WASHINGTON - Aviva Goldfarb is making it her mission to have families all over the country eat dinner together.
"In my family, growing up, we ate dinner together almost every day, and I just sort of took it for granted," says Goldfarb, a Chevy Chase, Md., resident and founder and chief executive officer of The Six O'Clock Scramble.
"A lot of my favorite memories took place around our family dinner table, and I didn't realize how challenging it really was to get dinner on the table," she says.
But now the busy mother of two high school students understands the trials of getting everyone seated at the table for a meal. And she knows others struggle with the same challenge, as well.
"The hardest thing for busy parents is figuring out what to make for dinner at the end of a long day when the kids are starving, the dogs are barking, the phone's ringing," Goldfarb says. "My goal is to make it easier for them."
So she is doing just that.
In June, Goldfarb launched The Family Dinner Challenge. The project is asking 10,000 people to commit to eating dinner together as a family at least three times a week for four weeks.
To make this seemingly lofty goal easier on busy families, Goldfarb did all the grunt work.
She created an online family dinner planner that "takes the scramble out of six o'clock."
Her plans include a weekly dinner menu and a grocery list that is sent to each participant's email inbox or phone, free of charge.
"One of the really interesting things we know anecdotally -- for those of us who have dinner time with our family, with the phones off and the TV off -- is how important that time of day is, and the connections that we make … the conversations that take place," says Goldfarb, who wrote two cookbooks, "Six O'clock Scramble Cookbook" and "SOS! The Six O'clock Scramble to the Rescue Cookbook."
Studies show that eating together as a family can do more than improve family relationships.
A 2011 study published in Pediatrics shows regular family meals reduce the risk of childhood obesity. And a growing body of research shows that teens who eat with their families tend to perform better in school.
In addition to her menu plans and recipes, Goldfarb has a few tips for those who want to eat together more often. She says the most important thing to do is to plan ahead, at least for a few simple, healthy meals. If your weeks are too hectic, the weekend is a great time to do this.
"I like to mix things up, and I like to get a lot of great flavors in really simple foods and get a lot of fruits and vegetables and whole grains into our meals," Goldfarb says.
She also highly recommends making a grocery list and a meal plan before going to the store.
"That way the decisions are already made. You already have the recipes, you already have the ingredients, and so dinner time can actually happen," she says.
If you have a picky eater in the house, Goldfarb says, while it may be more difficult, eating as a family is still totally possible.
"I do think that coming together for one meal at dinner time, even if it's a slightly modified version of the same meal, is really important. I have living proof in my household that kids will catch on after a while and begin to eat it, even if it takes a while," she says.
Since the launch of the challenge, which runs through the end of September and offers prizes for contest winners, Goldfarb has heard some positive feedback from participants.
One participant sent Goldfarb an email and told her that The Family Dinner Challenge has changed her life. She said she feels Goldfarb's plans gave her the push she needed to make family dinners happen.
"Her family is having so much more fun at dinner. They're having great conversations. They're playing games together, and she feels like it has really turned things around," Goldfarb says.
To register for the free challenge, visit The Family Dinner Challenge website.
One of Goldfarb's go-to family meals is a spinach and mushroom risotto.
"It's a baked risotto and you don't have to stand over it stirring it the whole time. It's just really simple and it has parmesan cheese in it," she says.
Baked risotto with spinach and cremini mushrooms
- 2T extra virgin olive oil
- 1 yellow onion, finely chopped (about 1 cup)
- 1 1/2 cups Arborio rice
- 6 oz. baby spinach
- 24 oz. reduced-sodium chicken or vegetable broth
- 8 oz. sliced cremini or baby bella mushrooms
- 1/4 tsp. salt-free lemon pepper seasoning
- 1 cup shredded or grated Parmesan cheese, plus extra for serving
- 1T sherry, (optional but great)
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Heat the oil in a Dutch oven or large oven-proof stockpot over medium heat.
Add the onions and cook them for about 5 minutes or until they are tender. Add the rice and stir to coat it. Stir in the spinach, broth, mushrooms and lemon pepper. Bring it to a boil and simmer it for 7 minutes. (Meanwhile, start the cauliflower, if you are serving it.)
Stir in 3/4 cup cheese, and then sprinkle the remaining 1/4 cup cheese on top. Cover the pot and bake it for 25 minutes.
Remove the pot from the oven, stir in the sherry (optional), and return it to the oven for 5 more minutes, uncovered.
Serve it immediately, topped with additional Parmesan cheese, if desired.
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