Author Archive | Robin Shreeves


One historic town knows how
to make the season sparkle



Haddonfield can seem downright Dickensian at times, particularly on December nights when luminarias line the sidewalks and a horse and buggy chauffeur visitors around town. From Thanksgiving weekend until New Year’s Eve, Haddonfield revels in the holiday spirit with a charm that attracts throngs of shoppers, diners and families.

“Haddonfield is a destination during the holidays,” says Julie Beddingfield, owner of the independent Inkwood Books in Haddonfield. “It’s festive and a throwback.”

Most of the merriment happens downtown, along Kings Highway, but it spills into the alleyways, side streets and along Haddon Avenue for several blocks. Visitors can take advantage of free parking during the season—or take the Patco train, which drops riders right in the center of things—and then take a leisurely stroll through town.

Christmas carolers gather in Kings Court

This quaint Camden County town dates back to 1662, when Quakers settled here. Named for landowner John Haddon, a wealthy London businessman who never set foot in the town, Haddonfield was officially founded in 1713. The New Jersey legislature met in the Indian King Tavern during the Revolutionary War; the tavern still exists and is now a museum. The first mostly complete skeleton of a dinosaur found in North America was uncovered in town and is commemorated with a sculpture on Kings Highway. Visiting Haddonfield for its history and shopping district is a treat any time of year, but it’s even more fun during the holidays.

The season kicks off the day after Thanksgiving. While the malls and big-box stores are claustrophobic, with shoppers fighting over TVs and gaming consoles, shoppers in Haddonfield find fresh air and unusual gifts at boutiques, galleries, jewelers and culinary shops. They walk among trees wrapped in twinkling lights, past singers strolling the streets, and through a downtown that feels like a magical village.

“The weekend after Thanksgiving has grown into Small Business Weekend,” says Remi Fortunato, retail recruiter for the Partnership for Haddonfield. It’s an extension of American Express’s annual Small Business Saturday, which encourages seasonal shoppers to spend some of their holiday budgets at independent and small businesses.

“Haddonfield emphasizes ‘shop small’ throughout the whole holiday season,” Fortunato says. It’s the quintessential small-business district.

Candlelight Shopping nights begin in 2016 on Friday, November 25 from 6 to 9pm. Luminarias line the walkways, stores stay open a little later and the borough’s holiday tree at Library Point will be lit at 6:30pm. This is also when Santa arrives on a fire truck as part of the parade. Horse-drawn carriage rides and musical performances up and down Kings Highway make the start of the holidays in Haddonfield complete.

Traditional holiday treats are easy to find at a variety of shops in Haddonfield

After candlelight shopping, take a leisurely ride in a horse and buggy around town.

Candlelight Shopping happens each Friday night between Thanksgiving and Christmas. This year there are five Friday nights, giving visitors an extra night in the magical village. There are also two late shopping nights this year—Monday, December 19, and Thursday, December 22—when many shops will stay open until midnight. Any night is perfect to dine in Haddonfield, but several local restaurants create an especially festive atmosphere this time of year.

“Downtown is really charming, especially at holiday time,” says Edward Strojan, a partner in Haddonfield’s British Chip Shop restaurant, which celebrates the culinary traditions of the British Isles.

“There are many shops to find really good gifts that you can’t fi nd in the mall. It’s a good place to come with families or friends to eat and bring a bottle of wine. “

The British Chip Shop does the holidays up right, with prix-fixe Dickens Christmas Roasts every weekend in December. Traditional dishes, including roast beef and stuffed pork loin, are served with accompaniments like Yorkshire pudding. Diners are encouraged to bring their own wine or beer.

If you want traditional British desserts and pastries, this is where you’ll find them. The British Chip Shop makes treats to order— Christmas puddings, mince pies, gingerbread men and women, Christmas scones and traditional fruitcakes that you’ll want to eat, not use as a door-stopper.

“We start our fruitcakes in October,” says Strojan. “Dried fruit sits in brandy and macerates before being used in the cakes. The cakes get washes of simple syrup and more brandy. By the time they are ready to go, they are dense and moist—really good.”

Another event you won’t find anywhere else is an airing of the Doctor Who Christmas Special. Fans gather at the British Chip Shop on Christmas Day to watch the TV show while feasting on specials like deviled alien eggs and Dalek cakes based on the wildly popular BBC series.

Pineapples are a symbol of hospitality, and Haddonfield’s welcoming
spirit is evident, even in the town’s holiday décor.

