Home is an invention on which no one has yet improved. —Ann Douglas

From Stephanie

It was a typical November day in the Pacific Northwest: gray and damp outside, and cozy inside. My daughter, Karlene, was home for the first time since leaving for college. We drove up to Anacortes, Washington, on Fidalgo Island, the largest of the San Juan Islands, where my parents live. Along the way we picked up Karlene’s “grammy,” my mom’s mom.

There we were, four generations together, in the kitchen making dinner. With a tea towel over my shoulder and the palms of my hands covered in flour from rolling the dough that would soon become flaky biscuits, I peered into the living room to spy Dad building a crackling fire in the fireplace.

As we gathered around the table that evening, all seemed right with the world. I was home—the safest place on earth. And I realized this feeling is what family is all about.

***

When you’re home, you want to breathe deeply, lower your shoulders, and relax. There’s a feeling of belonging, acceptance, and contentment. At least there should be. Healthy homes—homes that function as they should—refresh, recharge, and renew. They become places where children’s identities find flight and values take root.

For Stephanie Allen, her own home was none of these things. As a busy working mom of two active kids, it was all Stephanie could do to keep up with the demands of the daily schedule. Church youth group, soccer practice, and school activities meant lots of time in the car, and very little time for real interaction among family members.

Stephanie longed for the kinds of relationships she remembered with her own parents and siblings when she was growing up: relationships built on conversation and connection—often forged around the dinner table. She remembered the way her family would linger after a meal just to talk and catch up, and she wished her own family could do the same. But after a long day at work and a couple of hours shuttling kids from one activity to the next, who had time for making elaborate meals? Some days it was all she could do to keep up with everything and get a meal on the table for her family. She realized that she needed a game plan.

Stephanie started meeting with a friend once a month to assemble meals for their families. “It was a great time for us to talk and laugh,” Stephanie remembers. “And at the end of the day, we each had a month’s worth of meals in our freezers, ready to pull out when we needed them. One less thing to stress about.” Those monthly “assembly days” provided a sense of liberation from the dreaded daily chore of scrambling home after work to pull together a wholesome dinner for the family.

This practice continued for seven years, and before long, other friends were asking for tips to help them do the same. In 2002, Stephanie decided to host a “monthly meal-prep night” with a group of friends. The response was overwhelming, and it didn’t take long for Stephanie to see that she wasn’t alone in her desire to share home-cooked meals with her family. After that first night, friends started talking to friends, and e-mail requests for more events started pouring in.

“So many moms are working hard and trying to keep up, but it’s really difficult,” she says. “The bottom line is that we just want to raise great kids.” As it was turning out, the practical solution to getting a regular meal on the dinner table was helping Stephanie and her friends to do just that. “Suddenly, we were having conversations with our kids like never before. They were opening up and lingering around the table. The dinner hour was quickly becoming the hub of our home.” And Stephanie was hearing similar stories of building stronger family connections from the other women in the group, too.

Creating Comfort

Chicken noodle soup, meat loaf, fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes and gravy, bread pudding, brownies, doughnuts, apple pie. These are commonly referred to as “comfort food,” and with good reason. Most of us find great comfort in a tasty meal we’ve grown up with, a meal that doesn’t have to be explained by Gourmet or Saveur magazines.

But true comfort, the kind that heals emotional hurts and turns around bad days, involves far more than our palates. One dictionary defines the word comfort as “a feeling of relief or encouragement,” or “contented well-being.”1 A quick review of the word’s origin, though, uncovers a deeper meaning. We get the verb to comfort from the Latin com- + fortis, meaning “to make strong” (that is, like a fortress).

So to comfort literally means to make someone stronger. And that’s exactly what you do for your children. Comfort fortifies their spirits. Whenever you encourage your children with uplifting words, console them with a tender touch, relieve their sorrow with your mere presence, support them with heartfelt praise, or provide a wholesome meal and the love that’s served with it, you are helping to make your children strong.

What Would Strengthen Your Home?

If you could press a magic button to instantly strengthen your home, what would it do? We don’t mean the physical house. We mean the feeling, the chemistry, and the climate of the relationships within it. We’re talking about the spirit of your home.

Would you want it to include more laughter? Meaningful and engaging conversations? Vulnerability and respect? Mutual support? These are the things most parents mention. And if you’re like the hundreds of parents we’ve surveyed, you’re likely to sum up the desire you have for your home by saying you want it to be the safest place on earth.

The Secrets of a Healthy Home

Thriving families don’t just happen. Merely going with the flow or taking what comes is fatal to the heart of a home. Healthy and happy families are the result of deliberate intention, determination, and practice. Every family expert will tell you that a healthy home is the result of a proactive parent.

The largest study ever done on family life was conceived on Interstate 40 where it runs through the rolling hills of Oklahoma and the prairies of western Texas. That’s where University of Alabama professor Nick Stinnett was driving with his wife, Nancy, when, in the midst of their discussion on families, he determined to find out what healthy homes were doing right. Up to that point, family researchers were focused exclusively on dysfunctional and fragmenting families. Dr. Stinnett wanted to take a different approach. He wanted to know how people in healthy homes handled conflict and power struggles. He wanted to know how they communicated, and so on. In short, he wanted to know the secrets of healthy families.

