The worst thing about dinner is that it’s relentless. Dinner time shows up every.single.evening, without fail. The best thing about dinner is that it does, indeed, come around every single evening. That means that every time I serve up a less-than-fantastic meal to my family, there are many, many more chances ahead to redeem myself.
The biggest hint that I can offer busy moms who are trying to juggle the busyness of life with little people and daily meal prep is this: SIMPLIFY. My kids remember very few of the meals that I made when they were small, but they have crystal clear recollection of the times that I was cranky and frazzled and stressed. The simpler your meals are, the less stress for you and your kids.
First, I would be lying through my teeth if I told you that the key to my success was menu planning. Menu planning is GREAT and the occasional times that involved actually coming up with a plan for a week’s worth of meals were downright awesome. But the truth is, most of the time, I never really got around to planning out menus each week. If that works for you, go for it. Planning a menu is a strategy that I haul out when things are most dire, like when I’m facing a week of visiting guests. For everyday purposes, however, meal planning never really works for me. I usually have an idea of what dinner tonight will be and if I’m really on top of things, I have a vague clue about tomorrow.
That said, here are a few principles that I regularly employed in my kitchen when my kids were younger and I urge you to consider:
1. Find the favorites: every family has a dozen or so meals that they really enjoy. Figure out which those meals are and major in them. This is not the season of life for unrealistic expectations about becoming Martha Stewart. (IS there a season for that? I submit that there is not.) If your kids love mac and cheese, don’t apologize for serving it twice a week. If you love Mexican food, bury yourselves in burritos every four days. Once you’ve brainstormed 8-12 meals that you and yours enjoy eating for dinner, look ahead at your weeks. If Wednesday night church makes dinner a little hectic, make sure you choose a simpler meal. If you’re going to be out all day, think about putting dinner in the crockpot in the morning.
Some of our family favorites over the years (the easy-to-make favorites, that is):
Chicken Pot Pie: if you use the rolled pie crusts, this is practically fast food. It’s also serious comfort food around our house.
Thai Chicken Wraps: these are so yummy and so adaptable that most kids can find something to like about them.
Pizza: so many choices.
Pasta dishes that clean out the fridge: This is a great way to use up leftovers when you have lots of little bits of stuff.
Creative Quesadillas: Seriously, what CAN’T go on a quesadilla?
Breakfast for Dinner: this was always a secret weapon on those days that were out of control on the busyness or scheduling. Egg burritos and a glass of OJ was always in the back of my head for an emergency dinner plan.
2. Take shortcuts. Some shortcuts are worth taking. When I’m in a hurry, the grocery store rotisserie chickens are a godsend. If I’m within a mile or two of Sams club, I always get my rotisserie chickens from there because those chickens are HUGE! Sometimes having bagged salads instead of needing to wash and trim all the produce for a big salad makes the difference between HAVING salad or not having it. And Pillsbury rolled pie crusts? Don’t even get me started. I NEVER need to be making a huge pie crust mess in my kitchen when I can open the box and unroll one of those bad boys.
3. Don’t be afraid of leftovers. I think that sometimes leftovers get a bad rap. If food was good the first time, it’s probably going to be better the second time. I try to find ways to use leftovers to make something slightly different the next night. For instance, after a meal involving the rotisserie chicken or a chicken and rice casserole, I often don’t have enough leftover chicken to just serve that by itself, but it’s perfect for making fried rice or a chicken and veggie stir-fry. After I’ve stripped the chicken bones of all their meat, the bones and skin go into the stock pot to simmer into stock for soup or pot pies. If you have a LOT of leftovers, package it up and freeze it. Pulling a container of rich homemade soup out of the freezer an hour before dinner feels like I have a super power.
4. Enlist the troops. Ask your kids what they love to eat. You might be surprised. Enlist their help in planning out the week with you. Put them in CHARGE of figuring out dinner based on what’s in your pantry. Find out if Dad wants to pitch in some evening or if the kids and dad want to try their hand at dinner all on their own. There’s no percentage in being a control freak in the kitchen.
ALWAYS accept help. This goes right along with enlisting your kids as resources. Kids can be amazingly capable in the kitchen, given the opportunity. Spending a little time teaching them the correct way to use the tools of cooking can pay off big time later. Cooking together can be GREAT.
5. Lather, Rinse, Repeat. Really. So what if you had Sloppy Joes on Monday. If all of you like them, you can have them again on Friday.
6. Don’t be afraid to order pizza. Most moms, myself included, have the occasional FAIL of a meal. If it’s really too bad to eat, give yourself and your family a break and just order pizza. Or eat breakfast cereal for dinner. One notable kitchen disaster at my house involved far too much pepper in a fish chowder. None of us could choke it down and I realized that sometimes it’s okay to admit defeat. That day, the black pepper won. So we ordered pizza.
Most important: find what works for YOU and your family. The shortcuts that worked for me, won’t work for the mom who has kids with serious food allergies or for the family committed to eat vegan. That’s okay. There ARE shortcuts that can keep you sane; it’s just a matter of taken a little time to think through the details.
And remember, most kids would rather have peanut butter sandwiches on a picnic blanket in the park than a seven course Better-Homes-and-Gardens picture perfect dinner. If it means that I can say no to stress, so would I.
And speaking of stress….we’re coming up on what can be THE most stressful food holiday of the entire year. If you’re relatively new to making Thanksgiving dinner for the family or even if you just need some new ideas, we have a LOT of great Thanksgiving food resources for you. If you’ve ever wondered how to make gravy or how to whip whipping cream or how to carve a turkey, we have it all! If you click on any of the planning for Thanksgiving posts, you’ll see links to lots and lots of our favorite recipes.