“Haddonfield emphasizes ‘shop small’ throughout
the whole holiday season,” Fortunato says.
It’s the quintessential small-business district.

A shop window decked for the season with a nutcracker.

For traditional American sweets, Sweet T’s Bakeshop in King’s Court is the place to go for all things pumpkin—including pie, cheesecake, scones and pumpkin-maple cupcakes.

During “25 Days of Christmas,” Sweet T’s bakers get creative, with a different cupcake every day. Buddy the Elf, Rudolph and Santa’s Belly are just a few of the holiday-themed toppers. They also serve peppermint lattes and flavored coffees.

“Haddonfield is a dry town with many BYO restaurants,” says Fortunato. “Some of them sell bottles of wine from New Jersey wineries. Jersey Java has Auburn Road wines, Tre Familia has Sharrott, and Zaffron Mediterranean Cuisine has Hawk Haven. Anyone can buy a bottle of wine from these places and take it home or to another restaurant.”

In the Kitchen Cooking School offers gifts and a full cooking-class schedule. “We have non-stop classes for the holidays,” says owner chef Kathy Gold. “For Thanksgiving, we offer timing classes for the meal, a class that focuses just on sides, a vegan/vegetarian class, and a class that teaches the whole shebang.”

In the Kitchen’s holiday classes start the first week in November. Booking ahead is recommended.

“Every class is a party,” Gold adds. “People can bring their own alcohol, but we wait to drink it until the cooking is done. Pairing knives and booze is not a good idea.”

One of Gold’s most popular classes is the Cookie Exchange. “We do two Cookie Exchange classes that are open to 20 people,” says Gold. “We bake 12 different kinds of cookies.” Participants leave with a tin full of homemade holiday cookies and go home to a clean kitchen.

At dusk, holiday lights create magic on Kings Highway.

For specialty culinary gifts and spices for holiday cooking, baking and drink making, Hannah’s Gourmet has it covered. The store sells more than 300 spices, including salts and peppers, and carries the difficult-to-find ground mace that’s used in many old-world recipes. “We also make our own mulling spice blend,” says owner Monika Harris. The blend smells just like Christmas and can be used in red wine, apple cider or cranberry juice.

A short, luminaria-lit stroll down from the spice store is A Taste of … Read More

Continue Reading ·


One local distillery turns
castoffs into signature spirits

A glass of the Single Run Series Whiskey made from St. Ben’s INCA;


Interesting things are happening with New Jersey’s locally produced spirits, beers and wines at Cooper River Distillers. Owner James Yoakum and his small crew of distillers in Camden are working with regional breweries and wineries to distill one-of-a-kind single batch whiskies and locally produced brandy—saving beer and wine that might otherwise go to waste.

Yoakum calls it “salvaging.”

Turning Beer into Whiskey

Craft breweries pride themselves on producing excellent beers that reflect a certain style and taste profile. When a batch of beer is off somehow—maybe it doesn’t have the intended balance of flavors or aroma—the brewer isn’t willing to put it out there with the brewery’s name on it. Often, that beer gets dumped down the drain in accordance with local laws. At that point, all the resources that went into that beer—ingredients, water, time and effort—go down the drain with it.

But there is a clever and creative way to avoid that kind of waste. Cooper River Distillers comes to the rescue and saves the beer by distilling it, aging it in barrels and creating a batch of Single Run Whiskey.

“The idea to distill beer into whiskey is a pretty obvious one,” says Yoakum. “The actual packaging up of these products and selling them is a bit rarer maybe, mostly because they require a lot of customer education if you really want people to understand what they’re drinking or tasting.”

Fortunately, the distillers at Cooper River like talking to their customers—and teaching people that “their whiskey was distilled from ready-to-drink beer” is more fun than work for them.

The first Single Run Whiskey batch came about because Tim Patton, from Saint Benjamin’s Brewing Company in Philadelphia’s Kensington neighborhood, knew that Yoakum liked experimenting. When Patton had some beer he needed to get rid of, he offered it up as Cooper River’s inaugural salvage experiment.

“When we first opened, we used equipment that we cobbled together,” says Patton. “We ended up scorching some of our beer and the flavors weren’t really what we intended.” The brew had a distinctly charred quality that Patton didn’t like.

The first scorched beer Patton donated was Liaison Saison, a beer with a lavender finish that had been aged for 79 days with applewood chips. The experimenting began, and Patton wondered if Yoakum could get those less-than-pleasant burnt and smoky smells to go away or mellow.