That was in 1974, and his study took more than twenty-five years and involved more than fourteen thousand families who were ethnically diverse, had many kinds of religious beliefs, and came from all fifty states and twenty-four countries around the world. The one thing these families had in common was a thriving, successful, and strong family unit.

What did the world’s largest, longest, and most comprehensive study on family life teach us? First, that thriving families are not immune to trouble. They suffer financial setbacks, chronic illnesses, and all the rest. But in spite of the strain and stress of daily life, they create pleasant, positive places to live where family members can count on one another for support, love, and loyalty. They unite to meet challenges and solve problems. They pull together. They feel good about themselves as a family and have a deep sense of belonging with each other, a sense of    “we-ness.” At the same time, they encourage each person’s uniqueness and potential.

In practical terms, the study found that thriving families share six qualities. These are the “secrets” of creating the safest place on earth:

1. Commitment: Members of strong families are dedicated to promoting one another’s welfare and happiness. They prize their family and value the relationships.

2. Appreciation and Affection: Members of strong families are thankful for each other. They don’t take their special relationships with one another for granted.

3. Positive Communication: Members of strong families spend a lot of time talking freely with one another, doing their best to be understood and to understand.

4. Time Together: Members of strong families spend generous amounts of time with one another—quality time—creating memories and building bonds.

5. Spiritual Well-being: Strong families, whether they attend formal religious services or not, have a sense of a greater good that gives them strength and purpose as a unit.

6. The Ability to Cope with Stress and Crises: Members of strong families are not fragmented by tension and trouble. They use those experiences to learn and grow together.2

There you have it. Six qualities that healthy homes and thriving families all have in common. Look back over the list. Those qualities seem profoundly simple, don’t they? But that can be misleading because the fact is, understanding what makes a healthy home is not the same as building one. That requires being proactive. And in the pressure cooker of our busy daily lives, being proactive is where most of us get bogged down. When emotions are frazzled, bills are mounting, and time is in short supply, doing something proactive can be the last thing on our minds.

But what if that doing were actually easier than you imagined? What if it took less time and were simpler than you could even believe?

That’s where the hour that matters most comes in. Countless studies have shown that if parents could take only one proactive and practical step to engender family commitment, appreciation, affection, positive communication, time together, and all the rest, it would be to establish a regular dinnertime around a common table without distraction. One hour a few times a week. That’s it.

Keeping the Light On

Have you ever given your children “the blessing”? Blessing someone says that you love and accept that person unconditionally. And that’s exactly what you give your children when you tune in to their world over a family dinner or any other time. Similar to building them a campfire on a dark night, you draw them toward the warmth of genuine concern and love. And because of it, they’ll be drawn to you years down the road.

Two Ways to Keep the Lights On

Keeping the lights on when an older child is out for the evening sends a message that you care about your child, that you are waiting for him or her to return, and that your home is a welcoming and safe place. In the same way, a healthy home “leaves the lights on” by providing a safe place for the family to speak honestly and express their feelings without fear of condemnation. There are two ways a parent can keep the emotional lights on. Let’s look at them briefly.

1. Stay Cool

 Let’s say your seven-year-old blurts out a few shocking words. Or your teenager starts talking about getting a tattoo. Or your twelve-year-old tells you of a plan to stay overnight with a friend you disapprove of. Whatever your child’s shocking statement is, your job is to play it cool. Muster your inner strength, stay calm, and give yourself some time by saying something like “That’s interesting” or “Tell me more about that.” You may be cringing inside, but do your best not to show it. Giving yourself time helps to keep the situation from becoming a major argument or escalating into a shouting match.

The idea is to create a safe place—a place where your child feels free to say whatever is on his or her mind. You can probe, clarify, and explore, but the moment you pass judgment without listening is the moment your child begins to clam up. Of course, this doesn’t mean you don’t set rules and boundaries. It just means you let your child be heard before you lay down the law. It keeps tears and tantrums to a minimum and, in the process, earns your child’s respect.

2. Keep a Confidence

What happens at the dinner table stays at the table—or in the car or wherever you have heart-to-heart conversations with your children. You may think that only adults prize the confidence of others, but it holds true for kids, too. All that needs to happen is for them to hear you talking about them to a friend, saying something that may seem harmless to you but is embarrassing to your children, and you have instantly lost trustworthiness in your kids’ eyes.

Let’s say your son tells you about feeling lonely on the playground or inadequate in art class. You’re talking to your girlfriend about whatever comes to mind and you mention your son’s name. He pricks up his ears even though he’s on the other side of the room watching television. You don’t give it a second thought as you tell your girlfriend how your heart is breaking for him during school recess. Your son immediately turns off the tube, goes to his room, and closes the door. What just happened? you wonder. He might tell you at some point. Then again, he might not. He may just decide then and there not to talk to you about his feelings again. Like everyone else, he wants to know that his confessions are held in confidence. If they’re not, home doesn’t feel so safe anymore.

