Life is busy and it seems like we’re all stretched too thin. Hustling between after school practices, rehearsals, clubs, and meetings is often the barrier to feeding our families and staying sane. On top of this, we’re expected to feed our kids multiple times every day!
When the week feels like an endless string of rushed, uninspired dinners, we can all use a break. I counsel many frazzled parents desperate for a dinner rescue who see drive-thru, a sodium-packed frozen meal, or a bank-breaking meal delivery program as the only solutions.
But what if the answer isn’t any of those? Articles and cookbooks abound about weekend meal-prepping, cooking meals in under 30 minutes, and reusing leftovers 10 ways. Here are tips to get a new game plan in place:
Just put out food
It doesn’t have to be fancy. The components don’t even really have to go together. Think about putting out one item from each of the five food groups. Draw yourself a grid with columns labeled Protein, Starch, Fruit, Vegetable, and Dairy, and fill in examples of each food group. Pick one thing from each column and put it on the table. For example, microwaved frozen edamame, whole grain crackers, cucumber slices, grapes, and sliced cheese. Done! These are all highly portable foods that can be packed up and eaten on the go, if necessary.
Trust kids to eat (or not)
Try to let your kids lead the way at meal time when it comes to how much they eat. Engaging in a “three more bites” tug-of-war is a losing battle for everyone. When we trust kids to listen to their hunger and satiety cues, they are empowered to self-regulate and parents can worry less about policing food intake. Consult with your pediatrician if you have any concerns about their growth.
Jot it down
Plan ahead and write it all down—sketch out a plan for the next few nights. Even if you know dinner on Tuesday is going to be purchased on the go and eaten in the car before taekwondo class, write it down on a calendar on Sunday. You’ll feel better about making a planned, conscious decision instead of feeling guilty that you opted for a last resort. There are also many user-friendly apps that make quick work of meal scheduling and planning.
Know where to find inspiration
If the checkerboard you created from first tip is played out, turn to sources of inspiration that will give you ideas, not ulcers. Asking your kids what they’d like to eat is tempting, but meal planning is a grown-up job. Ask your friends, co-workers, and neighbors what they make for their families. Turn to sources like Pinterest and Instagram for ideas, but remember these perfectly presented cooked meals aren’t the norm.
Don’t try to please everyone
The meal you provide does not need to photograph well or win awards, nor does even have to please everyone. Ellyn Satter, the godmother of family feeding, says to be considerate of your children’s preferences without catering to them. If we offer kids only what we know they’ll eat, then we deny them the opportunity to be exposed to new and different foods. With all the work involved to get a meal on the table, it’s ok to make things you love and hopefully, the rest of the family will follow suit.
Eat with everyone, even if at different times
On the days when it’s too crazy for a seated family meal, try to make sure no one is eating alone. Kids who use devices for meal time companionship often pay more attention their screens than stomachs and tend to over- or under-eat. Whenever possible, sit with each child and eat something with them. If you’re eating dinner with your spouse at a later time, eat a piece of fruit with the child who is eating now. Along with eating slower and more mindfully, having that time to connect makes the meal more satisfying and your evening more relaxing.
If we can release the pressure from the dinner dilemma, then we’ll have more energy to get those kids to their activities, help them with their homework, and generally be present with them in the moment. Dinner can be a stress-free environment for everyone—a little planning can go a long way!