He suspected such a transformation was likely. “A major flaw in a beer could be good in whiskey,” says Patton. In the end, the Liaison Saison whiskey was appealing enough to be bottled and sold. That batch yielded only 17 bottles of the whiskey, which Patton says was a polarizing spirit: People loved it or hated it.

“I really liked that whiskey,” says Patton. “I thought a lot of nice notes from the Liaison came through, including the lavender. It made the whiskey more akin to a barrel-aged gin than what we would call whiskey.”

Whiskey that tastes like gin is unusual, a real curiosity, and that’s just what Yoakum was going for.

“If we can turn the beer into something tasty, we can turn it into something interesting,” he says. So far, the distillery has released seven different whiskeys in its Single Run Series. These very small, limited release whiskeys have become sought-after spirits, ranging from $45 to $70. The first six batches sold out fast.

“By maximizing the value
of the ingredients, it’s like
making art from found
objects. There’s a higher
value in taking the beer
and distilling it.”

Chief Distiller James Yoakum

These experiments are a big commitment for Cooper River Distillers and its sole still. To distill a batch of the Single Run Series, they have to take a couple of days off from distilling their regular products, like Petty’s Island Rum and Cooper River Rye Whiskey. If a salvage project doesn’t turn out well, that time and labor are lost—and these unloved liquids don’t always become something you’d want to drink.

“We have had to dump a couple batches that didn’t turn out the way we hoped,” says Yoakum, “but for the most part, we’ve gotten stuff we’ve been proud of.”

Another brewery that has handed off beer to be distilled into whiskey is Flying Fish. When a distributor found eight kegs of Flying Fish’s F.U. Sandy buried in a warehouse, the beer made its way to Cooper River Distillers. “The beer was about a year old and way past its sell-by date. When distilled, the hop character came through so clearly,” says Gene Muller, founder of Flying Fish in Somerdale. “It’s interesting to take something that could have been waste and distill it, blurring the edges between beer and whiskey.”

The beer was aged for five months in a used 17-gallon whiskey barrel that yielded 97 bottles. The finished whiskey was flavorful, complex and uplifting. In a full-circle collaboration, the distillery gave the whiskey barrel that aged the beer back to Flying Fish. The brewery is now aging Farmhouse Summer Ale in it.

Muller likes the upcycling effect of the collaboration. “By maximizing the value of the ingredients, it’s like making art from found objects,” he says. “There’s a higher value in taking the beer and distilling it. If it hadn’t been distilled, it would have been mixed with animal feed, which is just one step above putting it landfills.”

Distilled liquid being collected in a bucket.
Once the distilled liquid ages it will become whiskey

Three different varieties of the Single Run Series Whiskey
made from three different types of beer (l to r)—
St. Ben’s Transcontinental, Flying Fish F.U. Sandy and St. Ben’s INCA.

Turning Wine into Brandy

When a winery deems a batch of wine unsellable to consumers, there are two common solutions: Sell it to a vinegar plant or to a distillery for brandy. It cannot legally be dumped down the drain in New Jersey, because the acidity in the wine can make a mess of the pH and the biologics in the sewer system, potentially killing off beneficial bacteria.

When Unionville Vineyards in Ringoes found atypical aging (ATA) in an already bottled pinot grigio, winemaker Cameron Stark was faced with deciding what to do with it. ATA is a problem in bottled white wine because it ages the wine so quickly that by the time it’s ready to be sold, it’s undrinkable.

“Distillers are much happier to get small batches of wine than the vinegar companies,” says Stark. He decided to donate roughly 300 cases of bottled New Jersey pinot grigio to Cooper River Distillers.

“We had to manually open each bottle and pour it into a vat. It was a very sad day,” says Stark. The bottles, corks and cardboard were recycled. The wine made a trip to Camden and the distillers got to work making brandy and deciding how to age it. In the end, Yoakum and his crew chose to age it in three of their barrels: a used Rye Oak Reserve Rum barrel; a used One-Year Anniversary barrel; and an unused barrel.

The brandy will age … Read More

Continue Reading ·


At the Grange, an agricultural
organization reinvents itself


Photograph: Glenn Race

When the Grange was founded,
90 percent of Americans
were farmers. Today, only
2 percent are.

