As kids head back to school, family dinner can feel more overwhelming than usual. While summer dinners are often lazy affairs, fall dinners are usually a bit more rushed, as they compete with after-school activities and demanding to-do lists.
Add to that the fact that kids usually come home tired and cranky, after having not eaten for several hours, and you’ve got a recipe for stress. To make this transitional period easier, here are some simple “back to school” dinner tips:
- Have a Plan: On the weekend, devote some of your spare time to planning the week’s dinners. It takes a little effort, but knowing what you’ll be having each night goes a long way towards taking the worry out of family dinner. These meals don’t have to be elaborate (in fact, during the busy month of September, simple is better!). So give yourself an hour to browse through a cookbook or do an internet search, and jot down four or five meal ideas.
- Check-In With Your Family: If you’d like to try a new recipe, it’s wise to check-in with your family members first. No sense going to the trouble of making a new dish if no one will eat it! Alternatively, try asking your family for new food suggestions (perhaps a different taco or chicken recipe?). This guarantees “buy-in” from the start.
- Shop in Advance: Buying the ingredients ahead of time is a great idea. This eliminates the need to run to the grocery store after work, and makes you less likely to fret over whether you have enough cheese for the dish you’re whipping up.
- Always Have Staples: It happens: your meeting ran late, and now the casserole you were planning to cook seems like a hilariously naive fantasy. No worries! By keeping staples in your pantry (noodles, beans, rice) and refrigerator (cheese, milk, eggs), you’ll be able to cook something quick and easy before the kids have a total meltdown. When heading to the store, always double-check that you’re stocked up on staples.
- Don’t Fear the Snack: Parents sometimes worry that if kids eat a snack after school, they won’t be hungry for dinner. But as long you feed your kids a light snack of protein and fruits/veggies, they’ll find themselves satisfied, yet still hungry for dinner in an hour and a half. Peanut butter and apples or veggies with hummus are both good options. (If your kids have after-school activities, consider packing them a protein/veggie snack, so they don’t arrive home famished.)
- Pre-make Meals: As we said in our Tips for Busy Families, pre-cooking meals can be incredibly helpful. Make a lasagna on Sunday, then freeze it for Wednesday or Thursday. You’ll be thankful that you have it on-hand when the craziness of life is in full-swing.
- Use a Meal Planning Service: If you’re exhausted or stumped for ideas, a meal-planning service might be the ticket. We like The Fresh 20 (for an affordable fee, they email you ingredient lists and cooking instructions), but there are lots of them out there. Google around to find one that’s right for your budget and lifestyle.
- Take a Breath: Don’t forget—the point of dinner is to relax, nourish, and reconnect. Ask kids to pocket their cell phones during the meal (or even put them in another room, out of sight), and set a good example by turning yours off, as well. Put on some relaxing music, light a candle, and take a breath. Sure, “back to school” can feel hectic, but by keeping dinner a calm, sacred space, you’ll decrease the overall stress level in each of your family member’s lives.