If there is one area in particular that seems to be a consistent struggle when I talk to women, it’s family dinner. These women range from newly married, those holding on by a thread young moms with littles clinging to their ankles, empty-nester's, and even those in the grandparent stage. I hear the same thing, "dinner time is stressful, and uninspiring," it’s just too hard to organize a homemade meal, it’s too overwhelming to figure out what to cook, too impossible to coordinate schedules, too frustrating to feed picky eaters. It is a thousand-piece puzzle that is too difficult to solve.
I was hoping to share some practical ways to de-stress this whole idea of family dinner. In what I’m going to call “Taking Family Dinner Back!” So that we can claim some new territory, and find some success. To make the time around the table, when everyone is gathered together a place of refuge. A place where the armor of the day can come off. So that those who are most precious to you can be nourished both physically, emotionally and spiritually. This small investment of time will reap a harvest of blessing. If you decide to follow a few simple guidelines, I can pretty much guarantee that you will start to think about dinner differently.
Instead of thinking about dinner as one more task to check off your endless to-do list, you will begin to feel a sense of accomplishment. No more anxiety filled 5-o'clock melt-downs, instead you will think of it as a form of therapy. Instead of the resenting the relentlessness of it, you might even come to cherish dinner’s role as your family’s North Star. And also, you and your children will eat incredibly well.
So where do we start?
1. A calendar
2. A strategy
3. A well-considered batch of recipes
4. A commitment to making dinner happen
First of all, remember the season you are in: if you have littles, catching up on the day’s events or having conversation starters that take the family meal to those deep and profound places, is most likely not reality. But even though you can’t see light at the end of the tunnel because this ritual seems like it’s for other families in the universe. Don’t lose hope, it will change as they begin to grow.
Most likely this will not be all sunshine and rainbows to forever change the landscape of the dinner table. Success may be relative in the kid department. You probably won’t be making Mario Batali’s Beef Cheek Ravioli anytime soon. But a good motto to have somewhere in the kitchen is “Dinner does not need to be a command performance.” The goal is to have healthy, wholesome, sane, enjoyable, messy, family dinners. Getting dinner on the table and creating a sustainable routine is what we are shooting for here.
7 STEPS TO TAKING BACK FAMILY DINNER!
STEP 1: COMMIT
Unless you desire to make some changes in the dinner routine you will have to make a commitment. Family dinner requires front-end planning plus some back-end chopping, mincing and assembling. Once you realize that it’s going to be a little work, and once you embrace that work, you will be in a much better place to stick to it and see the fruit of this determined choice.
Once you decide to commit to taking family dinner back you need to take a small chunk of time each week to organize yourself. I recommend doing this on the weekend, either a Saturday or Sunday when you will most likely have chunks of time to complete the shopping and prepping of some ingredients for the week ahead. Before the craziness of the week sets in. this in itself will take an untold amount of stress off your plate. Trust me.
You will need time to plan and a time to shop. Look at your schedule to see what works best for your family to do the shopping. Shopping for the week if you have a busy schedule is probably what you need to shoot for here.
STEP 2: ANNOUNCE
You will have to let your family know what you’re committed to doing, so that they are in on it. You don’t want to blind side them. Be enthusiastic, passionate. Try to mention words like adventure and prizes (if you’re not opposed to bribery) remember this is survival. Also, kids can sniff out fear like bloodhounds. Be confident, talk with authority. You just might be able to convince yourself in the process.
STEP 3: GATHER YOUR RECIPES
This is the fun part! Sift through recipes from dog-eared cookbooks, bookmarked websites, even recipes gathered from friends. You’ll want to start with twenty easy recipes (this will get you through a whole month of cooking five days a week with the weekends as your cooking day’s off) that will be your Weeknight Meals. Remember the end game is to get dinner on the table. And by choosing recipes that a simple. You’ll be able to get dinner on the table more efficiently and not end up with a pile of dirty dishes so that you’ll be motivated to do it again the next night. The goal is sustainable routines, a pleasant tableside experience. Success!
For me I will set aside some time, grab a stack of my favorite cookbooks and flag things that look good. I even have my husband pick a cookbook and flag things that look good to him. This could also work with school age kids as well. Have them go through a cookbook, using different colored flags. If they flag it, maybe they could have some responsibility for that meal. Even if it’s something as small as gathering the ingredients, measuring or prepping. Try the new dishes especially if they seem a little daunting on the weekend when you might have a little more time to prepare the meal.
STEP 4: MAKE A MEAL PLAN
Now that you have your recipes in place, get the family together. Everyone must be present. Bring calendars, smart phones, and be ready for action. Look at the collective schedules for the coming week and decide which nights would be best for which recipes. Based on the recipes chosen for the week, write out a shopping list. Doing this will also in the long run eliminate a lot of food waste.
Step 5: Shop
This can be carried out by either spouse or even tag team for more efficiency. If you have littles and are a stay-at-home mom doing a run to the farm stand is a fun outing. Some places even have a pick-your-own fruit and vegetable opportunities that can help picky eaters become more open to new foods. But always remember the goal: Get dinner on the table! So don’t get complicated.
STEP 6: UNPACK AND PREP FOR THE WEEK
After returning from your Weekly Shop. This unpacking is another form of organizing. And if done each time you do your weekly shopping there will be less chances of things going bad and ending up with food waste.
The next important thing to ask yourself is “What can I do right now to get ahead for the week?” Take a look at the dinner line-up for the week and search for those make-ahead notes at the ends of recipes. Look for highlighted tasks that can be done in advance.
Make a vinaigrette
Roast and shred a chicken
Make a batch of whole grains (quinoa, barley, rice)
Blanch broccoli, green beans so you can easily toss them into a stir fry or salad
Wash greens and herbs
If you chip away at the front-end work little by little, you’ll see that dinner can become a source of pleasure not pain.
Get in the practice of asking yourself “what can I do right now to make my weeknight dinners easier?”
STEP 7: THINK ABOUT DINNER BEFORE BREAKFAST
While you are getting ready for the day, look at your schedule and see what’s on the line-up for dinner. Is there anything you can prep before you go to work if you haven’t done it already. You can chop and onion, even set a pot of water on the stove for pasta. It’s incredibly satisfying to walk in the kitchen and just turn the burner on. Marinate some meat, take something out of the freezer. One small task that I find takes some additional stress out of the dinner equation is assembling all of your ingredients on the counter. This in some ways might give you the idea that you have some semblance of control over your life. It’s important to keep in mind what you are doing here. You are training yourself to think like a food planner. And if you chip away at the prep here and there, little by little, instead of starting from zero every night, if you come up with a plan to stick to, the whole idea of family dinner will start to feel a little less overwhelming. It’s even possible you might even be psyched to do it all again tomorrow.
Hopefully by organizing, planning and prepping for dinner with these seven steps, will alleviate some of the dread that has been associated with dinner. The hardest part of dinner is planning. The think-work is behind you. Now with a few things prepped ahead of time, there isn’t that “what-to-make” frustration that can crush the strongest among us at the end of a long day. Now all that has to be done is to close the deal. Cook the meal. Gather everyone together. And eat, together.
So why are we doing this again? To break out of the dinner rut. To avoid the self-loathing of having no idea of what to make for dinner. To have the family dinner become a place of nourishing traditions the will reap delicious dividends for many years to come. ~Shannon