Following a mass layoff at his manufacturing plant in late 2008, my husband found himself in nursing school, a 2-hour drive from home. Meanwhile we’d worked hard to get our young family into a dinner routine. Then we hit the summer slide. And before we knew it, he was back in school and often spending nights in a hotel. His first night away this fall I looked at my girls and I each eating cold cereal around the TV and knew I’d need to take some drastic measures if family dinner was going to survive another school year. If you have a long-distance commuter in your house, here’s what I can recommend.
1. Bring technology to the table. This may seem counter intuitive. Experts (and sane parents) agree, devices should be “parked” before anyone sits down for a family meal. But seeing dad at the table, even if it’s on the laptop screen via Skype, keeps a sense of normalcy to an otherwise upended family routine.
2. Be (reasonably) extravagant. My husband’s early morning nursing clinicals made it unsafe for him to spend the night at home (rural Minnesota deer like to greet cars that are out at 4 a.m.). But that didn’t mean we had to be apart every night. We just had to bring dinner to him now and then. One night, I sprung the kids out of daycare a couple of hours early to make the 2-hour drive up to see him for dinner. It was a modest pizza night in a small hotel room followed by some fresh air at a nearby playground. The 4-hour round trip for 2 hours with dad may sound a bit impractical, but it kept us connected.
3. Work with what you’ve got. In our small hometown, we have grandmas, grandpas, aunts, uncles, and cousins abound. Who says it has to be mom and dad at the table to make it a great family dinner? Friends can sit in too. But if you ask me, my girls are two great dates all on their own. It’s my job to turn off the TV and get them to the table. And it’s worthwhile every time. I also recommend taking advantage of the opportunity to sell your kids on a recipe you love and your spouse is less fond of. (Cue anything that involves zucchini.)
■ 3 medium zucchini (or one giant one — the cubical cornucopia strikes again)
■ 1 medium onion
■ 2 tbsp. butter
■ 1 tbs. olive oil
■ 2 tbsp. chopped fresh oregano
■ 1/4 cup milk
■ 4 eggs
■ 3/4 cup dry breadcrumbs
■ 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
■ 1/4 cup grated mozzarella
■ salt and pepper
This is a great recipe for the neglected home garden zucchini that has grown into a giant and is no longer pretty and easy to grill. Grate (with the medium holes) until you have about 6 cups. Toss in a strainer with 1 tsp. of salt and drain for at least 10 minutes.
Now use your grater on the onion. Much easier than dicing. Heat the butter and olive oil in a skillet and cook the onion until it is soft and translucent, but not brown. Just before you’re done cooking, add oregano. Remove from heat.
Use a clean towel or paper towels to squeeze more moisture out of the grated zucchini. In a large bowl, add the milk and eggs. Beat together. Add zucchini and onion, then bread crumbs, and a little salt and pepper to taste.
Pour mixture into greased 2qt. baking dish. Bake at 350 degrees for 20 minutes. Remove from oven and sprinkle with parmesan. Bake another 10 to 15 minutes, until puffed and golden.
Truth be told — this was a make-ahead dish for me. I prepped it on Sunday, stored it (unbaked) in the refrigerator until Tuesday night. Just add a few minutes to the baking time.
Alison Anderson Holland is a wife, mother, writer, choreographer, vegetarian cook, home restoration do-it-yourselfer, and breadwinner. Her blog, www.notyourchurchcookbook.com, explores life’s big questions and how to get dinner on the table by 5pm.