Hip Mom Sets the Table

Jill VanTrease and family at dinner for the set the table tulsa challenge

Jill VanTrease and her family participate in the Set the Table Tulsa challenge

Ah, the family dinner. It can either be the most hallowed institution of family life, or the bane of a busy parent’s existence — or probably a bit of both! While we hardly live like Americans in the 1950s — where Dad came home after a day at the office, put his feet up with a whiskey on the rocks, and then joined the family for a casserole and canned green beans — we know instinctively that it’s important to gather together as a family at some point, somehow, during the day. How else to feel like a family and not a bunch of disjointed roommates passing through Grand Central?

And you’ve probably read the evidence about family bonding. According to Ayschia Kuykendall of Global Gardens, a local nonprofit that promotes hands-on science and peace education through gardening, dining together strengthens family bonds, improves health and well-being, promotes positive development and builds community. I have even read that it lessens the odds that children will dabble in drugs. No pressure!

Set the Table Tulsa

So, with those critical points in mind, the staff of Global Gardens launched the “Set the Table Tulsa” challenge three years ago, and are doing the Set the Table Tulsa again this year during the month of November. Partnering with Tulsa City-County Library, Whole Foods Tulsa and TulsaKids magazine, it’s a campaign that challenges Tulsans to gather as a family for dinner – or some meal – four out of seven days per week.

As a real-life mom of several children, I was enlisted to take on the Set the Table Tulsa challenge with my large-ish unruly brood — probably hoping for a train wreck and/or a bit of comedic fodder, I was happy to subject my family as sacrificial guinea pigs!

But, truthfully, dinner together has always been a priority for me. It’s how I was raised, so I’ve tried to replicate the tradition in my own family. Despite my dad’s odd hours (he is a ferry boat captain and works weird shifts), we almost always ate dinner together and shared something about our days. Of course, it was hardly an idyllic experience every night. I remember I would dread dinner all day long when I knew we were having salmon. My dad would get angry if we whined over the food, and my beloved mother still can’t cook a vegetable to save her life (luckily she lives in Seattle and won’t read this!). But we all got together almost every day. And none of us three girls do drugs, so yay! (Although as my friend Janet points out, she has thought about drugs when she looks at the dinner mess to clean up.)

So, how do I usually do it? My routine is to plan the week — or four to five meals — that are easy-ish and that involve SOMETHING (tater tots!) that everyone will eat. I squeeze in grocery shopping on the weekends with as few children as possible — or use Walmart’s fabulous online grocery pickup in a pinch.

Here’s how we fared with the Set the Table Tulsa challenge:

Day 1:

It’s Labor Day, and we are all here! PVT grills some fabulous Costco salmon, and we skip one kid’s soccer practice because it’s simply un-American to practice on Labor Day. We all sit down, say grace (we are great at saying grace several bites in), and baby Francie screams so much in her highchair that I let her sit with us. This means that she walks all over the benches and steals food and forks. Everyone slurps down their salmon (PVT’s salmon is light-years better than my mother’s), and hastily asks whether they can be excused (my required phrase for civilly departing the table). Well, our conversational skills could be improved, but hey!

Day 2:

It’s a crazy Tuesday. One kid has soccer at 6 p.m., another at 6:30 p.m., and another at 7 p.m.! (How does this get done? The Holy Spirit and a carpooling fairy.) PVT shows up right around 5:40 p.m., so we eat together for about eight minutes, but we are all there before I leave with kid #1. I have no idea what we ate. We are lucky that PVT can usually dictate his own hours.

Day 3:

We are celebrating our anniversary belatedly, and I don’t know what to cook, so we head to El Guapo, our favorite Mexican haunt. We meet right at 5 p.m., the baby throws cutlery all over the restaurant, our food is slow so I leave with one kid having half-eaten his dinner for 6 o’clock soccer practice. I also bring the baby so she stops throwing queso and screaming at everyone.

