Friday, December 29 2023 9:15

Food Traditions Worth Keeping (or Tossing Out)

Written by Courtney H. Diener-Stokes

Annual check-in on what to keep and what to table

January is a perfect time to reflect on the holidays, including on our family food traditions. These food rituals generally involve shared time in the kitchen and gathering around the table for a communal meal, often with extended family. There are many reasons we treasure and preserve these family traditions — they connect us with our ancestors and cultural roots, treat us to tastes of beloved recipes, and enhance our closeness with loved ones.

There’s comfort in knowing what to expect, and family food traditions help lay that groundwork by engaging our senses. An aroma can evoke childhood memories, talking about the food heightens our anticipation, and the act of creating something together enhances closeness. Plus seeing a table laden with favorite dishes elicits oohs, aahs and smiles.

While the experience of carrying on a tradition should be rewarding, we may feel tethered to one that no longer serves us well. Whatever the reason, it may be time to rethink our collection of traditions, tweak some, switch out others for new ones, or let one or two go altogether. Just make sure you check in with your family — it’s often the youngest ones who have the strongest opinions!

Family Recipes

For years, I strove to duplicate my late grandmother’s (Jean Gross, aka G-mom) almond crescent cookie recipe. I followed the handwritten steps on the worn recipe card in her special wooden box to a T. My time spent baking always felt like a connection to her, and my kids loved rolling the delicate crescents in powdered sugar. Sadly, the final product never really tasted like her airy, melt-in-your-mouth cookies that we all looked forward to devouring over the holidays.

Truth be told, my grandmother was known to add an ingredient or technique that didn’t always make it into the written recipe. So, after several pitiful attempts — all while hoping my children could experience the same memorable confection — I decided it was time to shelve that ambition and table that tradition.

Instead, I celebrate G-mom by making her decadent peanut butter eggs for Easter or her beloved scalloped potato recipe that’s a perfect side dish for Christmas. Both these recipes passed on from G-mom to my late mom, Emily, and have the added bonus that my three kids get to pitch in. For the scalloped potatoes, our youngest, Olivia, is the potato peeler; our son, Julian, the cheese shredder; and our oldest, Maxwell, the potato slicer. The prep time together always serves as a warm and wonderful opportunity to talk about their great-grandmother, keeping her memory alive and strengthening our family bonds.

The final reward is the reaction whenever I serve this dish — now one of my signatures. There’s something so gratifying about knowing you’re pleasing people with something they look forward to tasting year after year. Plus, you nourish them body and soul.

Another family food tradition is wrapped up in the eagerly anticipated asparagus quiche my mom served at her home along with mimosas for Christmas brunch before exchanging gifts. After a few years of feeling like the kids barely finished opening their gifts at our home before running out the door to Granny-Em’s house — often still in pajamas — I acknowledged the need to adjust the timing to give us more breathing room in the morning. The tweak to this tradition was worth it, since we’re now able to more fully enjoy the entire food and gift experience of being together.

Another of my tweaks on traditions is letting go of the fantasy of making my own gingerbread dough as my mom used to do. Instead, I buy boxed sets for the houses, since the kids don’t care to eat the gingery goodies. Now we focus on the experience of building the house together — that has the real value to our family.

While I do feel a twinge of guilt about this shortcut, I remind myself it’s better to invest my time in scratch cooking foods that are guaranteed to be consumed with joy. The simple time-saving measure of using a gingerbread house kit rather than baking from scratch is one of many that help ensure my sanity and good humor. Other key ingredients in family bonding.

New Traditions

A few years ago, I was struck with a combination of compassion, envy and gratitude when a friend who has two kids shared that she has no traditions to carry on from her family. So she announced plans to create new traditions for her children, including one involving a tropical getaway each Christmas, with the added benefit of experiencing exotic foods there. (Granted not a food tradition per se, but sampling Christmas dragon fruit and breadfruit could be!)

The compassion was for her feeling of immense responsibility of starting family traditions from thin air, with the hope her children would carry them on. The bit of envy came from thinking about the emotional weight and sense of responsibility my friend didn’t have as the standard bearer. Keeping family traditions alive is not for the faint of heart!

Then I had an epiphany that inspired me to reframe my thoughts about the burden of preserving traditions. I realized I took for granted the connection family traditions provide from generation to generation. I mistakenly assumed every family came with their own treasure trove worth preserving.

Instead I realized how grateful I am for the privilege of carrying on — albeit select and tweaked — our unique set of family traditions. And my bonus: starting new family food traditions I hope my children will feel are worth preserving when they’re adults. And passing them on …


Wishing you a New Year filled with savoring and passing on your own curated collection of family food traditions, creating new ones and shedding those no longer serving you well.

Read on for some of my family favorites that I’m very happy to share with you in hopes they might bring your family the same pleasure for generations to come!

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