Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Family Dinner

I think that most parents have that “Ah Ha!” moment when they realize that they are cooking two dinners a night: one for the kids and one for the grown-ups. It’s really not an “Ah Ha!” moment. It’s more of an “I’ve Reached Rock Bottom” moment. When you think of the progression of how our kids eat (first breast milk or formula, then baby foods, then finger foods, then table food), you can see how this happens. You start off making two dinners (because pureed peas really aren’t all that appetizing to most grown-ups) and you just keep going with that habit. And for some families, where say, one parent is home or partially home with the kids and the other parent works late, you end up feeding the kids some sort of "kid dinner" and then eating a grown-up dinner later with your spouse. And if both parents work, you end up feeding the kids something quick so that you can get bedtime started and have a grown-up meal later or rely on take-out.
I can’t quite remember when I made that rock bottom realization that I was cooking two meals (maybe when the kids were 3 and 1?), but I do recall that I made a resolution to only make one meal per night.
Here’s a study that makes a case for starting Family Dinner while your kids are still young. A new report by The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University found that compared to teens who have frequent family dinners those who have infrequent family dinners are twice as likely to use tobacco or marijuana; more than one and a half times likelier to use alcohol; and twice as likely to expect to try drugs in the future. Wow! I am lucky in that my DH and I have both been able to work our schedules so that we can all be home for dinner together about 4 or 5 nights out of 7. It also helps that the kids are still little (ages 6 and 4) so we’re not juggling weeknight football practices and/or baseball games just yet. Still between work, school, homework, gymnastics, sports class, soccer, ballet, and cub scouts, fitting in time to make a family dinner and sit down and eat it simultaneously is a challenge.
About a year and a half ago, during a silent auction for Hearts At Play, my neighbor’s charity event for Children’s Hospital Boston, I won a gift certificate to Dream Dinners in Plainville, MA. I had heard of Dream Dinners but was hesitant to try it out for several reasons. I like to cook, I did my own weekly meal preparation on Sundays, it seemed expensive, etc. But I thought I’d try it. So I selected 6 meals to make and booked a session.

Dream Dinners is a meal preparation location where you can make healthy meals for your family and store them in the freezer for the busy weeks ahead. I remember my first Dream Dinners experience vividly. I went by myself on a Friday night. I was a little nervous because I thought that everyone would be there with friends and I would be the only one solo. Not true. Dream Dinners was buzzing with busy moms (and a couple of dads), donned in aprons, efficiently assembling their meals. There was good ‘80s music playing (Dream Dinners has figured out their demographic), everything was well-organized, and a great team of helpers was there to assist me in making my recipes, even cleaning up after me. Heaven!

Here’s how it works. Let’s say you are making Grilled Mediterranean Chicken with Polenta. You go to that station and you find all of your ingredients waiting for you with the right measuring utensil right in the container.

So, if you need ½ teaspoon of Kosher salt, the ½ teaspoon is right in the salt container waiting for you. The directions are clearly laid out for you and since I usually attend on a Friday night, when I am brain-dead after the busy week, I am thankful for that.

You assemble all your ingredients into heavy-duty plastic bags or tin pans, depending on the recipe, and finish by sticking the cooking instructions right on the finished package.

The amazing thing is that you end up assembling 6 – 9 meals in just over an hour! There’s no shopping and no cleaning up. I usually spend about $150 each month at Dream Dinners. When I think about how much I spend if I want to make a new recipe from a magazine (it’s usually over $20 and the leftover ingredients go to waste), the economics make sense to me. The biggest selling point for me was the time factor. Now I don’t have to spend every Sunday cooking for hours. I can focus on making one or two family favorites, a big salad, or some interesting vegetables.
I do know some people who have tried Dream Dinners and have stopped because they found that their kids won’t eat them. To get around that, I sometimes modify the recipe for my kids. I can cut back on the spices or keep their meat or chicken plain. Most things work so that we can keep with my goal of making only one meal a night. And sometimes, especially when dinner is sandwiched (no pun intended) between Sports Class and Cub Scouts, we indulge in something that only grown-ups would want, like Salmon and Crab Pinwheels, and the kids get either a Garden Burger or Chicken Nuggets with Fries. When the going gets tough, and I have to resort to Chicken Nuggets, they key is to pick the right kind to get the best NuVal score.
Consider this. I could make your kids a “traditional” Chicken Nuggets & Fries dinner:
Tyson Regular Chicken Nuggets score a 14
Ore Ida Crispers Crispy Shaped Potatoes score an 11

Or I could trade up for better NuVal scores:
Morningstar Farms Frozen Hot & Spicy Chicken scores a 29
Cascadian Farms French Fries score a 76

An even better choice would be to swap the vegetarian chicken nugget with a veggie burger:
Garden Burgers score a 32
Boca Burgers score a 54

I guess no matter what I serve, the important thing is that we gather around the table and have a Family Dinner most nights. For me the proof that we’ve succeeded at doing the Family Dinner thing is hearing my 6 year old son ask, “How was your day at work, Mom?” Love it!


  1. My 4 year-old asks for waffles almost every night. And I give it to him. Ugh. But please don't tell the Dream Dinner people. That's embarrassing.

  2. I would love to try Dream Dinners but I like you I am hesitant because I do really like cooking. In fact it is my time of the day that is "me" time. I know that sounds weird!

  3. I'm so glad to see the veggie burger scores. I never make them myself, but I always stop at the store on the way to cook outs so I'll have something to eat since I'm not really a burger/chicken/hot dog kind of girl.

  4. I would love to find a place that has a decent amount of non-meat options, we're vegetarian and usually there's one choice (if that) that's non-meat at most of these places. A vegetarian/vegan place would be great!

  5. I tried Dream Dinners and was amazed at how organized and immaculate everything was.
    As a Grandma and part time psych nurse(had lots of training with my two daughters growing up....oh those teenage years!) it is hard to find time to do it all.
    Dream Dinners helps when I need to put something togeter quick, like on an evening when I have had Grandkid duty that day.
    I was telling the girls at work what I loved, loved , loved is they clean up after you when you prepare a meal at a station ! It really is a good concept. They also have an introductory session that is quite reasonable. It's worth trying if nothing else to get some ideas.

  6. I think it would be interesting to try Dream Dinners, unfortunately they don't have them in Vermont. I agree with Mom on the Run though, cooking is a nice "me" time.

  7. I am glad your wonderful Dream Dinners experience helps you eat around your dinner table, that really is why we created the business, to make that dinner time possible for busy families. It is the ultimate buy in bulk and save way to have a home cooked dinner and does cost less than buying the same ingredients at a grocery store. It is also very eco friendly, so much less packaging when you buy in bulk. Another way to help your kids branch out, is to take them to Dream Dinners and let them assemble some dinners. They take accountability for the dinners when they have helped. We actually have children on our tasting panels; it is amazing to see what kids will really eat. We put kids in a box when we only feed them "white foods". I hope you are in our new Dream Rewards program, you will receive gifts and other specials. You can get more dinner ideas on my blog Take care. http://stephanieallen.wordpress.com/

  8. P.S. Beth and Lisa are great Dream Dinners owners, say hi to them for me next time you are in!