Did You Know?

The majority of teens in America—67 percent—want to spend more time with their parents.

More Than Just a Wholesome Meal

Without knowing it, Stephanie and her band of “sisters” had stumbled onto the power of an age-old practice that has been slowly slipping into extinction. Before trying her fix-and-freeze method, Stephanie, like so many other women in twenty-first-century families, had all but given up on having a regular family dinnertime. Darting in and out of fast-food joints between work, school plays, and soccer practices, Stephanie didn’t realize that she was forfeiting more than just a wholesome meal. However, as she began practicing the fix-and-freeze method, it dawned on her that she was beginning to gain the most treasured sixty minutes of her day.

Late one night, after a group of moms had gone, Stephanie and longtime friend Tina Kuna were up to their elbows in soapsuds. They began talking about the positive difference their little system was proving to make and wondering where it might go. After all, neither felt right turning anyone away. Yet they were getting more requests than they could handle. As it turned out, what began as an attempt to draw their own families together around the table eventually led to a partnership with each other and the founding of a business they call Dream Dinners, a fix-and-freeze company reaching more than one million families each year.

The Dream of Dream Dinners

Dream Dinners was founded with a mission of bringing families together around the dinner table. Food and families are at the heart of everything Dream Dinners does as they provide guests who visit their locations with all the ingredients they need for a great meal. Dream Dinners offers freedom from the hassles surrounding the planning and preparation of meals night after night and allows families to come together at the end of the day to eat a delicious, healthy meal. Little could Stephanie and Tina have known just how powerful that one hour around the table would be—both for their own families and for so many others.

In fact, the surprising benefits of this simple ritual are so astounding that even experts on the family are stunned by the findings of recent research. Why? Because the evidence is on the table: if you want a healthy home, a family that gives your children every advantage, and a place where lasting memories are made and feelings of comfort are a given, you can’t afford to neglect the hour that matters most.

From Stephanie

Macaroni and cheese is true comfort food. My son Mitchel loved it (from the blue box). When he was six, I taught him how to make it himself. It was the first really independent thing he could do, and he had a real sense of accomplishment when he made it by himself and ate it for lunch. Sometimes he would ask to make it for friends who were playing at our house. One of my treasured memories is secretly watching him show his friends how to “make” mac and cheese and then serve it with such pride. One year for his birthday dinner he asked if I would make mac and cheese for his party. I got out my cookbooks and created a wonderful, homemade macaroni and cheese in honor of the occasion. What a mistake! When I served it, he cried, “That’s not real mac and cheese!” We still laugh about that every time we make “not real macaroni and cheese.”

Not Real Macaroni and Cheese (serves 6)

5 cups cooked elbow macaroni (about 1 pound dry)

3 tablespoons butter

2 tablespoons flour

1 teaspoon kosher salt

2 cups 2% milk

1 cup cubed American cheese

1 cup shredded cheddar cheese

1 cup seasoned bread crumbs

Preheat oven to 325◦. Spray 9 x 13 baking dish with nonstick cooking spray. Boil pasta as directed on package. Drain. Melt butter in heavy sauté pan, and whisk in flour and salt, just until golden brown. Add pepper to taste. Add cubed American cheese, blending until melted. Add shredded cheddar, and blend until melted. Add cooked macaroni and toss to coat. Spread mixture into prepared baking dish and sprinkle top with bread crumbs. Freeze if desired. Before baking, thaw completely. Bake uncovered for 1 hour or until knife comes out clean when inserted.

Excerpted from The Hour That Matters Most by Drs. Les and Leslie Parrot with Stephanie Allen and Tina Kuna. Copyright 2011 by Les and Leslie Parrott. Used with Permission from Tyndale House Publishers. All rights reserved.

Les and Leslie Parrott, PhD's, are codirector of the Center for Relationship Development on the campus of Seattle Pacific University and the best-selling authors of the award-winning book Save Your Marriage before It Starts and many others. The Parrotts are sought-after speakers and hold an average of forty relationship seminars across North America annually. They have been featured in USA Today, the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times and on The View, The O'Reilly Factor, CNN, Good Morning America, and Oprah. Les and Leslie live in Seattle with their two sons.

Stephanie Allen is a recognized pioneer in the meal-assembly industry. She first began making fix-and-freeze meals for her own family in 1986 and gradually began developing a collection of specialized "dream dinner" recipes. When the demand to share her time-saving meal assembly solutions became overwhelming, she and longtime friend Tina Kuna hosted the first series of large-scale meal assembly sessions, which became the catalyst for opening the first Dream Dinners store. A popular speakerr and educator, Stephanie spreads her vision to make people's lives easier and restore the tradition of family dinners.

Tina Kuna, a recognized leader in the meal-assembly industry, was instrumental in creating the innovative Dream Dinners business model. A working mother of three, Kuna adopted the assemble-and-freeze method for her family in 1996. A strong advocate of families eating together, she plays a key role in bringing the Dream Dinners solution to communities across the nation. In 2006, Tina and Stephanie were awarded Ernst and Young's Entrepreneurs of the Year in the Pacific Northwest.