We’re always trying to learn more about the challenges that keep people from having more frequent family meals. Over the years, we’ve heard from thousands of families about the pressures of time, picky eating, tension at the table, and other issues that make dinner together less appealing. But the workload — the planning, shopping, cooking and cleaning up that are part of most dinners together — is also a challenge, and our followers tell us it’s the cleaning that presents the biggest obstacle. So should you use disposable items for dinner? What choices can you make that will ease the cleanup, but also respect the environment? Here are five ways you can make dinnertime cleanup easier, including — yes! — paper plates at dinner time:
- Give yourself permission to use disposable items once in a while. There’s no doubt that using regular, reusable dishes beats using paper plates, as far as the environment is concerned. But if the dread of doing dishes is actually going to hold you back from cooking and eating a meal together, those disposable items may not be a totally terrible idea. Just be sure to shy away from plastics, and if you can, choose recyclable products that haven’t been bleached.
- Try foil baking dishes. Those disposable aluminum foil baking pans are actually recyclable! However, they can’t go into the recycling bin with food residue on them. To minimize the dishwashing duties (which is, after all, why you’re using them in the first place), line the pan with parchment or baking paper before you use it. Then the cleanup is no more difficult than tossing the liner in the trash, quickly wiping or rinsing out the foil pan, and popping it in the recycling bin.
- Cover the table. For families with small kids, the dishes might not be the only major clean-up task. For a double-duty solution that protects the dining surface and keeps little ones occupied, cover the table with paper — cut-apart brown paper grocery bags work great! — and pass out crayons. The kids can color while they eat, the paper will catch the spills, and you can throw it all in the recycling bin when dinner’s done.
- Take it outside. We tend to have a different feeling about messes made inside the house than messes made outside! One family we know said of eating with toddlers, “There’s always the hose,” and it stuck with us as a great piece of advice. If you’ve got dinnertime mess-makers, make dinner an outdoor affair as often as possible — and if you can manage to make it a picnic meal that doesn’t require a table to wipe or place settings to wash, that’s even better. A quick run under the sprinkler or spray with the garden hose will delight sticky kids when they’re finished eating!
- Forget about servingware. Don’t bother making more work for yourself by transferring foods into separate bowls and platters for serving. Leave things in the pots and pans they were cooked in, and let family members dish themselves up straight from the stove — or pop some pot holders onto the table and set the cooking pans there. Or try putting everything on one big platter instead of lots of little dishes; you can even get creative by using a divided chip-and-dip tray to keep things separate, while only having one serving dish to wash at the end of the meal.
In addition to these tips, you can always keep cleanup to a minimum by choosing meals that require few ingredients, few cooking pans and minimal utensils to begin with. Quick and easy handheld sandwiches, one-pot soups and pastas, or sheet pan dinners are all good ways to keep cleanup manageable. And of course, you can reduce your dependence on paper plates and other disposable methods as kids get older and more capable of helping. With everyone ready to pitch in for dish duty and wiping countertops, the kitchen will be clean in no time.