Story by Kelli Milligan Stammen | Photos by Dave Liggett
There is one simple, daily question that can fill a parent’s heart with dread and anxiety unlike any other. Yes, what is for dinner?
Between long work hours for both mom and dad, scores of evening activities and homework for the kids, and the not-so-simple pace of everyday life in general, thinking about what to feed your family at dinnertime is often relegated to bursts of panic in the car on the way home from work.
And that one little question? It multiplies. Rapidly.
What’s in the pantry? What’s in the freezer? Do we have anything we can grill tonight? When’s the last time we ordered a pizza? Which restaurant has kids-eat-free tonight? The list goes on and on.
Yet with an ounce of planning, and some help in a pinch, dinner can go from a stressor to one of the most enjoyable times of the day.
It’s well-documented that gathering your family around the dinner table is important, according to Janet Cassidy, food and agricultural marketing strategist for Cassidy Consulting.
“There is a lot inherently good that happens around the table,” Cassidy said. “The act of sharing a meal is so much more than just consuming food.”
Study after study done on the topic in recent years all highlight the benefits, especially to children, when families eat together three or more times a week. A boost in positive self-esteem, school grades and healthy eating habits are all byproducts of that quality time.
One study conducted by Brigham Young University in 2008 even went so far as to conclude that sitting down to a family meal helped working moms reduce the tension and strain from long hours at the office.
It did not, however, address the tension and strain that went into getting to the “sitting down” part.
Value of planning ahead
Cassidy said one of the major hurdles families face in putting dinner on the table is preparation, plain and simple. In her line of work she helps many parents “build the muscle” needed to prepare a healthy, nutritious dinner.
It starts with the basics – stocking the pantry, refrigerator and freezer with the essentials needed to make that quick, easy meal and also building the confidence necessary to pull it off.
Cassidy said keeping shelf stable items handy will go a long way to making meals easier. A “stocked” pantry and refrigerator has pasta, rice, tortillas, meat, fresh fruits and vegetables on hand to whip up dinner on any given night.
“That’s part of ‘building the muscle,’” she said. “Get in the habit of having the ingredients on hand that enable you to cook.”
She also suggests “mastering one cooking technique,” such as roasting vegetables (see article). Once you learn how to do this, Cassidy said “you have tons of side offerings – most ready in 15 to 20 minutes.”
Dinner at your door
When gathering the right ingredients to make dinner just isn’t an option, there are alternatives to the fast food drive through or call to the local pizza joint. Planning ahead is necessary for these alternatives as well, but once you have that part down, having a healthy family dinner is easy to accomplish.
Franklin County Farm Bureau member Stephanie Eakins, owner and operator of Retro Dinner Diva in Columbus, delved into her own dinner delivery service a couple years ago.
“We’re trying to help make dinner time a little easier,” she said of her company, which delivers dinners every Sunday to customers who order monthly from the menu on her website.
“For elderly people or busy moms, it’s not easy,” she said. “I have people tell me all the time ‘You have no idea what a difference you’re making. I don’t dread coming home from work anymore.’”
Hectic schedules don’t always lead to good choices at dinner time, Eakins said. She offers comfort food made from scratch using fresh ingredients.
Eakins also hosts popular “freezer parties” at a commercial kitchen workspace in Columbus, where each attendee goes home with 10 meals.
“I do all the shopping. I pre-cut all the vegetables,” Eakins said. “We have music going and we make it fun. The group can make 240 meals in under two hours. Some people come with a friend or by themselves. We’ve had people drive from Dayton, Cincinnati and Cleveland for it.”
Private freezer parties have gained popularity in recent years. Adults will get together, chop vegetables and chunks of chicken, pork, etc. and bag them up – ready to freeze and throw in a slow cooker or in the oven for a future supper.
So sometimes it can take a village to feed a family, and that’s all right. Sometimes what’s served is as easy as macaroni and cheese with hotdogs, and that’s fine, too.
All these different ways of providing dinner have one goal in mind – bringing families together for a meal where they can share their stories and fill their bellies at the end of the day.
“Parents put too much pressure on themselves to create elaborate meals,” Cassidy said. “The real goal is to get the family sitting – and talking – around the table. When that happens, you’ve already won.”