parents have busy children who have busy lives, but the one constant in most families' daily schedules is dinnertime. So, says chef Emeril Lagasse, make the most of it.
"There is an anchor to food. It's finally the end of the day, and the reward is the meal. Even when pets -- horses, dogs -- are at the end of the chore they get a treat," he says with a laugh.
After working all day (either in one of his nine restaurants or on the set of his Food Network TV show), Lagasse says it's a real treat to come home and prepare dinner for his wife and 1-year-old son. It's their time to connect -- often over a soup with teeny tiny pieces of chicken and vegetables.
"My whole big push this year -- on my TV show, too -- is I'm trying to get families together at the table. It's a great place to open up, to get to know each other, and it also stops kids from eating crap," he says.
Lagasse says he's already encouraging his son to expand his palate beyond strained peas and mashed bananas; one of his favorite breakfasts is watermelon and eggs!
"He loves hanging out in the kitchen. He's got his little pot and pretends to cook," Lagasse says, which is the beginning of important life lessons.
"It so great to see that kids are cooking, sometimes they even inspire mom and dad. Kids say, 'We can have fun, get an education -- you read and use math when you cook -- and at the end you get to eat something good.'"
He realizes it's not practical to think every family will sit down together every night, but it's a worthy goal. Of course, once there are several people at the table -- all of whom have their own tastes and opinions -- finding a crowd-pleasing meal might be a challenge, he says.
"When I was growing up, my brother didn't eat onions or bell peppers. Everything my mom cooked had bell peppers and onion. I remember her making a pot of food for the family and a smaller pot for my brother," Lagasse recalls.
"But I think if you involve the family in deciding what we're all going to eat together, it will be easier. Have a family conversation about 'What does everyone want?' Learn to compromise and how to make a family decision."
Or pick up Lagasse's new cookbook "Emeril's There's a Chef in My Family: Recipes to Get Everybody Cooking" (HarperCollins), where you'll find instructions for Scoop-It-Up Spinach Dip and Fettuccine Alfredo My Way (which means with peas).
There was a conscious effort to choose recipes that have jobs for all family members, don't take too long to prepare and can often be made in advance, Lagasse explains. Many dishes, though, feature less common ingredients, such as the plantains in the Mambo Rice Lasagna and whole artichokes.
"We all get into this comfort zone where we have five dishes that we cook well and we never diverge. Sooner or later, these dishes become 'same old, same old' and people get bored," he says. "I say explore the world: Take a hamburger, add salsa and guacamole, and have a Mexican night, or serve it with mozzarella on focaccia and you have a little bit of Italy."
It's usually not the kids who are hesitant to new flavors, he adds. "You'd be surprised what kids like to eat -- like hummus. The recipes in book came from kids' ideas. I'm amazed at what kids know about food."
The idea of serving cream sauces and burgers to children might initially throw up some red flags to parents worried about weight, but Lagasse says fast foods and snacks with chemical flavorings and preservatives are a much bigger problem when it comes to child obesity.
Children are going to snack; that's a fact, he says, so offer them a waffle, or an oatmeal cookie with raisins and walnuts, or even a few corn chips with a fresh tomato salsa. "Think about snacks, make them nutritional. ... Snacks should be satisfying so kids don't want another one in a half-hour."
Lagasse observes an irony in this over-scheduled society: "We think and plan everything but we often leave out the food plan, one of the most important things of daily life."