by Elizabeth Foss
One of the most tragic casualties of the fast-paced nineties lifestyle is family dinner time. When I was growing up, family meals were a constant I could set my clock by. Every evening at six we all sat down, ate a real, home-cooked meal and shared events of the day. Those dinners are actually my strongest association with “home."
Today, dinner is often rushed, ordered in or carried out, and eaten by individuals apart from the whole family as they go from one activity to another. It doesn’t have to be that way.
When scheduling activities of various family members, try to find a common hour to have dinner together. The meal may have to be served earlier or later than a traditional time, but a late afternoon snack or something light before bed (depending on when dinner is served) should keep everyone happy while facilitating time together as a family. Before allowing children to take on several outside commitments, consider whether the sacrifice of family time will be beneficial.
Freeze Now; Feast Later
Practically speaking, I have found a couple of ways to put a home cooked meal on the table every night. The first requires about twenty minutes of preparation time after the initial investment. Debbie Brock, the mother of seven children in Oregon who introduced me to this method calls it a modern day miracle of loaves and fishes. Jill Bond, the Florida mother who has written a book about it calls it Dinner’s in the Freezer!
Simply put, it is a method of cooking and freezing multiples of the same meal in order to save both preparation time and grocery money. Bond’s method suggests a family cooking weekend once every two, four, or six months, where everyone peels, chops, and mixes in order to freeze meals for months. Marsha Jacobeen, the mother of five boys and a baby girl, froze ninety meals one weekend last August. She didn’t have to cook again until Christmas!
While I was skeptical about the real benefits it would provide, I did decide to adapt the system to my own needs. Seven months pregnant with my third child when I wanted to start, a weekend of cooking sounded utterly exhausting. Also, I knew we couldn’t plunk down six months worth of food money at once, despite the fact that there are significant savings when food is purchased in bulk. Instead, for four weeks, I chose three meals per week that I would multiply by five. I froze four and we ate one. By the end of the month there are forty-eight meals in the freezer----twelve different entrees. For four years, we ate from the freezer every night but once a week. On that night, I would cook five of one meal to replenish my stock.
This system is a study in wise stewardship of both time and money. It would be enormous benefit in times of illness or unexpected unemployment. It is priceless when a new baby arrives. I can only imagine the benefit it would be to the single mother. Instead of rushing to cook or ordering out when the body and soul both are crying out for replenishment and respite, this is one way to meet those very basic needs. The most hectic time of day can be transformed into a relaxed, enjoyable chance to focus on family.
The system served me well, but after four years, it had become boring and burdensome. Despite the convenience of cooking many meals at once, I was still solely responsible for planning and executing all those menus. And those recipes that were family favorites four years ago are more than a little worn now. Cooking for a busy family every night requires commitment, organization, time, energy, and not a little bit of grace. I was starting to feel that no matter how organized I was, I couldn’t possibly get a decent meal to the table night after night for the next eighteen years. That’s when a friend suggested, with no apology whatsoever to Mrs. Clinton, that it takes a village to cook a dinner.. Not a government program village, but a good old-fashioned, one-neighbor-helping-another village.
The Village Approach
At the suggestion of my friend Maureen, who always smiles peacefully when we grumble about meal preparation, my friends Alice, Barbara, and I decided to try a cooking co-op. Maureen has been cooking this way with her neighbors for years. With her guidance, the three of us got organized and now each of us cooks for the others’ families once a week.
The purpose of the co-op is to simplify planning, shopping, and preparing home-cooked meals for our families. It is not a gourmet supper club. While it is certainly nice to have treat now and then (we love Alice’s eggrolls and can hardly wait for Barbara’s blueberry pie) the requirement is a solid well-rounded meal. Also, if a new recipe is a bit of a disaster, it is sent and eaten anyway. This isn’t restaurant takeout; it’s family fare.
Every co-op group will be different. We have found that a group of three families is a good size for us. Maureen’s co-op originally had four families. One has dropped out of the regular rotation but is happy to be a substitute at vacation time.
