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How to get dinner on the table? Listen to your mother.

family dinners
Busy mothers are adapting the strategies employed by their parents to feed families efficiently. (Michael Temchine for The Washington Post)
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By Stephanie Witt Sedgwick
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, August 31, 2010; 12:20 PM

Carolyn Balch's mother had to shake some sense into her.

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Balch, 49, a part-time teacher in Vienna, had been complaining about her frustrated attempts to manage the evening meal for a busy family. Dinners were one of two extremes: "I would try to do something impossible, or I'd serve noodles with cheese." The former didn't work, and the latter didn't meet her nutritional standards.

During a phone call to her mother in Florida, "she was exasperated with me," Balch said. Mom had simple, direct advice: "Cook more like I did." In other words, let go of attempts to make unfamiliar, sometimes complicated global food and return to more basic meals of grilled or roasted meats with steamed vegetables and a simple starch.

As the school year begins and busy family schedules get even busier, it's worth asking: Why do Balch and many others lose their way in the attempt to put dinner on table?

It's a matter of time, no doubt. Balch's mother, Marilyn Schmidt, was a stay-at-home mom, and her daughter works part-time. But Schmidt also didn't attempt to re-create restaurant-quality dishes. Even though she doesn't consider herself a natural cook, Balch wants interesting food for her husband and two children (she even taught herself to cook Thai food), but ambition has outstripped her skill.

Perhaps most important, she didn't develop any real strategies, unlike her mother and many others of that older generation. "I don't know why I hadn't followed her lead earlier," says Balch. Once she did, she no longer needed a pantry full of exotic ingredients or a raft of involved recipes. Following a simple plan of plain meats and vegetables, she could cook without making dinner into a production.

When she was raising four kids in Cheverly, Doris Deegan had a straightforward strategy: She made a big weekly shopping trip to stock up, and she always cooked double what she needed, producing one meal for dinner and one for the freezer. She made meatballs, chili, chicken dishes, goulashes and pastas with vegetables.

Even when her kids started getting into soccer and the evening schedule became more difficult to maintain, she made sure her family sat down to eat. "It was a struggle," said Deegan, 72, "but I came from an Italian family, and this was what we did."

In Fort Washington, when Kathy Connor's seven kids got hooked on competitive swimming, she fed them in shifts, working around their practice schedules. Connor, 71, who worked full-time, made such family favorites as hamburgers, hot dogs, Swiss steak, spaghetti and stewed chicken over and over again. And she guaranteed the kids would eat what they were served by employing a simple strategy: "I fed them when they were hungry," she said. That meant the children ate a very basic meal at 5, and she added salads and more complicated sauces for her and her husband to eat in the "parent meal" later.

Kay Barto worked as a teacher in Detroit, meaning she got home early enough to prepare dinner for her seven children. "Mom made the best spaghetti, goulash, paprikash chicken and stuffed green peppers," says son Steve, 51, a McLean-based financial adviser.

But to pull that off night in and night out, Barto, now 78, needed a plan. On Saturdays, "I sat down and planned out the menu, then I'd make a list," she says. "I did feel a little robotic, but this was my life. I had my job and my family to take care of." She also employed the cook-one-night, reheat-the-next strategy, turning beef roast into a second meal of barbecue beef and leftover pork into a quick chop suey.

A looser approach can be just as useful. When Sue Koonce, 76, of McLean raised four children in Louisiana, she didn't plan a weekly menu so much as project a list of possibilities. But she always bought enough food to get the family through the week. "I had a routine of what kinds of things we were going to eat - beans, pork and the like - but no set menu," she says.


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