On a Saturday morning this past June, the members of the Cologne Community Grange No. 191 in Atlantic County gathered in their hall, one of 18 remaining Grange buildings in the state. They were meeting for the last time until fall; their 1954 building has no air conditioning. President Albert Schollenberger welcomed the half-dozen or so members sitting around the table and brought the meeting to order. The June meeting was to be an informal one. For the benefit of a guest, however, President Schollenberger led members through the formal ritual of a traditional Grange meeting—a ritual that dates back to the National Grange’s inception in 1867. The club’s chaplain led the members in a prayer followed by “God Bless America.” Everyone recited the Grange’s principles— placing faith in God, nurturing hope, dispensing charity and being noted for fidelity—before saluting the American flag. Next came the roll call, reading of minutes and other business items done in a particular order. “Ritual is something that is fading from much of our culture,” says Schollenberger, “but in the Grange, it’s still an important part of our organization.”

At this particular meeting, members observed a memorial service, an annual ritual that honors those of the order who have been called home. The chaplain gave a reading, the members recited the Lord’s Prayer, and Schollenberger and his wife May lit a candle in a tribute to a member who had died the previous year. As well as carrying out the Grange’s traditional rituals, members of the Cologne chapter and many of the other 37 remaining chapters in the Garden State devote themselves to community service.

“Wherever we can help out in the community, we do,” says Schollenberger. Members of the chapter work with a local church to knit quilts and hats for preemies in developing nations. They partner with the American Legion to help with various services and memorials for veterans. Their comforting ministry assists people when they are ill and helps fill churches at funerals. They are active at the 4-H fair, collect eyeglasses and canned goods, and help maintain the grounds at a cemetery. Overall, Cologne’s September 2012 report showed that in the previous 12 months, its 38 members had given 7,398 volunteer hours to the community.

They’re also politically active in a very practical way. When a community Grange chapter sees something they would like changed on a national level, they write a resolution. The resolution gets sent up the chain of command till it makes its way to the National Grange, and sometimes it makes its way to Washington, D.C. As just one example, members of the Cologne Grange wrote a resolution to rid hand sanitizers of flavorings after learning that children were becoming ill from ingesting the product. Members of the Cologne Grange look for needs in their community and do what they can to meet them. They do a lot of impressive work, and considering that many of the chapter’s members are retirement age or older, it’s even more impressive. Their oldest member, Chris Gaupp, who helps to maintain the grounds at the cemetery, is 101 years old.


Community service and political activism are just two components of an organization that has helped form the social fabric of our nation’s agricultural communities for nearly 150 years.

The Grange, or more precisely the National Grange of the Order of Patrons of Husbandry, was initally formed in an effort to help reunite the country after the Civil War, on an emotional as well as a practical level. One of the missions of the fraternal organization was to repair the damage done to America’s agricultural and manufacturing industries, but it eventually became known mainly as an agricultural organization. It was started as a Christian organization by people associated with the Masons, and its guidelines mention the Bible, but the Grange is open to people of all religions and doesn’t discriminate based on nationality, race, age, profession or education. It has always been open to men, women and youth.

In fact, women have been in leadership roles since the Grange’s inception. When Oliver Hudson Kelley, founder of the Grange, consulted with his wife’s niece Caroline Hall about the “secret society of agriculturists” he was looking to begin, she suggested that women be given full membership in the organization. Kelley adopted that idea and Hall is recognized as one of the Grange’s co-founders.

As for the secretness of the Grange, David H. Howard comments in People, Pride and Progress: 125 Years of the Grange in America, that “the label of ‘secret organization’ is exaggerated; nothing within the Grange is secret according to the negative meaning of that term.” He says that attendance in meetings is restricted to members of record, but membership is not difficult to attain. And an “annual password and a unique Grange handshake” are simply leftovers of the days before there were membership cards.

In New Jersey, as in the rest of the country, the early Grange served to organize farmers throughout the state at a time when they had little power in Washington. When the Grange began, less than 10 percent of the representatives in Congress were farmers, and agricultural interests were poorly represented. Nationally, the Grange helped to bring about changes in agricultural policy in Congress, championed agricultural education in public schools and colleges, fought for improved transportation routes to facilitate shipping, and even helped establish minimum wage laws. Locally, the Grange was a social meeting place for many where town meetings, potluck dinners, weddings and dances took place in addition to agricultural education and activities.

