An old high school friend recently confessed to me that her family has been eating take-out dinners three or four nights per week. “I know it’s a bad habit I’ve gotten into,” she said, “but all of a sudden we’ve got dance classes, recitals, baseball games, travel teams, end-of-school events, things I need to do at my work, things my husband has to do for his work…I know we should plan better, but we end up just looking at each other on the sidelines of whatever game we’re at and figuring out who’s picking up the sandwiches at the sub shop on the way home.”
She’s not alone. In this longest back-to-school season, planning for regular routines — like family dinners — is causing added stress for a lot of parents. It’s not that families don’t want to keep eating together. But after more than a year in varying degrees of social isolation, the way many of us manage mealtimes and schedules has changed dramatically. As another parent I know put it: “I’m putting everything in my calendar for the kids’ sports, and I can’t remember how we used to have time for it all.”
To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with the occasional take-out dinner, especially if it means you’ll have a few minutes to connect and relax as a family while you eat. But for a number of reasons we’re all familiar with — nutritional, financial, and others — it’s generally better to build the habit of making meals at home. So how can we all get back into the practice of making family dinners happen, even on the busiest days?
We asked our social media followers to choose: If they could be given a private chef to cook for them, a fairy godmother to clean the kitchen afterward, a personal shopper for groceries, Mary Poppins to help with behavior at mealtimes, or an activities director to make dinner fun for everyone, which would they want most? The answers were clear: 30 percent of respondents wanted the fairy godmother who would take care of the cleanup for them, while 27 percent wished for a personal chef. In other words, what’s probably most stressful for busy parents as we all try to manage re-entry to “normal” life is trying to find time to cook and clean.
We can’t provide that fairy godmother, or the personal chef. But we can offer some new ideas and resources to help make the cleaning and cooking easier — and to help remind families that it’s okay to take some shortcuts. There’s no such thing as a “perfect” family dinner, only the family dinner that works for your family right now. So take a few deep breaths, browse our collections of easy, low-cook, low-clean recipes, and check out our expert advice and tips on making this time of transition less stressful for everyone.
One pan and the dishes are done
Handheld or help-yourself, no place settings required
Age-Appropriate Chores: How to get the family to pitch in and help
5 Ways to Make Dinnertime Cleanup Easier: Quick, doable ideas that will lessen the workload
Low on ingredients and time, high on reward
Get inspired by stories of real families who have shared the workload with friends and family
Whether it’s the cooking or the cleanup that causes the most stress, this quick one-skillet meal is a great solution! Use whatever’s in the fridge and dinner will be done in a flash.
If you’re trying a handheld or help-yourself dinner, you’ll have extra space on the table to set up a family game night!
We talked with resilience experts Dr. Juliana Chen and Dr. Tai Katzenstein about their best communication tips for families this summer. Check out their “4 C’s” of communicating with kids, along with some great conversation starters!