Dinnertime. It is supposed to be the meal when families enjoy time together, savoring both the food and time with loved ones. With hectic schedules, picky eaters, and overtired parents, it’s no wonder dinnertime is more often dreaded rather than celebrated.
I’m not here – this time – to tell you what to cook, or to give some life changing advice on how to get all of your family members to enjoy the same plate of food. But I do think the timing of the evening meal might be part of the problem. How many of us rush home from work and kid pick-up, only to come home and rush around the kitchen? We try to throw together something – anything – our kids and spouse might eat, all while fending off requests for snacks, pleas to escape outside, and that one kid who actually wants to help in the kitchen (but makes the process exponentially more difficult).
About a year ago, this was me. Even with all that rushing, I was struggling to get dinner on the table at what I considered a reasonable hour (like 6:00-ish). The fact is, when I get home between 5:00 and 5:30, the food I’m capable of generating in a hurry is not the greatest. To be honest, even rushing, I was getting dinner on the table closer to 6:30 or 7:00, all while dealing with the many obstacles I mentioned earlier. The snacks. The whining. The “helping.”
So I said to myself, this is bananas. Why am I fighting so hard to get dinner done early? I stopped fighting the rush. And afterschool time has become much less harried, more relaxed, and everyone is happier. This is how we make a later dinnertime work for us.
Embrace the Snack
Regardless of how quickly you might make dinner, chances are your kids walk through your front door asking for a snack. I do not like fighting food battles, and I know my children are bottomless pits. So I allow them ONE small, relatively healthy snack. Like a piece of fruit, string cheese, some pepperoni . . . something to quell their hunger, mute the whine, and give myself a chance to focus on preparing and cooking a healthy dinner.
When I was rushing dinner, I kept my kids inside because it was easier for me to let them know when dinner was ready. Then they’d eat, and by the time they were done, it would likely be dark outside. By pushing dinner to when it’s naturally time for them to come inside (because it’s getting dark), they get to maximize their outdoor play time, which is vital for them, and I get to cook in peace without kids underfoot. Win-Win! Regarding homework, if your kids have it, I suggest waiting until after dinner. Let your kids play first. Chances are they will be able to focus better on schoolwork with a bit of a break and a full belly.
Focus on Family Time
As soon as we get home, my older children (Ages 8 and 6) are looking for friends to play with. When the weather permits, they are playing outside, riding bikes, and jumping on trampolines. Even when the weather is not great, the time before dinner is typically spent with friends – either at their house or ours, which means dinnertime and beyond is family focused. We can talk about what’s going on in each other’s lives, our plans for the week, and after dinner we can relax and spend time together. Often this means watching TV together or reading books, or playing on Kindles, but generally this is sit-down time. I love the natural transition dinnertime allows us for switching between active time with friends and quieter time with family.
Keep the Kids in the Kitchen
I love to cook. I like the zen of chopping vegetables, following recipes, and adding in my own flair. It’s no surprise that one or more of my kids will want to help me in the kitchen – even if it’s just to taste dinner as it cooks and offer suggestions. When I was rushing, it was hard to manage these interactions and I got frustrated with their interference. I know I said I love them playing outside while I cook – and I do! – but if they want to help, pushing dinner a bit later makes that possible. Slowing down and allowing more time for dinner prep and cooking gives me the opportunity to let them help. To guide their hands as they chop vegetables. I ask them to taste a sauce, or add an ingredient, or stir a pot. They are all pretty young still (ages 8, 6, and 5) but all of them enjoy spending time in the kitchen. I’ve found that having their input along the way makes them much more amenable to trying new things and eating foods that are unfamiliar to them.
So that’s why I do dinner later, and our family is all the happier for it. If dinnertime chaos is making you more than a little frustrated, try switching up the timing. You might be glad you did!