At first, we had logistics to work out. Alice has six children, three of them teenagers (and two of them over six feet tall). Barbara has four children but one is an infant and the others are quite small. My family falls somewhere in between the two. We agreed to cook enough for Alice’s family when we brought meals to her and that, in turn, she would cook enough for her family when she brings meals to us. Barbara and I can count on leftovers the following day.
Because I rarely cook meat and have a vast repertoire of vegetarian recipes, I cook on Fridays. My family is thrilled with this arrangement because now they get meat twice a week. I eat the side dishes that accompany the meat. The other families are pleased because their meatless Fridays have expanded way beyond macaroni and cheese and tuna sandwiches.
The menus are varied, much more so than they ever could be if only one cook were in charge. We each bring different strengths to the table. I think the variety has been good nutritionally and socially. A varied diet is a healthy one and my children are learning to eat someone else’s cooking in the privacy of our own home, where we can make sure they are polite about it.
Each co-op group decides on delivery methods and times. Some groups deliver early in the day with a meal that is oven or stove ready. Other groups deliver ready-to-eat meals at dinnertime. More than once, we have traded off in the church parking lot at daily Mass. Any last minute assembly or cooking instructions are written out by the contributor and included with the meals.
Because the meals are delivered fresh the day they are to be eaten, we are not limited to casseroles or even to foods which freeze well. We plan menus for two months at a time, so we can adjust for seasons and schedules. Recently, we also discovered that it was simple to deliver three meals to a sick friend. We each just cooked for one additional family on our co-op night and added that family to our delivery route.
We have also found that shopping is greatly simplified because we shop for large quantities of a few items and not average quantities of many items. Because the planning has been done for the bulk of the week, it is simple to fill in menus for the days that aren’t co-op days and have a well-written, carefully considered list to take to the store. This saves time and money. No more impulse buying. No more calling for pizza at six o’clock. After the third week of shopping for the co-op, the grocery clerk at the store where I shop asked me about the contents of my cart. By the time I left, she was planning which of her friends to approach about the idea!
This system is so adaptable that it really can be undertaken by anyone: singles, retired couples, small families, large families, and two income families. Barbara’s mother was so impressed when she came to help after the baby was born, that she is considering it. My friend Denise, who lives in Wilmington, NC, has recently started a co-op there. Her former co-op (in Richmond, VA) was so successful that 45 different groups of three had formed. They have quarterly meetings at the church social hall, where they swap menus. It would be even more fun if those meetings were tasting opportunities. This sounds like the new millennium version of quilting bees and barn raisings! Denise says that when they moved, it was her husband who told everybody he met in their new church about it until they had a new co-op.
Some groups have each member provide a certain set of pots and containers at the outset. The list might look like this:
7x7 Pyrex baking pan
8x8 Pyrex baking pan
4 cup Tupperware container
10 cup Tupperware container
Because both Pyrex and Tupperware offer several colors, each family chooses a color and there is no question to whom the pan belongs. After the first menu planning meeting, it might be decided that Jane Brown will cook on Mondays, Mary Smith on Wednesdays, and Julie Jones on Fridays. Mrs. Brown will leave that first meeting with two sets of dishes and Mrs. Smith with one. This begins the rotation of dishes. Mrs. Brown will bring all the dishes (except those containing Mrs. Jones’ dinner) to Mrs. Smith’s house on Monday when she delivers dinner and Mrs. Smith will bring them all to Mrs. Jones on Friday.
I t does help to have families with similar food preferences. If you were to advertise in the church bulletin (which is what Denise did), you would divide the group of interested cooks according to food preferences and nutritional concerns. Do they like meat and potatoes or do they want to emphasize vegetables? Are there special dietary concerns such as allergies or fat content?
The size of participating families is not as important because an equitable arrangement like the one we agreed upon can be decided. Our group was very tentative originally and only committed for the first month. By the time we were two thirds of the way through the first week, everyone—toddlers, teenagers, moms and dads—was sold on the idea.
We have worked out kinks peculiar to our group: no onions unless they are cooked well, no green peppers in the salad, no seafood but tuna, no artificial, colors, flavors or preservatives. We also accept the fact that sometimes someone will have to eat something they don’t like. That’s not only acceptable, it’s good training for real life. Most importantly, we are all well fed and a little less stressed.
