As school starts and routines resume, families across America will struggle to get it all done. Homework, soccer, band practice. For most people, something’s gotta give. And that something, all too often, is family dinner.
Today, families eat dinner together only two-thirds as often as they did 20 years ago. But as Leave it to Beaver taught us, the table is where families reconnect, where values are transmitted and problems are shared. Kids who eat with their families are less likely to do drugs and alcohol. And more likely to do well in school.
Our friends over at The Six O’Clock Scramble have been helping busy families get dinner on the table for 10 years. To celebrate, their Family Dinner Challenge urges families to eat together at least three times a week for four weeks.
Scramble members across the country graciously agreed to talk with AFR about the food that goes on their tables, how they make time for dinner and why it matters. In interviews from Maine to Oregon, we found that while dinner may not look like it did at the Cleavers (which may be a good thing), families are working hard to stay connected over meals and to preserve old food traditions while creating new ones. Beans are no longer heresy in a Texas chili. It’s as easy to get bagels in Portland as it is in Brooklyn. And who knew that some kids don’t like Tater Tot hotdish?
Over the next four weeks, we’ll bring you snapshots of family mealtime in our series Dinnertime in America. Offered in partnership with The Six O’Clock Scramble’s Family Dinner Challenge, stories will run Wednesdays and Fridays through September. Twitter #Dinnertime in America, Pinterest: Dinnertime in America
We start in Colorado, where the Schellhous family shares their mile-high picnics of hummus and homemade jerky.
For the Schellhous family of Denver, dinner is a cross between “Leave it to Beaver” and “The Sound of Music.”
“In the summer we’ll take things up in the mountains,” says 32-year-old Beth Schellhous, a stay-at-home mom of three kids, ages 3, 5 and 6. “A lot of the trails have tables. You hang out and look at the city lights from where you are.”
During the winter, Beth’s husband Reid, 31, works long hours as an accountant. Dinnertime might find him on the phone or computer, Beth says, with Beth managing the squirming and poking while continually repeating “eat your peas, eat your peas.” But once tax season’s over and the clocks turn back, the mountains become their dinner table. Three or four nights a week, they hit the trails with portable suppers such as hummus and vegetables, beef jerky and dehydrated apples, all of it homemade. Beth might also do ribs or quinoa dishes in the slow cooker and throw them into a Tupperware container for the hike. She likes to pair healthy food with healthy conversation.
“When you’re out in nature, you get questions you don’t get in the house,” Beth says. “‘What’s the shortest mountain?’ ‘What’s the tallest one?’ ‘Why don’t we drive there?’” A quick search on the smartphone rewards the kids’ curiosity.
Denver falls on the green side of the Rocky Mountains, making it lush and sunny much of the year. It’s a city of Subarus and bike racks that give way to ski racks in the winter. Local produce is abundant, and residents pride themselves on eating and living healthfully. Beth is originally from Dallas. Reid is from Boston. But they have embraced the Denver lifestyle, both of them doing triathalons and eating local as much as possible.
Beth and Reid both grew up having family dinner every night. But like many busy couples, they struggle to make it happen in their own family. Beth uses The Six O’Clock Scramble, a meal-planning program, to jumpstart her weekly menu. She signed up for The Scramble’s Family Dinner Challenge to help her become more deliberate in her efforts.
“Before it would be someone’s on the phone or someone’s on the computer, and I’d have dinner for the kids, but I wouldn’t make the effort to sit down,” she says. “We decided to change that, that this time was sacred family time.”
The Schellhous’ table in the city might feature spaghetti squash with marinara sauce and a side of grilled chicken, cucumbers, snap peas and tomatoes from their generous neighbor’s garden, and lots of local cantaloupe, peaches and other produce. The family only eats whole grains, Beth says, and she grinds her own flour – something she says many of her neighbors also do.