Day 4:

PVT is in New York City for one day, so he is not here. I had planned chili verde in the crockpot. It is ridiculously easy: a pork loin, green chilis, green enchilada sauce and green salsa all thrown together. The only hurdle with those crockpot dinners is that you have to remember to cook them that morning — which I do! Winning! We have an early dinner sans PVT, and then I leave for a kid’s back-to-school night at 6 p.m.

Day 5:

Friday! My dear friend Leslie (because who else invites a family of nine over?) texts us for a last-minute football watching get-together. Woo hoo! I don’t have to cook!  I supply a veggie platter, hard-boiled eggs, wine and beer. Our lovely host makes bratwurst and hot dogs.  We’re not really eating together as a family, but we’re all there milling about, so that counts, right?

Day 6:

It’s a birthday party for our Sylvie. I book the Tulsa Balloon Guy so I don’t have to entertain children or work. We order Mazzio’s pizzas and wings and have cookie cake. We’re all here, but it’s not exactly civilized.

Day 7:

Sunday we are all home! An uninspired menu of pork, tater tots (as long as there are tater tots on the planet, my children will never starve) and Texas toast.

So week one of the Set the Table Tulsa challenge. How did we do? By my tally we get five out of seven – yay! But I’m struck by how good we have it. Since I stay home, I can get meals ready in the afternoon so we can eat them whenever. And PVT’s hours can be pretty fluid. How do dual-income families or parents with inflexible hours do it? I remember when I was working and dragging myself through the door at 6 p.m. with two howling toddlers. The last thing on earth I wanted to do was cook. I usually just threw something pre-made together. What do my working homies do?

My friend Fiona relies on easy stuff: crockpot meals, pizza, taco Tuesdays. Michelle, a working mom whose kids are also very busy with football and golf, focuses more on breakfasts. She’ll make a breakfast casserole or waffles to make sure the kids have a good before-school meal.  Dinners are more of a free-for-all: she’ll have makings for salads and sandwiches, and everyone eats when they can. My friend Marlow says her family does breakfasts too. Husband Scott manages McNellie’s, so nights are tough. But Scott does eggs, bacon, breakfast burritos and breakfast from scratch. So your meal together doesn’t have to be dinner.

And we’re off again:

Day 8:

We skip soccer—yay! PVT gets home late; we have sheet-pan fajitas – a recipe from the Whole Foods website. Some kids just eat a tortilla, but who cares? Colette makes our guacamole.

Day 9:

Once again PVT gets home before three soccer practices. We squeeze in a quick dinner of weird turkey meat loaves, green beans and Rice-a-Roni.

Day 10:

Dinner before 6 p.m. soccer practice: tilapia with capers, tater tots, salad. Everyone will survive on tater tots!

Day 11:

A babysitter – woo hoo! The kids and sitter get pork out of the crockpot; they’ll survive.  PVT and I go to a fundraiser for STEM programs at the Jenks airport: it’s called Flight Night.  We get to watch a spectacular air show while quaffing adult beverages, and then enjoy dinner and an auction. Such a treat to sit and not field arguments!

Day 12:

It’s a crazy Friday: PVT and Keane are helping out with registration at Bishop Kelley’s cross country meet at ORU. Colette has a 6 p.m. soccer game. Somehow we all meet up afterwards at home and have pizza delivery.

Day 13:

Oh how I love football season and generous friends. Bryce and Noreen have us over to watch PVT’s Ducks play Nebraska. We nosh and snack and drink and the kids run amok! PVT and I have to leave for brief periods to fetch Will from his soccer game, Colette from her soccer game — but such fun!

Day 14:

Keane has a late soccer game, but we gather for ham, broccoli and MORE tater tots.

Tally: Five out of seven or so? Right?

Here are some other ideas for busy families. My friends Kim and Lauren swear by a lot of Sunday meal preparation: getting things chopped up and prepping a few freezer meals. Very efficient, although my friend Lindsay says she tried this and it made her hate and dread Sundays. Laura says she got her kids involved on the weekend: “We washed and cut up veggies, cleaned and trimmed chicken breasts and had meals ready to go so we could have a home-cooked meal together… after I worked a 9-10 hour day.” Wow!