Both systems have benefits that far exceed my expectations and I have combined the best of both of them. On days that aren’t co-op days, I make something quick and seasonal like stir fry or I pull a meal from the freezer. Every once in a while, I plan a modified mega-cooking day to replenish my freezer stock. But those days are fewer and not nearly as intense as they were when we relied on the freezer meals all the time.
Now, when my children want to play outside all afternoon, I play too. I am able to relax and enjoy them rather than worrying about getting a decent meal on the table. If the baby wants to be held and nursed during that “arsenic hour” familiar to all mothers, that’s what we do. Either my cooking is completed or someone’s coming with dinner. Finally, there is a much-simplified clean up. It all computes to a relaxed family meal.
Sample menus for one month: [I would arrange these in a calendar style chart.]
spicy green beans
Pasta with sun dried tomato and basil sauce
Spaghetti and meatballs
Turkey patties stuffed with cheese
sautéed carrots and cabbage
Rice and bean burritos
Pasta with olives and capers
Soft taco kit including, tortillas, lettuce, cheese, tomatoes, salsa, refried beans, meat, and Spanish rice
Chicken in wine sauce
Recipes for the first week:
½ cup plus 1 tablespoon low sodium soy sauce
6 tablespoons hoisin sauce or sweet bean paste
6 tablespoons rice wine or dry sherry
3 tablespoons sugar
9 large garlic cloves, minced
1-2 teaspoons crushed red pepper flakes
1 ½ tablespoons vegetable oil
6 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
Combine all marinade ingredients in a sturdy zippered plastic bag. Add the chicken breasts. Refrigerate overnight. Remove chicken from marinade and grill or broil. If baking the chicken, bake in the marinade.
Basmati rice: simply cook according to package directions. This is really good with the marinade ladled over it. Just be sure to heat the marinade to boiling before using it as a sauce.
Spicy green beans:
These are addictive!
2 tablespoons toasted sesame oil
2 pounds fresh green beans, trimmed
8 cloves garlic, minced
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
Heat oil in wok or heavy deep skillet over high heat. Add green beans (all at once to avoid splatters). Stir fry for at least 10 minutes until beans are well-seared (Black!) and tender. Add garlic and salt (and optional pepper). Stir fry for a few more minutes until garlic mellows but does not burn. Serve hot, warm, or at room temperature.
2 pounds high quality stew beef
3 tablespoons flour
1 teaspoon salt
enough oil to brown meat
1 clove garlic, minced
¼ cup chopped onions
1 packet Knorr’s oxtail soup mix mixed with 3 cups water
1 cup water
1 Knorr beef bouillon cube
hot pepper sauce to taste
2 cups carrots, sliced
4 medium potatoes, peeled, sliced
12 pearl onions, peeled
Combine flour and salt in a plastic bag, add meat cubes a few at a time and shake to coat. Brown meat in hot oil with chopped onion and garlic. Dissolve bouillon n 1 cup water. Pour over meat. Add oxtail soup and a few dashes hot pepper sauce. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat, cover, and simmer 2 ½ hours. Parboil vegetables in salted water. Strain and add to stew and cook an additional 15 minutes.
Pasta with Sun dried tomato and basil sauce:
2 ½ cups tightly packed basil
4 large garlic cloves
6 sun dried tomatoes, soaked in boiling water until tender
½ cup walnuts
2 oz cream cheese
8 ounces Romano cheese, grated
1 pound linguine or fettuccine
Puree the first five ingredients in food processor. Package in a zippered plastic bag. Deliver with one pound of pasta and grated cheese (bagged separately). When preparing, recipient boils the pasta and drains, reserving cooking water. Using cooking water to dilute the sauce to a desired consistency and toss with a liberal amount of cheese.
3 ½ cups whole wheat pastry flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 ½ teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 teaspoon nutmeg
2 cups sugar
1 cup oil
2/3 cup water
2 cups canned pumpkin
Sift dry ingredients together.
Mix pumpkin, water, oil and eggs together. Pour into dry ingredients and mix well.
Pour into two greased and floured 9x5x3-inch loaf pans. Bake in 350 oven for 1 hour and 15 minutes or until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean.