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The Ultimate Dinnertime Survival Guide for Families

dinner

Ugh, dinnertime. It’s the bane of every working parent’s existence.

I’ve been doing the mom thing for more than eight years now, and this seems to be the endless battle for my family, as well as every other parent I know. Each and every day, we need to figure out an answer to the dreaded question: “What’s for dinner?”

Over the years, I’ve read dozens — nay, millions — of articles about making dinner, and how to make meal planning easier. But these writers all seem to be Crock-Pot queens or Instant Pot kings, or wizards who can actually cook these impossible recipes in 30 minutes (or less!), or they are super organized people who prep-cook meals for the entire week on Sundays. And while I greatly admire these skilled chefs, I am simply not cut out to be one.

Because here’s the truth: I don’t love to cook. I know, I know… What kind of Jewish mother am I?!? And while I love to eat, I’ve never had much interest in the act of cooking. I am grateful I married someone who enjoys cooking, because otherwise we’d probably survive on cereal or starve. But the reality is, by the time my husband and I get home from work at at 6 p.m., pretty much the absolute last thing we want to do is figure out what the four of us are going to eat.  

The school year is especially tough. In the summer, we find it super easy to grill a bunch of  meat and veggies on Sundays, which makes dinner is a cinch for the next few days: grilled chicken and rice one day, steak on top of a salad the next, and so on. But with our school year schedule, packed with activities, it’s just so much harder. With our mind filled with to-do — and to-drive — lists, we regularly forget simple prep-cooking tasks, like taking the beef out of the freezer for the beef stew intended for that evening.

Seriously, the struggle is real. But we are not alone — there are so many families out there who value the sacredness of the dinner hour, and who want to serve their kids something nutritious and delicious, but are strapped for time during the week.

Still, though getting dinner on the table remains a constant battle, I have gleaned some pearls of wisdom over the years. So for those of us in this (very large) boat, here are some dinner-time pearls of wisdom I’ve gleaned over the years:

1. Stop fretting over what you’re serving and focus on the fact that you’re sitting around the table together.

Your family is gathering together at the dinnertime hour — this is a feat in and of itself! Celebrate it! In my early days as a mom, I battled guilt that our dinners weren’t always 100% home-cooked — my own mom stayed home when I was little, and there was always a homemade meal on the table each night, like lemon chicken, Italian sausage and peppers, and casseroles (hey, it was the 80s). But once I reframed my guilt and realized that what mattered most was the fact that my little family was sitting down together, it was like a weight was lifted.

2. Breakfast for dinner wins every.single.time.

During the week, my kids eat cereal at school, and weekend mornings are packed with sports and Hebrew school. So during the week, for dinner we often eat what would otherwise be a big Sunday breakfast: eggs, toast, and fruit, or maybe an omelet bar or bagels and fruit smoothies. Sometimes my Salvadoran-born husband will make frijoles and tortillas with a side of scrambled eggs and a fruit salad. Considering they get in all four food groups with many of these choices, we do this probably once a week and never hear a complaint.

3. Taco Tuesday or other themed meals are always a hit with kids.

The best thing about a regular meal like this is that it requires the same shopping list (more or less) each week — zero no brain-space required. Also, it builds excitement: Taco Tuesday is something they look forward to every week. It also helps we’ve given them a sense of ownership over this one: We let them choose what toppings we have and what sides we serve.

4. Never underestimate the power of a rotisserie chicken or other short cuts.

Take one rotisserie chicken from the grocery store and a salad or raw veggies, plus a bag of 2-minute rice or a crusty baguette, and bam! Dinner is done. Our kids love this meal and we usually have leftovers for the next day. Trader Joe’s has a ton of great pre-made meal-starters and sides that are lifesavers for those nights you are pressed for time but don’t necessarily want to order a pizza. (The asparagus risotto and broccoli au gratin are two of my personal faves).

5. Learn to embrace leftovers.

Like so many others, I used to frown upon leftovers. But now I’ve come to appreciate their value in our busy lives. Sometimes, when I’m feeling organized, I’ll whip up Greek chicken in the crockpot, and use it for multiple meals during the week; I’ll switch up the veggies and side dishes to keep it fresh. Or when I make bolognese sauce for a quick weeknight dinner, I’ll make a double batch, and freeze half of it for another night. (Of course, the trick is remembering to defrost it for when you want it again).

The bottom line is you don’t have to be an Organized Olivia to serve up a healthy meal your whole family will eat. We’re all just trying to get by, so never feel guilty about making short cuts or having an unconventional dinner. You’re carving out time to sit down together as a family, that’s what your kids will remember.

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