The other night was one of those nights. My train decided to take a LONG pause at the stop right before mine. A 15minute pause! Great! To some people, 15 minutes doesn’t seem like a big deal, but to a mama who strives to cook dinner every night, every second counts.
Family meals are super important to me. It's the whole reason I started this blog. And the more I talk with parents, the more I find that eating meals together as a family couldn't be more crucial. Parents often feel disconnected from their kids especially as they get older. These days there is so little time spent actually sitting down and conversing, it's no wonder people feel distant. The remedy for this disconnect is right there in your own home. It's no coincidence that the kitchen is often referred to as "the heart of the home" because it truly is. Still, so many people don't place enough importance on sit-down meals and they designate their dinner table as a place to store junk mail. Making time to sit down at the dinner table creates important habits for life. Food made at home is both economically and nutritionally beneficial but it goes much further than that. A recent study conducted by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) found that eating dinner with your teenager can prevent them from abusing drugs. That's powerful stuff. Will it solve everyone's problems? Of course not. But it's a great ritual to put in place and keep in place and worth the effort it takes to make it happen.
We owe it to ourselves and to our families to make mealtime a priority. Food can be used as the glue that keeps families together, especially during those crazy teenage years. It isn't always easy to sit down and have a heart-to-heart with your kids but somehow, when food is involved, conversations flow naturally, without pressure. We need those moments to really connect to our kids and listen to what's happened during their day.
It's a tall order but not impossible. Ideally, we'd all have the time to sit together and eat, but these days, that isn't reality. Everyone is busy. Everyone has different schedules and it can be quite a challenge just to get everyone in the same room, let alone manage to get a meal on the table at the same time. But that doesn't mean you can't benefit from a family meal in some way. By adjusting your expectations and creating a plan that works for your particular family, you can reap all of the benefits and enjoy each other's company with minimal stress.
As a mother who works outside of the home, I know that the idea of a family meal can seem daunting. But with a little planning, it's totally achievable and worth the effort. For me, it means I basically have a half hour to get dinner done before it's time to give my son his bath and get him into bed between 8:00-8:30 (story-time and all!). I aim for this every single night. And on most nights, it works--because, I know that by sticking to simple meals, I can make it happen. When I have setbacks, I don't count myself out of the meal game, I just try to remain calm and rely on some simple strategies to get my meals accomplished.
Be Flexible: Things aren't going to always go as planned but it doesn't mean you can't make it happen. As a working mom, I need to remember to be flexible and most of all be prepared for anything (this is true for all parents in general, right?). In the event that I have more than a slight delay, I need to be able to come home and prepare a meal in under 10 minutes, so my son doesn’t fall asleep at the table. Sure, I could have my mom (who watches my son during the day) feed him dinner earlier, but family dinners mean a lot to me and I really enjoy the time we spend together every night. If dinnertime doesn't work for your family, aim for breakfast or lunch. Whatever it is, make a plan and stick to it. If you can only manage family meals on weekends, so be it. Create a plan and stick to it.
Assemble collection of quick and easy recipes that you know your family likes: M-F isn't the time to try out a fancy new recipe. Stick to what you are comfortable making and what you know you and your family will love. There's nothing more frustrating than trying a new recipe, having it be a disaster and then dealing with the aftermath of empty bellies. I'm all for trying new things but, save the experimenting for the weekends when you aren't pressed for time.
10-minute Pasta and Peas in no-cook creamy basil sauce (super fast. super filling. super delicious!)
Think outside of the dinner box: Train late? Too tired or hungry to cook? It happens to me all of the time. Dinner doesn't have to be meat, veg, carbs. Your meals can be balanced in other ways. When I want dinner and I want it fast, I go straight to breakfast foods. Pancakes, yogurt and granola with fruit and nuts, and yes even oatmeal are all great options. Most kids love "Breakfast For Dinner" nights! Most breakfast foods are an easy sell and usually very quick to make. We especially love eggs in our house. They are a quick and easy source of protein and so good for you. Quick scrambles and frittatas are great options because you can customize them by adding your favorite chopped vegetables and sprinkle with cheese. Serve with some toast and how's that for a balanced, untraditional dinner? I also love to top simple salads with poached or over-easy eggs. Mmm....delicious!
Italian Whole-Wheat Pasta Pie (aka Pasta Frittata) (perfect use for leftover pasta and great meal for breakfast, lunch or dinner)
Prepare: Do some of the prep-work ahead of time (at night after the kids go to sleep, on weekends etc..).
-Wash and chop a few days worth of veggies and store them in containers in the fridge so they are ready and waiting for you. Preparing your ingredients in advance saves a ton of time and your sanity.
-Keep a stash of hard boiled eggs in the fridge. I boil a bunch on a Sunday night so they are ready for us to eat. Eggs make a great breakfast, lunch, dinner or snack and hard boiled eggs keep for up to one week when properly stored in the refrigerator.
-Make simple sides ahead of time. I make a big batch of rice, couscous or quinoa so that I can just reheat them as a quick lunch or side to add to any meal.
Make Extra: Double or even triple a recipe so you have leftovers to freeze or eat the next day as lunch or dinner. Leftovers of home cooked food are way more nutritious than ordering take-out. A quick reheat in the oven or microwave and you have extra time to spend with your family.
Grandma Mary's Pasta Fagiole (really delicious as leftovers. filling and feeds a crowd)
Uncle Frank's Meatloaf- (great as leftovers especially for lunch sandwiches)
Snacks for the kiddies (and yourself if needed): I always make sure my son has a late snack so he's not famished and freaking out while I'm trying to prepare. A lot of little kids eat dinner at 6pm. That time-frame isn't realistic for my family. We all work full-time outside of the home and expecting my 2 year old to wait until 7:30 to eat dinner isn't realistic either so, a late snack is a must. Stick to healthy stuff like apple sauce, cut up raw veggies, some nuts or a piece of cheese. Pretend you are in Italy and have a little antipasti before your main meal but remember, nothing heavy or no one will be hungry.
Assemble a team aka (Put 'em to work): Ask for help. Have family members set the table or distract the kids so you can whip up dinner in a flash with no interruptions. My two year old usually wants to be in the kitchen with me so I put him on a stool right beside me and have him accomplish a simple task. Last night he helped pull the thyme leaves off of the stems as he munched on his apple sauce and was super happy to "help mama". Even the littlest member of your family can be occupied while mommy or daddy cooks. When Griffin was super little he used to play at my feat with wooden spoons, mixing bowls and dried pasta as I cooked. I still have vivid memories of this and will always cherish them.
Pork tenderloin is a cut of mea a meat that can be made in under 20 minutes, making it perfect for a weeknight meal. I served this alongside some creamy polenta and sauteed broccolini. Those of you who know me, know I am a former vegetarian who only eats poultry and fish. I didn't eat the tenderloin but my family went wild for it! And I have to admit, it did look tasty. I had an equally tasty meal consisting of a poached egg served atop some creamy polenta (recipe tk) with a side of the broccolini. Everyone was happy. Everyone was full and I got to enjoy some quality time with my loves. Mission accomplished!