Other ideas? Blue Apron and Home Chef type delivery services (these seem to work better with smaller families who don’t mind a bit of prep time in my unscientific opinion); meal delivery systems like Fitness Meal Systems (check them out on Facebook; they deliver healthy prepared meals to your door!).

My friend Whitney, a busy pregnant working mom, swears by Dinner’s at 6:  “I get 15 freezer meals for $165. They are a local company in Broken Arrow. I get home by 5:30 and dinner is on the table by 6 and I get to play with my kiddos for 30 minutes while it cooks because I have no prep time! I love it!” So there are options for parents who work outside the home!

Day 15:

Fortunately, I have the foresight to make a crockpot pork mess: Keane has soccer tryouts, the girls have ballet and hip hop, and Sylvie has a 6 p..m soccer game. AAAHH! We all eat together after that.

Day 16:

Well, we eat together – fish tacos, but the fish is underdone, PVT gripes that I don’t cut the cilantro in the guacamole finely enough, and the girls fight over squishing the avocados for guacamole. Gah.

Day 17:

PVT and I are supposed to go to a charity event but we cannot fathom leaving the house. Instead, we all eat together: pasta with sausage and Brussels sprouts.

Day 18:

It’s Keane’s birthday!  We all go to Yokozuna because sushi is Keane’s love language.

Days 19-20:

In a strange turn of events, I go to LAS VEGAS for two days with dear high school girlfriends. I almost don’t get on the plane; I am CRYING at the airport because I have never left the baby before and isn’t it simply my sheer willpower and presence that keeps my kids alive every day? Apparently not, because no one cares that I’m gone. Only PVT misses me, and he is understandably exhausted when I get home. (Where to eat in Vegas is a whole ‘nother article!)

Day 21:

I’m home, everyone is alive, and we all gather for stuffed peppers from Costco.

Tally: 5/7!

Day 22:

We have random leftovers and asparagus, one kid skips soccer but everyone except Colette is there; she’s at ballet.

Day 23:

The quick pre-soccer practice meal: roasted chicken with tomatoes and cannellini beans and roasted broccoli.

Day 24:

I make Taco Soup before just one 7 p.m. soccer practice; easy, but no one loves it. Ah well, at least they’re eating the cheese on top.

Day 25:

I make a perennial favorite, Korean Beef Bowl, which is essentially ground beef with Korean spices. I round it out with a Costco smorgasboard: salad, frankfurts in a roll, rice. PVT comes home late from golfing with a friend but we are all here!

Day 26:

PVT and I have a blessed date night. We’re only gone 90 minutes, but it’s just what we need! The babysitter feeds them yet another melange of Costco pre-made meals.

Day 27:

After a long, hot day on the soccer fields – and a cross country meet in Arkansas – we all sit down for dinner. I have no idea what we ate, or whether it was edible.

Day 28:

We wrap up our challenge with an easy yet sophisticated dish: chicken with carrots and kalamata olives, more broccoli (we eat a lot of broccoli!  guess that’s good!) and cheesy rice.

Tally: 5/7 yet again – woo hoo! Success.

Well, it’s not easy, this challenge. But these families of ours are worth it. And as my friend Fiona wisely notes, “I think it is the community of dinner more than the meal itself. The idea of sitting around talking and sharing our time with each other.”

Around our family table, the little girls chatter a lot more than the big girls. Silvie might tell me how her friend Riley chased her at recess and how she told him to stop. Colette shared that “Tess got sent to the principal’s office because she scratched another girl” and Margaux talked about the firemen who visited preschool.

But sometimes the conversation gets more serious, like Will brought up how all the kids are talking about clowns, and how that made him anxious. So we talked about that.

Other times, the table talk turned to more fun (and productive) subjects. A casual comment from Keane about next summer inspired us to start planning a driving vacation from San Francisco up the Oregon coast.

The sharing is what’s most important – even if you’re eating drive-thru, sit down together somewhere and enjoy your time together.

Categories: Hip Mom