If you are like many American families, dinnertime has gone the way of the rotary phone, typewriter and dodo bird: Extinct.
Cooking has truly become optional in the past 20 years, as corporations have rushed to provide pre-made food that does reduce (or eliminate) cooking time, but leaves a gigantic void at the family table.
It’s the start of a new school year, and the perfect time to bring families back to the dinner table! Here I give suggestions and solutions to overcoming the 4 Biggest Dinner Obstacles:
- Kids want “kid food” and adults eat separately
- No time/busy schedule
- Parent doesn’t know what to make/low cooking skills
- Family complains about what is served
1) Kids want “kid food” and adults eat separately
A friend of mine is frustrated that her kids just want breaded chicken for dinner, but she doesn’t want to eat breaded chicken. Parents fall into the routine of making multiple meals because:
- It’s easier to give the kids what they want and avoid fights at the table
- The parent may be following a specific meal plan (such as lower-carb)
- One parent gets home later and adults want to eat together
- Parent worries child will not eat enough to get proper nutrition
Offer customizable meals, putting all the ingredients on the table.
Customizable meals include:
- Taco Bar—ground meat or turkey, tortillas, salad vegetables, sour cream, salsa, guacamole
- Pasta with meatballs—cooked pasta, meatballs or beans, steamed/sautéed vegetables, marinara
- Chicken and potatoes—roasted chicken, roasted potatoes, large salad, peaches
- Turkey burgers or hamburgers-turkey or hamburger patties, buns, lettuce leaves, tomato, corn on the cob, sliced apples
- Chicken piccata or marsala—set aside the cooked chicken if kids want a plainer version, serve with fruit and/or cooked green veggie
2) No Time/Busy Schedule
You might assume the biggest schedule obstacle is a parent’s work hours, but actually many of the families I work with have another issue that directly conflicts with dinner time: ACTIVITIES! From preschool to high school, kids are going to sports practice, dance, gymnastics, music lessons, tutoring, religious programs, karate and more. Unfortunately, these activities often occur between 4-7 pm most weekdays. The parent is exhausted from schlepping and the family isn’t even home to eat. The result is unscheduled desperation meals.
I offer multiple options below to deal with busy schedules and long workdays, but the fundamental fix for ACTIVITY-based busyness is to re-prioritize. Give family dinners priority just as you prioritize dance or karate. Family meals are just as important as activities—and I argue they are more important. While odds are your child won’t be in the World Cup, they will grow up in a factory-fed world. They need and deserve a real-food foundation. Not only is the food you serve important, your time together around the table is also important. Reserve at least a couple weeknights as Activity Free Zones.
Meal Options for Busy Schedules
- On long activity days, serve a hot meal after school between 3-4 pm, when kids are usually starving. This isn’t ideal for adults because the family may not be eating together, but at least you will be serving real food and fueling them for the activities to come. Offer a large snack before bed, and eat it together.
- Reserve at least 2 weeknights for activity-free zones between 5-7 pm.
- For long parent workdays, rely on super-quick meals. If you have 15 minutes you can make dinner! These “assembly” meals are perfectly acceptable and nutritious. Click here for my quick assembly meals. Slow-cooker meals are also ideal when you’re away all day.
- If a caregiver watches your kids in the afternoon, see if they can prep a meal for you, or start something in a slow-cooker.
- Instead of going out for dinner on weekends, make a ritual of at-home dinners at least once on the weekend. Enjoy a big family breakfast or lunch together.
- If you find you have no time to cook and eat as a family anytime during the week, take a cold hard look at all voluntary activities (meaning not related to your work schedule).
3) Parent Doesn’t Know What to Make for Dinner/ Low Cooking Skills
Weeknight meals do not need to be fancy, and you can rotate through the same basics each week.
Rotate through very basic meal plans and practice cooking a few dishes. The basic dinner formula consists of:
- Carbohydrate/starch source: potato, tortilla, rice, bun, bread, corn
- Protein source: turkey, chicken, beef, fish, beans, nuts/seeds, cheese, milk
- Fruit/vegetable: any
Click here for 10 weeknight dinner ideas!
For best success, be as least restrictive as possible. Do not make everything low-fat— fat adds flavor and makes dishes more successful. Do not eliminate food groups. If you aren’t confident about your kitchen skills, pick just 1-2 recipes and try them a few times (I also offer customized cooking classes!). Any time you make a new recipe, consider it a rough draft. Click here for a list of cookbooks/cooking resources. Last, instead of asking yourself what the kids want for dinner, ask yourself what YOU want to make/serve.
4) Kids/Family Complains about What is Served
It is incredibly frustrating when you spend time making a meal and you hear a chorus of complaints at the table.
Put a huge brick wall between FEEDING and EATING; have Kid’s Choice Night 1-2x/week; make sure you use enough fat and seasonings when cooking
Feeding vs. Eating: Your job is to prepare and provide the meal. Once it’s on the table, your job is done. Don’t worry about what they choose or how many green beans they eat. Try to stay upbeat and positive during the meal.
Kid’s Choice Night: Reserve a couple nights a week when the kids get to choose. For me, this is generally if I am working late or am very low on energy/time. If the child complains at the table that they want something else, say, “OK, you can have that on Kid’s Choice Night.”
Use Fat and Seasoning When Cooking: Kids like food that tastes good. Kids don’t like food that is virtuous without taste/flavor. Saute your chicken in oil/butter. Add salt to your dishes to boost flavor (most excess salt comes from restaurants and processed foods). Roast potatoes after tossing in olive oil, salt and pepper. If cooking a very bland item like ground turkey, you’ll need to add a lot of extra seasoning.
Love on a Plate
“Family” dinner doesn’t discriminate—it may be a single parent and one child, a grandparent and grandchild, or whatever your family unit happens to be. No matter if there are 2 or 8 people, no matter if you serve simple fare or wild-caught salmon, the keys to success are:
- everyone eating from the same menu
- turning phones/tablets to silent during dinner (bonus tip)
- providing a few options so even if someone doesn’t care for the “main course” they can still enjoy the sides
- scheduling the week to create time to cook and eat together
Don’t let family dinners become extinct! While rotary phones, the typewriter and the Dodo bird are gone, the family dinner still has a faint pulse—let’s bring it back to life.