If you are anything like me, finding the time ( and energy…and motivation…) to cook dinner after a day at the office is a challenge! A hard days work surely includes those hard working parents at home too!
I grew up in a home where dinner was served at the table every night with each family member gathered around. I can distinctly remember the smell of garlic and sautéed onions while my mother was cooking and watching #Oprah for most of my childhood. It wasn’t extravagant, there were no white linens or candles, but our plates were full of delicious homecooked food. Thanks mom!
Most nights when my husband and I plop down next to each other on the couch with plates on our laps after our little ones have been fed, bathed and put to bed, I feel dinner-guilt. I desperately want our children to have the same experience of a family dinner that I had but it has been so difficult getting there. With the challenge of replicating those same family dinner time routines, we have found some ways to make the process a little bit easier.
1. Grocery shop for bulk items and basics all at once.
Having sauces, pastas, canned products and other staples that last a while stocked in the pantry makes the weekly shopping process much easier. I, for one, love getting these things delivered all at once from online grocery vendors. Going to the store to pick-up fresh meats and produce is much less daunting than filling up a huge cart of good. If some nights all you have in the house is a box of pasta, a can of sauce and some frozen peas, that will do! It might not be the most nutritious every night, but to be able to gather as a family for a meal means a lot.
2. Meal Prep.
Mark off time to clean and chop up whatever you can over the weekend or at night so that you can easily toss together your recipes when the time comes. I find this one hard, but the times I have been able to plan ahead and physically prepare has always saved me a headache.
3. Buy Prepared Products.
This is the more expensive route for sure. Peeled garlic, pre-chopped brussel sprouts, washed boxed salad, spaghetti squash already “spaghettited”, pre-marinated pre-cut meats…. it is all available for a higher price tag. Though, sometimes that extra charge is worth taking the hassle out of your weekly cooking process, if you have the means. It doesn’t have to be every night, or every week, but when in need – it might be the best option to make meal time more manageable.
4. Eat Leftovers.
Planning for four to five dinners a week is a whole lot easier than planning for seven! When organizing your meal plans for the week, ensure one or two meals will have enough servings for leftovers. Save yourself a night or two of cooking!
5. Freeze it.
At least once a month (if not more!) find a recipe that is great for freezing, like chili. Make a batch to serve fresh and keep the extra in the freezer for another time. Having back-up, delicious meals, helps relieve the pressure every week. When in a pinch – you’ve got lasagna!
6. Use less ingredients.
It seems obvious, but the less you have to worry about buying, preparing, and cooking, the easier the job gets. Try a few meals a week that are super simple – marinated chicken on the grill with a side of asparagus or grilled broccoli. Steak and oven roasted brussels sprouts. Done.
7. Try an app.
Cook Smarts, Pepperplate, ZipList, Plan to Eat, and Paprika are all great apps aimed at making mealtime easier – from organizing shopping lists, to menu planning, to storing your favorite recipes and much more. You can find a great rundown of each app here.
8. Share the Burden.
If it is possible to share the responsibility of cooking with your partner, do it! Providing food for the family is a hard job and if you have the manpower to divide and conquer, great! Find a system that works for you – cooking together, splitting the job by day, or sharing the tasks of shopping, prepping, cooking or cleaning up.
9. Make it a Family Affair.
When my kid(s) are older, we plan to ensure they are included in the meal process. Setting the table, clearing the table, doing the dishes, loading the washer, taking out the trash, wiping down the counters, storing leftover in Tupperware – there is absolutely a job small enough and big enough for everyone.
10. Try a Meal Delivery Service.
Companies like HelloFresh and Blue Apron are banging down doors in hopes to get folks to sign-up for their box of delivered goodies. There are so many options to choose from that almost any family can find the right delivery services based on recipes, location, portion size options and more. This is definitely not a budget friendly route but does keep the weekly menu interesting and the shopping headache to a minimum. This is on my top list of effective and efficient meal management!
11. Consider a Delivered Meal.
Whether you have the option for services like Freshly, Thistle (get $30 off) , Methodology or other pre-made meals in your area (or it simply means take-out), if the price of meal delivery is digestible, go for it. It might not be the solution everyday based on nutrition, preference or price, but if it helps with a few meals a week, it may be a solution for your family! We happen to love Thistle which sends a few healthy, individual meals to our doorstep, some big enough to share, incorporate with other dishes, or save half a portion for another time. For the kid’s, look into Little Spoon, Nurture Life and Raised Real (use JULIA7735 for $20 off). We have used all three in the past and have loved each one!
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12. Use the oven or crockpot.
Recipes that require stirring, mixing, boiling, flipping, or otherwise attending to the stove are usually more task/time consuming. Roasting, baking or “crockpotting” will be your least “maintenance” based meals. While chicken and broccoli are roasting in the oven, you can spend those 20-30 minutes playing with your kids or completing other to-dos.
13. Combo it.
Your solutions to dinner do not have to be rigorous. Some weeks, you may have more time to spare prepping or cooking, other weeks less. As long as there is food on the table, and you consider nutrition for most meals, it will all work out! Don’t beat yourself up over not serving elaborate recipes or varying in menu every night. Between fresh meals, defrozed ones, leftovers and meal delivery – gathering as a family is what your kids will remember most.
14. Give yourself a break.
It is #reallifeproblems that gathering as a family most nights is not feasible. Between work, children’s needs and schedules and the capacity of caregivers/parents – there is a lot to balance and consider. Spending time with your family when you can is most important, whether it is over a meal, a book or singing together in the car on the way to daycare. Do what you can and don’t have guilt about it. The most important thing is that you find time to be with your kids and spouse – so if that means skipping a bunch of time meal prepping and instead building with blocks together – that is a choice you can make!