By: Sheila Gaudet
I grew up in a pretty traditional family in the 70’s and 80’s with a stay-at-home mom and a dad who owned a successful business. Because my dad’s work schedule was demanding and long (we owned a restaurant in a college town), my mother was responsible for running the day-to-day operations of a busy family of five. One of the major demands of that role was keeping us all fed!
My dad was definitely a “meat and potatoes” kind of guy and my mom was an excellent cook (as were her mother and grandmother). No matter what activities we kids had going on (and there were a lot) we almost always had dinner together. Even if we didn’t eat all at the same time, my mom always cooked. This was not gourmet fare…no Julia Child or anything too exotic in our house. But it was GOOD!! Dishes like spaghetti and meatballs, pot roast, beef stew, chicken and rice, goulash, pork chops, and things of that nature made up the bulk of the meals. Potatoes were present almost every night. In fact, when I left for college I don’t think I ate potatoes for four years! We grew a garden every summer and my mother canned and froze things from it that we ate all winter: corn cut off the cob, strawberry freezer jam, homemade pickles, some mixtures of tomatoes and onions and peppers. Salad came out of the garden and her greatest disappointment was when she nurtured her asparagus patch for the three years required, before you can really harvest it only to have us kids discover that fresh, tiny asparagus is actually quite yummy! New peas and potatoes were a hit each summer as well.
My mother could also bake. There were always homemade cookies in the cookie jar for after-school snacks. Chocolate chip oatmeal, gingersnaps, peanut butter, snickerdoodles and others all made regular appearances. Her specialty was probably fruit pies. Everyone in the family (except me!) loved pies made from blackberries. When they came into season, it usually meant a trip to the hot, sticky, and dusty U-pick farm where we would be charged with filling those containers up! A pie or two would come that day and the rest of the berries would be frozen until needed later.
When I had my own family, I was a full-time working mom, most of the time. A lot of my mothering experience has been as a single mom or at least as one whose husband travels a lot. One of the traditions that I carried over from my childhood was the concept of family dinner. Even in our days of very busy schedules, travel, homework, practice, and work demands, we try to eat dinner together as a family every night. Most of the time, I cook, and I’m pretty good at it. Even when I don’t cook and we order a pizza or something, we sit down together and eat. For me it is a chance to drag the teenager away from technology and hear about his day. It’s a chance for us all to share stories about the day, ask or give opinions, review schedules, listen to the silly joke my second-grader learned at school, iron out family conflicts and touch base. The food is the least of it usually, but it does help when it is easy to make, healthy, and if it squeezes a few veggies in, even better.
Over the years, several things have come to my rescue to keep meals running smoothly. First, I plan meals for the week and do a grocery trip for those items every Sunday. I may make adjustments during the week, but we have plans for seven dinners. For this, I am eternally grateful to Leanne Ely, author of the book “Saving Dinner.” She provides a years worth of menus and shopping lists that are seasonal, healthy, tasty and economical. I use her original book (which I’m now taping pages in), but she also has a menu mailer service where you can subscribe and the shopping list arrives in your email! Poof! Seriously, I have a tremendously picky eater and my entire family has found very few dishes that they don’t like. Summer dishes don’t use the oven and there’s usually at least one vegetarian dish per week. She has several special menu mailer options available to suit your family’s needs (including vegetarian and low-carb) at her website www.savingdinner.com.
The next thing that I love is my crock pot. Once or twice a week I prepare a dish while the kids are getting ready for school, throw it in my programmable slow cooker and dinner is done! The kids love these dishes and it couldn’t be easier. My slow cooker allows me to put in the temp, the time I want it to cook, and then will shift to a keep warm setting when done. You can also use a thermometer to cook meat to a certain temperature as well. Because a slow cooker makes even cheaper cuts of meat so tender they fall off of the bone, it is an economical choice as well.
During the summer, I also use the grill. By throwing some meat in a zip lock bag of marinade early in the day, it takes only a few minutes to cook at night. Add in some fresh summer veggies or a salad – and you have a meal. I tend to make a big batch of pasta salad or potato salad, or some other side, during the summer as well that covers several meals and seasonal fruits or some ice cream are a nice finish. My kids love to use those rolling balls that make ice cream as well. It only makes a few servings, but is easy and fun for kids to keep them busy while you are getting dinner together.
Eating dinner together nourishes the body by allowing us better control over what we feed ourselves and our kids, but it also nourishes the heart and soul. Some of my best memories of my childhood come from around the table. My “baby” brother’s first word (screamed from his high chair) was “EAT!!!” This is what happens when your older siblings are a couple of chatterboxes, you repeat what you hear. Who doesn’t remember their siblings laughing until milk squirted out their nose, culinary successes and occasional disasters, holidays at the children’s table, or the battle of the wills that sometimes comes from a parents desire to expand our palate and our desire to maintain the status quo. In my case this involved sitting at the table staring a plate of cold liver that I swear to this day I just could not swallow. I still don’t eat it. My son, however, likes it so my mother will make it when he’s there. There’s a reason we take pictures of our baby’s first birthday cake or first spaghetti dinner. Food usually accompanies our celebrations and brings comfort in our grief. Smell is one of our strongest triggers of emotions and for many of us the smell of a familiar dish brings back strong memories from our childhood.
For many of us trying to balance work and family demands, it can seem overwhelming to pull together a meal and get everyone to the table together at the end of a long day. The rewards are worth it though. The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University has done studies that report that 72% of teenagers report that eating dinner with their parents in very or fairly important and that those teens who have infrequent family dinners (less than three times a week) are twice as likely to say they expect to try drugs in the future and are more likely to use tobacco, marijuana, and prescription drugs (to get high). Sharing a pizza or make-your-own-tacos count in your kids eyes the same way as the nights you choose to do something more intense. What they really benefit from is the opportunity to build memories and to feel a part of a unit. One of my favorite summer recipes is below:
Mom’s Garlic Pasta Salad (makes a large bowl, better the second day!)
- 2 Cups Tricolor rotini or similar sized pasta
- Black olives (small can)
- Green olives
- 2-3 tomatoes (diced)
- 1 medium red onion or chopped scallions
- 1-2 red or green bell peppers
- 1 package of crumbled feta cheese
- 4 T lemon juice
- 4-6 cloves of garlic, minced
- 2/3 cup olive oil
- 2 t Italian seasoning (adjust to taste)
This is a no-fail recipe in that it doesn’t hurt to add or subtract ingredients to the salad depending on what you have on hand. I’m not a big radish fan, so often skip those. Cook the pasta and drain well. Add the other ingredients (except feta cheese). Add half the dressing and all the feta cheese and toss well. Add more dressing if necessary, but usually I will cover it and store it in the fridge for the next day as the pasta tends to absorb the dressing overnight.