I think we have all heard some of the benefits of eating dinner together as a family. In this article, Anne Fishel, a clinical professor of psychology at Harvard, affirms that it’s the most important thing we can do for our kids. Not only does it decrease the likelihood of substance abuse, depression, and suicide, but it helps build children’s vocabulary (even more than reading to them!), increases the likelihood of positive school performance, improves mood and perspectives about the future, teaches kids resilience, and of course strengthens family relationships. And the meals don’t have to be elaborate by any means to enjoy those benefits! The key? Making dinner non-stressful and enjoyable for everyone.
The first step to having that positive, relationship-building time together is, well – getting dinner on the table! And how does that happen when life is busy? Having a plan!
When we were first married I came across a show called “The Food Nanny”. In “The Food Nanny”, Liz Edmunds visits different families, identifies what is keeping them from having family dinner together, and then helps them make a plan!
The food nanny encourages people to plan dinners for 2 weeks at a time, so you only have one big shopping trip every 2 weeks. I guess I buy too many snacks (or bring too many kids haha) to fit everything I need in my shopping cart for 2 weeks, so I have found it easier to plan for 10 days. In my planning I make a list of 10 meals I want to cook in the next 10 days (I put dates on my list for a visual). But other than scheduled events that I know about ahead of time I just prepare whichever dinner sounds good to me that day or will fit in best with our schedule (crockpot dinners for when we’re going to be gone until dinnertime, easy meals if I have to run errands in the afternoon, etc.)
Another idea the Food Nanny gives is to pick a food theme for each night of the week (Italian, Mexican, Breakfast, Comfort Food, Pizza Night, etc.). We have some food allergies that limit our dinner choices so I haven’t tried meal planning that way (and sometimes I just like to eat Tex-Mex 3 days in a row 🙂 ). But it sounds like a great way to incorporate more variety and consistency in your meal planning!
To avoid having to flip through all my recipe books every 10 days, I have a list of the top 50+ recipes I like to make. This makes it easy for me to quickly pick out 10 recipes. Then after making my menu I find those 10 recipes and add needed ingredients to my grocery list. I pretty much always have to make another grocery trip or 2 in between the big shopping trips to pick up something I forgot, something they didn’t have at that particular store, or fresh produce. But at least I can plan on it being a quick trip to just grab a few things.
I also like to categorize my grocery list (dairy, produce, frozen/refrigerated, baking, canned goods, other food, non-food items, etc.) Shopping with kids can turn be a nightmare so I like for it to go as quickly as possible!
I also keep a running list of things I need to buy at the store on the side of my dry erase calendar so I can add things everyday as I notice we are running out of something. This helps me formulate my grocery list a lot quicker and decreases the chance that I’m going to forget something we need.
When I haven’t done my meal planning I feel lost! Especially as of late I am realizing the need for me to start working on dinner much earlier in the day (like right after lunch… or whenever the baby is napping). If I have a list of dinner options and all the ingredients I need, I am ready and more motivated to get started on whatever dinner preparations I can (even if it is just chopping some things)! I have been surprised at how much preparation I can do early in the day, hours before I actually have to cook the meal. If I do this I can get dinner on the table before we are all starving or tired enough for bed 🙂
Another thing that saves me ALL the time is keeping pre-cooked ground beef and pre-cooked shredded chicken in the freezer. (Put boneless skinless chicken breasts in the crockpot with 1/3 c. water and sprinkle generously with salt and pepper, or add chicken bouillon or other spices. Cook on low for 4-6 hours – watch carefully to avoid overcooking! Cooking it this way keeps the chicken moist and then it pretty much shreds itself (I hate chopping cooked chicken)! A good portion of our meals use one of those two items so I rely on that a lot!
It’s also good to have a handful of easy dinner ideas up your sleeve that you can make in 20 minutes or less, or with ingredients you always have on hand if the day doesn’t go as planned or you don’t make it to the grocery store. Some of my favorites are breakfast burritos, tacos, (canned) soup and sandwiches, or anything else simple!
Our breakfast and lunch are really simple (little or no preparation) and redundant so I love knowing that I can look forward to a good meal at dinnertime!
What are your tricks for making dinner successful? We’d love to hear your ideas!