When the Grange was founded, 90 percent of Americans were farmers. Today, only 2 percent are. As farmland dwindled, the agricultural focus of the Grange became less universally relevant. At the same time, the nation saw widespread cultural changes—for example, interest in organized family activities was growing. Schollenberger believes that as organized sports became more prevalent, people had less time to give to the Grange. In the last few decades of the twentieth century, Grange membership declined. The Grange soon realized it needed to change if it was going to stay relevant.



John Benedik, president of the New Jersey State Grange, which oversees the community Granges and works with the state legislature, believes that the older age range of many of the Grange members throughout the state could be a roadblock in attracting new members, but he says it doesn’t need to be.

“We are looking for new members,” says Benedik. His home chapter, County No. 3, meets in the Stanton Grange Hall in Hunterdon County. Like the Cologne Grange, the Stanton Grange is focused on community service. Benedik is a fourth-generation Grange member and has been one all his life. He has seen membership in most of the state’s Granges wane since the 1980s. “We’ve had trouble getting people involved,” he says. “It’s harder to attract members with people so involved with school and sports activities.”

This problem isn’t unique to New Jersey. The … Read More

Continue Reading ·


From the farmers’ market to Haddon Avenue,
the little town of Collingswood has
emerged as a culinary destination

Clockwise from top left: Casona’s Paella (their signature dish) with scallops, clams, mussels,shrimp, chorizo, chicken, calamari, green peas; DiBartolo Bakery; fresh produce at the farmers’ market; Chef Mark Smith of Tortilla Press with grilled NJ asparagus with cotija garlic chili butter bread crumbs; Tortilla Press; seasonal greens

Collingswood Farmers’ Market


Two Saturdays in particular are my favorites at the Collingswood Farmers’ Market. The first is opening day. The second is the day the corn arrives—usually right around the fourth of July, give or take a week. I can’t wait to get the fresh-picked ears home and give them to my boys to shuck for dinner. All the rest of the summer, my family happily feasts on corn dripping in butter and sprinkled with salt.

The Collingswood Farmers’ Market is the centerpiece of the food scene in the small town of Collingswood in Camden County. For 13 seasons, the market has drawn people to town to buy from local producers. It’s won many local awards, as well as the 2009 American Farmland Trust contest for America’s Favorite Farmers Market in the “small” category. On any given Saturday from May to November, you’ll find me, and hundreds of others, strolling from vendor to vendor, buying the freshest foods we can get our hands on. I may hit DanLynn Farms for organic zucchini and squash, head over to Wm. Schober Sons to buy just-picked apples, grab a jar of local wildflower honey from Mind Your Own, visit several of the produce stands to find ingredients for fresh salsa, and end up at the Springdale Farms table to grab a half-dozen applecider donuts to take home to my family.

The Collingswood Farmers’ Market is only one part of the town’s food scene, though. Fine-dining restaurants manifest the fresh- and local-food vibe that diners travel from all over New Jersey and from Philadelphia to find.

First colonized by Quakers in the 1700s, the settlement now called Collingswood was primarily a farming community until the 20th century, when the arrival of mass transit and the automobile created easier access to and from Philadelphia, just a few miles away across the Cooper River. As Collingswood became a suburban town, its farms, like many farms throughout Camden County, faded away.

Sagami (above, left); Bistro di Marino (above, right)


“People come to Collingswood restaurants
for one reason only. That’s the food.
If you’re not serving creative, fresh, decent food,
you have no chance of surviving in this town.”
—Chef Mark Smith, The Tortilla Press

Today, however, the enthusiastic support of the farmers’ market has resulted in a renewed appreciation of the town’s agrarian roots and the farms, both old and new, in the surrounding area. Collingswood’s wide streets, graced with appealing architecture, boast many food shops and restaurants that celebrate fresh ingredients from nearby farms.

Collingswood is dry; it’s one of the New Jersey towns where the liquor laws have yet to catch up with the end of Prohibition. All the restaurants in town are BYOB, and that forces a focus on food. “People come to Collingswood restaurants for one reason only,” says chef Mark Smith of The Tortilla Press. “That’s the food. If you’re not serving creative, fresh, decent food, you have no chance of surviving in this town.” He opened his restaurant in 2002 when there was only one other full-service dining establishment in town, Villa Barone. Now there are about 25, many on the same street: Haddon Avenue. I can’t pick just one favorite restaurant in Collingswood, but The Tortilla Press is definitely one I return to time and time again for the creative, fresh food that Chef Mark is talking about. When fresh pumpkin is in season, he serves a pumpkin, goat cheese and black bean quesadilla that is delicious.

