Family dinner used to be a cherished tradition in many households. A time for families to come together, share stories, and enjoy delicious home-cooked meals. However, with our increasingly busy lives, sitting down for family dinners can feel like a daunting task. The question of "What should I cook for dinner?" can feel overwhelming. And I think not knowing what to cook for dinner can lead to so many of us just not wanting to cook. So I have some tips for you all as to decrease the angst associated with what to cook to hopefully make it so you can enjoy more family meals together.
The Benefits of Family Meals
Family meals have so many benefits for your child. Yes there are nutritional benefits, with kids who eat family meals consuming more fruits, vegetables, whole grains and less junk food than those who don't regularly eat family meals. But there are so many more benefits, from strengthening family bonds and connection, to improving academic performance, as well as having benefits to mental and emotional health and decreasing the occurrence of kids participation in high risk behaviors.
If you want to read more about the benefits of family meals check out a blog post from last year: Why You Should Eat Family Meals and How to Make it Happen
Barriers and Challenges
I am aware that just because we know family meals are important, doesn't mean it's easy to make happen. And I can tell you I feel this more and more each year, as my kids get busier with school and sports. Many families deal with time constraints related to school, sports and activities for their kids, as well as work time constraints. Then there are those with more selective eaters or diet restrictions in the family. I address barriers and provide solutions in the previous blog post as well.
But what I wanted to write about today, was how to make it easier. How do we take the chaos that is the day-to-day life with kids and make family meals happen more easily. So I'm going to share some tips and tricks that may help your family, sprinkled with some inspiration as I know we are all always on the hunt for easy dinner ideas.
Tips and Tricks
I can't really emphasize this enough. Having a plan going into the week or even the morning of, can really cut down on the "I don't want to cook, because I have no idea what to cook" thought process. It can be simply having categories or themes for each day so you roughly know what you will cook that night for dinner. Here's some ideas:
- Mexican theme (Taco Tuesday)
- Italian (pizza or pasta Fridays)
- Grain Bowls
- Asian theme
- Crock Pot or Instant Pot
- Grill night
You literally can just stay with those categories and mix it up to make slightly different meals. The other option is to write out meals for the week exactly so that you can go buy what you need or order what you need online, and then those busy weeknights you can almost be on autopilot. If you need a little more help getting started with meal planning, see my blog post Meal Planning Made Easy.
Embrace One-Pot and Sheet Pan Meals
Plan some easy meals for your week. Maybe you don't have time to do something complicated, but if you have 15 minutes you may be able to throw together a one-pot meal or a sheet pan meal. These require minimal cleanup and are great for busy evenings. Here's a roundup of The Best Sheet Pan Recipes from the Food Network, as well as a list from Eating Well that I often reference for inspiration. Lastly, I am also a fan of Ambitious Kitchen and they, as well, have a list of One Pan Meals.
Utilize Your Slow Cooker or Instant Pot
You don't have to cook between a certain window every night, like 5-6 pm. If you know it's a busy evening, think about prepping the meal or cooking the meal earlier in the day. Throw it together in the morning and it will be ready when you walk in the door. Here's a list of Slow Cooker recipes we like from Ambitious Kitchen. As well as some from The Real Food Dietitians and Instant Pot Recipes from Pinch of Yum.
Prep Ingredients in Advance
Prepping in advance is a great way to allow for more time in the evening to get the meal on the table. Chop vegetables or marinate meats on the weekend to save time during the week. There's lots of people who prep a bulk of their meals on Sundays. And if you are really busy during the week, this can make a huge difference. You can also chop extra vegetables or prep other parts of a meal the night before or in the morning.
Cook in Batches
I love to do this as a time saver and more so I just have less meals to think about. This can be making extra portions to have leftovers for the next day's lunch or dinner, or you can make a double portion and freeze one portion for a dinner the following week. You can also cook one item and repurpose for multiple meals - like cooking a whole chicken. This may look like using chicken on a salad the first night, in tacos the second, then using bones and any chicken left to make a soup. I also will prep a huge salad that can be use for multiple nights, so it's one less thing to make each night.
Let Someone Help with Part of The Meal
I love doing this - getting something semi or fully prepared but filling in the rest of the meal. Maybe you have done this before...You grab a rotisserie chicken from the store and you add a salad or rice to it when you get home? You can grab a main dish or sides then fill in the rest. Maybe you are making a roast. While it cooks you could go pick up already prepared dishes from the deli counter at the grocery store. You still cooked, kind of, and if it gets you to eating a family meal with less stress, I consider it a win.
Don’t Cook if You Really Don’t Want To
This is my last piece of advice. Give yourself some grace. If you really don’t feel like cooking and you will not be enjoyable when you sit down with your kids for a meal, pivot and do something different. Order take-out or throw something together easily from what’s in the fridge, like a charcuterie board, sandwiches or cereal. It’s ok, especially if you can still sit and enjoy a meal together.