“I buy regular hard winter wheat,” she says, adding that she’s even gotten it at Costco on occasion. She borrows a grinder from a friend and grinds a big bucket to keep in the freezer. Items such as quinoa, brown rice and whole-wheat flour have a big place on store shelves in Denver, Beth says, even at WalMart. This comes in handy for the family’s weekly Friday pizza-and-movie night, when Beth sometimes makes a whole-wheat or cauliflower crust. (Don’t worry, she also occasionally orders pizza. She really is human.)
Beth says she’s worked hard to move on from the steady diet of ribs and tacos that she says she ate growing up in Dallas. But when you’re from Texas, that kind of sacrifice can only go so far.
“When I’m not being healthy, I go for Mexican,” she says. “Because I guess I just can’t not have it. There’s just something about a crunchy chip and spicy salsa that hits the spot.”
Friday, Dinnertime in America visits the Corwin family in Grand Haven, Mich.
This is one of Beth Schellhous' easy weeknight dinners. She likes to serve it with broccoli and homemade whole wheat bread. Sometimes, though, it's frozen broccoli and whatever bread happens to be in the house.
- 1 large spaghetti squash
- 1 teaspoon olive oil
- 1/2 teaspoon garlic salt
- 1 jar of your marinara sauce (homemade or store bought)
Preheat oven to 350 F.
Cut spaghetti squash lengthwise. Scoop out seeds. Place facedown in a 9-by-13-inch glass baking dish that has been greased with oil or vegetable spray.
Fill baking dish with water up to an inch. Add garlic salt. Bake for an hour.
Remove and let cool. When it is cool enough to hold, use a fork to "shred" the squash to make "noodles.". Strain excess liquid. Serve topped with marinara, like regular spaghetti.
Beth Schellhous usually cooks the squash ahead of time, so that prep is easy at dinnertime. It does not need to be eaten right away and saves quite well.
This recipe has been adapted from the Eat. Drink. Smile. blog. Toppings need to be precooked if you want them soft, since you are only broiling for a few minutes.
- 1 cup cooked, "riced" cauliflower (from 1 large head)
- 1 large egg, beaten
- 1 cup shredded mozzarella cheese
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano
- 1/2 teaspoon crushed garlic
- 1/2 teaspooon garlic salt
- Olive oil (optional)
- Canned crushed tomatoes for sauce
- 1 teaspoon garlic powder
- 3 tablespoons chopped fresh basil (you can use dried, but it's better fresh)
- 2 tablespoons crumbled feta cheese
- 1 cup shredded mozzarella cheese
- Handful of spinach
- 3 Roma tomatoes sliced
- 1/2 orange pepper julienned
- 1/2 yellow pepper julienned
- 20 turkey pepperoni
To "rice" the cauliflower, remove stems and leaves and chop the florets into chunks. Add to food processor and pulse until it looks like grain. Do not over pulse or you will puree it. (If you don't have a food processor, or dry ingredient blender attachment, you can grate the whole head with a cheese grater).
Place the riced cauliflower into a microwave safe bowl and microwave for 8 minutes (some microwaves are more powerful than others, so you may need to reduce this cooking time). There is no need to add water, as the natural moisture in the cauliflower is enough to cook itself.
One large head makes about 3 cups of riced cauliflower. The remainder can be used to make additional pizza crusts immediately, or can be stored in the refrigerator for up to a week.
Preheat oven to 450 F. Spray a cookie sheet with non-stick cooking spray.
In a medium bowl, stir together 1 cup cauliflower, egg and mozzarella. Add oregano, crushed garlic and garlic salt and stir. Transfer to the cookie sheet and, using your hands, pat out into a 9-inch round. Optional: Brush olive oil over top of mixture to help with browning.
Bake at for 15 minutes.
Remove from oven.
To the crust, add sauce, toppings and cheese. You can put a little cheese first, add spinach, then peppers and tomatoes, then pepperoni and top with remaining mozzarella and feta. Place under a broiler at high heat just until cheese is melted, 3 to 4 minutes.