Collingswood’s restaurants are as supportive of the local farmers and producers as the town’s residents are. Every July, many of the restaurants come together to hold Farm Fresh Collingswood Restaurant Week (check for details), a sustainable take on the traditional restaurant week. The chefs shop the farmers’ market and the local agricultural region during the height of the growing season. Then they create fixed-price, multi-course menus using the best fresh, local ingredients.

One of the restaurants that participates in this week is IndeBlue Indian Cuisine. The restaurant is off the beaten Haddon Avenue path, on Collingswood’s west side.


“There are great restaurants that aren’t on Haddon Avenue,” says Leah Porvasnik, a server at IndeBlue. Because they’re in a different part of town, “they may have availability on a busy night that other restaurants don’t.”

They also have free parking. Diners who choose IndeBlue or the nationally recognized Zeppoli will find parking less difficult than on crowded Haddon Avenue. The two-year-old Zeppoli has already earned two James Beard Award semifinalist nominations and was named one of Bon Appetit’s Best New Restaurants in 2012.

Even the Food Network recognizes Collingswood’s excellent food culture. In 2008 Bobby Flay went head to head with The Pop Shop in a grilled-cheese battle on “Throwdown! with Bobby Flay.” More recently, Food Network personality Kerry Vincent gave DiBartolo Bakery a facelift for a yet-to-air show. Mike DiBartolo said the Food Network gave his 23-year-old shop a “modern look” that has garnered new attention for a bakery that’s famous for its Italian rum cake.

Diners also come to Collingswood for the opportunity to eat their way around the world. Italian restaurants, each one better than the last, abound. My husband will point anyone who asks to Bistro Di Marino for their gnocchi and the comfortable, relaxing atmosphere. If someone wants Indian, they head to IndeBlue, Indiya or Clay Oven Palace for authentic experiences. Sushi? There are at least four places to get rolls, including Sagami, which has been around since 1974. Fresh seafood is found at Joe Pesce, Cuban food at Casona, and Franco-Italian at Blackbird.

It can take years to eat your way through all the first-class dining establishments in Collingswood’s two square miles, and you won’t even begin to touch on all the great places that serve pizza, hoagies, baked goods, crab cakes to go, coffee and much more.

I have yet to get through them all myself, so look for me from time to time, eating in Collingswood.

Collingswood Farmers’ Market Now into its second decade, this popular market showcases many regional food vendors and farmers, including Flaim Farms of Vineland and Springdale Farms of Cherry Hill. Saturdays from 8 a.m. to 12 p.m.., from May through November. Between Collings & Irvin Aves, along PATCO



Bistro di Marino | 429 Haddon Ave. | 856.858.1700

Collingswood native James Marino serves Italian food in his restaurant, which has a lovely courtyard out back. Bistro To Go, next door, has ready-to-go meals.

Blackbird | 714 Haddon Ave. | 856.854.3444

Franco-Italian cuisine with hints of Asian infl uence is chef Alex Capasso’s specialty.

Casona | 563 Haddon Ave. | 856.854.5555

Chef Pedro Reyes cooks traditional Cuban and nouveau Latin cuisine at this little Havana in the heart of Collingswood.

Clay Oven Palace | … Read More

Continue Reading ·


Magical things happen around the family dinner table.
And it’s not just about food.


Do you want a closer relationship with your children? Would you like to instill a sense of resiliency in them so when hard times come, they’ll know they have what it takes to endure it and come out on top? Would you like your children to have a larger vocabulary? Better grades? Balanced meals? A sense of family history? Less of a chance of developing eating disorders?

Are you overwhelmed yet? How is it possible to achieve all of that? Don’t panic. The answer may be found in two words—family dinner. Families, traditional and nontraditional, are discovering that the time-honored ritual of family dinner is worth keeping, or in some cases, taking back. The renewed interest in our country on healthy, local foods and growing your own food is contributing to the revival of family dinner, and family dinner is contributing to a revival of connected families who communicate face-to-face. Seizing opportunities to take an hour or two out of fast-paced lives to gather around the table and connect though good food and good conversation offers benefits on many levels. Jacquelynn Lott of Pitman credits the time she and her husband spent at the table with their son Aaron, now a freshman in college, with teaching the teenager to slow down and focus on the relationships that are important to him.

