03/26/2012 04:25 EDT | Updated 05/26/2012 05:12 EDT

Carve out time in busy week to create family memories with Sunday dinner

TORONTO - The family that cooks and eats together can create memories that will last a lifetime, says the author of a new cookbook.

Lisa Caponigri has fond memories of wonderful Sunday dinners starting in her childhood.

"I was lucky enough to grow up with Sunday dinner and a strong influence of Sunday dinner from both my grandmother and my mother and then I continued that tradition with my own children. So it was always a huge part of my life," she said in an interview from South Bend, Ind.

Her three children, now 24, 22 and 18, tell her "it really meant a lot to them that Sunday was sacred, that Sunday was the day we did this and Sunday dinner was the thing that we never cancelled or reneged on."

She recalls them telling her: "'You know, Mommy, it didn't matter where we lived or the vacations you took us on or extra special things you tried to do for us. Our fondest memories are Sunday in the kitchen with you and around the Sunday dinner table.'

"When your children grow up and tell you that, that meant the world to me. It was very important to them that I took that time out of my busy schedule."

In fact, it was her daughter Felicia who inspired her to capture these memories by writing down her philosophy, menus and recipes. "Whatever Happened to Sunday Dinner? A Year of Italian Menus, with 250 Recipes That Celebrate Family" (Sterling Publishing) is being published in early April.

The cookbook consists of 52 five-course Italian menus so in a whole year you need not repeat a course or a menu.

Caponigri, 54, says the message of the book is it's important to set aside one day of the week and make Sunday dinner a family event, not a "mom-centric" activity. And if you don't have a family, create that bonding experience by cooking and eating with friends or neighbours.

"The most important thing is to schedule the time and make sure everyone's on board that Sunday ... is our time to have Sunday dinner and we're not going to let anything else interfere with it and here's how we're going to accomplish it. We're going to pick a menu, have fun, everyone's going to contribute. That's really the easiest way to get everyone involved."

No one is too old or too young to help. "I started my children in the kitchen when they were three years old," she says. "They can always stir. Everybody was always with me. You can stir, you can assemble the dessert, you can set the table."

Her 22-year-old son, who is autistic and non-verbal, stirs dishes and sets the table. He doesn't go near the stove or use a knife. "He's especially happy when he sees all the food that we're preparing. He loves that part," says Caponigri.

You don't have to be a great cook or make it a formal occasion, she says. "It has to do with being together and eating a wonderful, healthy dinner together that you've all made together. That's the memory that you build from the time that you're sharing."

She suggests choosing next Sunday's menu when you have finished dinner. Then jot down a shopping list so you can pick up what you'll need when you're out during the week.

Caponigri, who spent part of her adult life working with the fashion house Gucci in Florence, Italy, and lived there with her children, knows better than anyone how hectic life can be.

"All of us have such crazy, crazy, busy lives that you have to carve out that time and say this is really important to me. It's as important as taking someone to soccer practice or going over my work from the office that I brought home. You have to schedule Sunday dinner like you schedule everything else."

The food in the book is easy country rustic Italian cooking. "This is really authentic cooking like your grandmother would make — very few ingredients for each recipe, five, six, seven ingredients."

About 50 per cent of the book are her maternal grandmother's recipes and Caponigri has dedicated the book to her "nana," who was born in Sicily and had a huge influence over her life. "She lived to the age of 98 and she was cooking up until she was 96."

Other recipes come from her paternal grandmother, her great-grandmother and through her experience of living in Italy as a child and adult.

The hallmark of Italian cuisine is fresh ingredients without a lot of complicated sauces or dishes, she says. A few menus for special occasions like Christmas and Easter might take a little longer to prepare because of the pastries involved.

Caponigri is half Sicilian and half Neapolitan. Naples and Sicily are considered the kingdoms of cuisine in Italy, with very creative cooks from those areas, she explains. She provides insights about the origin of dishes with each menu.

Though each menu is five courses, Caponigri points out that portions are small. "The Italian lifestyle is not one of excess when it comes to food. ... A typical pasta bowl in Italy or a plate of pasta would not be any bigger than the palm and fingers of your hand."

When she's not organizing Sunday dinners, Caponigri devotes some of her time raising awareness of autism from a mother's perspective and is working on a book about transitioning into adulthood with autism.