Sanity is my biggest motivation for creating a dinner schedule. From one day to the next, a big question for my friends and me is, “What are you doing for dinner?” I have even been known to post this as a question in my Facebook status!
My husband, Jim, and I live in a small town northwest of Boston with our two young daughters – Lula Belle is 5.5 years old, and Ida Rose is 13 months. I am the primary caretaker of our children, and largely responsible for food procuring and preparing. My husband is a musician, and he works rebuilding pianos during the day, so his schedule is erratic. With Jim playing gigs at night and often out of town, it’s difficult for us to gather around the dinner table regularly. Like most young children, our girls rise with the dawn and fade in to crankiness toward evening, so we’re actually more likely to have family breakfast than family dinner.
Even though we can’t all have dinner together every night, we work hard to keep things as simple and consistent as possible for our kids. Part of our “simplicity parenting” is having dinner at about the same time every night and following a routine weekly dinner schedule. I’ve set up a loose structure for each night of the week that has really helped me plan and prepare our family dinners:
Monday: Pasta night
Tuesday: Mexican night
Wednesday: Soup night (or “happy soup night,” as Lula Belle calls it)
Thursday: Chicken night
Friday: Open (used to be pizza night, but Lula Belle got sick of it!)
Saturday: Fish night
Sunday: Meat night
Following this meal plan has made dinner so much easier for me – it helps me budget better, time my trips to the grocery store and make sure I have the right ingredients on hand. I’ve learned some tips along the way:
- The meal plan really helps give a basic idea of what ingredients you’ll need and what’s going to happen that week. You can move things around, of course, but having a basic structure makes everything easier.
- Always have sauce in the freezer for pasta night – it’s very easy to make one big batch of sauce, freeze it in small batches, and thaw it out later.
- Lee Bailey’s Soup Meals has some wonderful recipes for soup night. Lula Belle’s new favorite is his white bean and sausage soup. It’s great to freeze some of the soup in batches as well so that you don’t have to make soup during particularly busy weeks.
- Use leftovers. For instance, I often serve rice from our burritos later in the week with chicken.
- Do as much dinner prep as you can early in the day. I find that if we work on dinner first thing in the morning, I’m more comfortable having the children help in the kitchen.
This method of meal planning has also helped us to establish a rhythm for the kids. We have been privileged to have Lula Belle in a wonderful Waldorf* preschool and kindergarten, Evergreen Garden Playschool, and Jim and I have been deeply influenced by this developmental philosophy. Key features include reverence for childhood and the importance of rhythm, ritual, and routine in helping children to feel “held.” In keeping with these beliefs our dinners now give Lula Belle a predictable pattern, offering choice without overwhelming her with options.
I also believe that as my child’s first teacher, there are many opportunities to teach important lessons around the dinner table. In addition to modeling for the girls how to sit around the table in a polite way, I want to work harder to help them understand that food grows from the earth – I was so sad when Lula Belle recently responded that snap peas come from the store in spite of the fact that we grew snap peas in our small garden. We also draw Lula Belle’s attention to the difference between “grow food” versus treats. I want her to be aware of how food feels in her body and affects her mood. While gentle treats are allowed daily, high sugar treats without nutritional value are only for once in a while. We want her to understand how lucky we are to have “grow food” to help our bodies stay strong and healthy.
We used to light a candle and sing at the beginning of our meals. That moment of grace has gone by the wayside for now, but I am trying to bring it back by having each of us mention what we feel grateful for that day. More than anything, I want each member of our family to come to our meals with a sense of gratitude for the food we have and for each other.
*If you’d like to know more about Waldorf philosophy and simplicity parenting, some books I recommend are: You are your child’s first teacher: What parents can do with and for their children from birth to age six by Rahima Baldwin Dancy, Beyond the rainbow bridge: Nurturing our children from birth to seven by Barbara J. Patterson, and Simplicity parenting: Using the extraordinary power of less to raise calmer, happier, and more secure kids by Kim John Payne and Lisa M. Ross.