“It’s not just about the food—it’s about connecting as a family,” Lott says. In the age of text messages, online chat, and other electronic communication, she values the time she spends around the dinner table with her family.

Just how valuable is the time that the Lotts have spent together? Recent studies suggest that eating together regularly may be one of the most important things families can do. The benefits of frequent table time are impressive. A 2012 report* by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University found that teens who sit down to family dinners five to seven times a week are more likely to report having excellent relationships with their parents. Ninety-two percent of the teens who had frequent dinners with their families said their parents knew a “great deal or a fair amount of what’s really going on in their lives.”

What other benefits are there to family dinners?

  • Teens who don’t participate in frequent family dinner are three and a half times more likely to abuse prescription or illegal drugs than those who do.
  • Dangerous eating habits like anorexia or diet-pill abuse are less likely in girls who eat five or more meals a week with their families.
  • Younger children develop vocabulary and dialog skills more quickly when they have frequent family dinners because they hear and learn from the conversations between adults and older children.
  • Resiliency and pride can be learned around the dinner table. When family stories are discussed, children have the opportunity to learn about family members who survived difficult times and how they did it.
  • Students who earn grades of C or lower are more likely not to share regular family meals.
  • Children who eat with their families on a frequent basis are more likely to eat healthy and balanced meals because those meals have been well planned.

“Eating together,” says Laurie David, author of The Family Dinner (Grand Central Life & Style, 2010), “influences everything.” David, the mother of two teenage daughters, sees family dinner as a ritual that has had an enormous impact on her family. She is passionate about educating others on the benefits of family dinner. One of those benefits is connecting with where food comes from. The more local the food is, the better.

“Everyone should grow something,” says David. Even if it’s just a pot of herbs on the windowsill, growing food helps to connect those eating it with where it comes from. “It’s the beginning,” she says, “of having respect for food.

“A lot of people have no idea what fresh tastes like. Growing food yourself gives you a better palate and an education on what food should taste like.” David believes that when children are served a steady diet of meals made from fresh food, whether it comes from a family’s garden or the farmers’ market, they’ll start to crave food that tastes the way it naturally tastes.

Tomatoes are a good example of a food that people will appreciate when they learn what fresh tastes like, believes David. “People complain about how tasteless tomatoes are. They’re grown in Florida, which is a bad place to grow tomatoes, and ripened with chemicals during shipping.” Those of us here in the Garden State who wouldn’t dream of making a BLT made with anything but a fresh, seasonal Jersey tomato can certainly relate to that example.

David has a few tips for successful family dinners:

  • Cook for the family, not for the kids. Everyone must try a bite of everything on the table. It shows respect for the cook and it also helps to forestall picky eaters. It sometimes takes being introduced to a food 10 to 12 times to develop an appreciation for it. “Be a little pushy,” David says, “and kids are going to expand their palates.”
  • Make foods that are easily repurposed. David is a fan of Sunday cooking. Making big portions of foods on Sundays that can easily be turned into something else on a busy weeknight is helpful. Her favorite thing to keep in the pantry is Ezekiel 4:9 Sprouted Grain Tortillas, which can be filled with just about anything left over in the fridge for a quick meal. She also keeps lots of hummus, avocados and cooked quinoa in the refrigerator to fill the tortilla shells. After adding the odds and ends of leftover fresh produce, she has a quick, healthy dinner that allows her family time to sit down, eat and connect.
  • Serve water as the beverage with meals. David says a great gift you can give your kids for the rest of their lives is the craving for water with meals.
  • Get a little help with conversation. Keep a list of topics to discuss or, for inspiration, sign up to have the FamilyDinnerTableTalk from Huffington Post emailed to you each Friday. This weekly conversation starter takes a timely news item and provides questions for family discussion surrounding the news.
  • Leave the technology in another room. Cell phones, MP3 players, televisions, video games and other electronic devices take away from connecting. Institute a “no technology at the table” rule and stick to it.

If family dinner isn’t something you do regularly, start small. It doesn’t have to be an every-night proposition. Try dinner together one or two nights a week at first. If there’s no time for dinner because of busy schedules, find time for breakfast or lunch. It’s the time spent around the table connecting over food that’s important, not the hour of the day when it happens.

Jacquelynn Lott has one last piece of advice: If you have a Friday night pizza (or subs, or Chinese takeout) ritual, stick with it. It gives the cook a break and your family still gets to have a blast connecting around … Read More

Continue Reading ·