What’s the most common problem with the family dinner? one word: time. When my friends and I discuss their frustrations with getting dinner on the table, time is the first issue to come to mind. Our lives are full – often very full. Most of us work outside of the home, often with significant commutes. Parents of very young children have their hands full all day. For those of us with school-aged children, after our commutes, we drive. We drive to lessons, sports practices, to and from school, and doctor’s offices. We have multiple devices that keep us connected, and busy, and distracted. We volunteer our time, go to concerts and games, exercize, and gaze at the TV. Among my friends, having more time would be a welcome gift. But that’s impossible. There will only ever be 24 hours in a day.
One of the casualties of the conflict between our expectations for a full life and the limits of the 24 hour day is the family dinner. We want to have a nice family dinner, and we know it’s a good thing for us, but we feel defeated before we even start because of the time it requires. As I see it, there are two basic issues here: Priorities and Practices.
Priorities: For the family dinner to become what we want, we need to make it a priority. And making it a priority means putting it in our schedules. If we don’t schedule what we value, then it remains a wish rather than reality. I encourage you to make some decisions about what you really intend to do about dinner. Be honest and realistic, and include your family in a discussion if appropriate. Does your schedule reflect your priorities about the family dinner? If so — awesome. And if not, what would you like to change in your schedule to better align your priorities with your habits? The key is to come to peace with this common conflict.
Practices: Shopping for food, cooking and cleaning up from dinner takes time – that’s a reality. But there are very likely things you can do to lessen the impact on your full schedules. Here are a few tips:
1. Plan your dinner menu in advance. Surely the biggest help in my own quest to have delicious, simple, fast meals on the table is to plan and shop in advance. This is basic meal planning, and it is the key to keeping your time commitments in check in the quest for a great family dinner. There are a number of simple meal planning tools out there, and I encourage you to find a system that works for you. (I’ll attach mine as a separate blog post.) But all you really need is a piece of paper, a pen, and your attention. Decide what you’re going to cook for dinner for the coming week, write it down, and let your shopping list flow from the menu. Then take this shopping list and buy what you will need to cook. Not only will you then NOT have to decide on the fly every night what’s for dinner (because you already did!) you’ll already have all the ingredients at home, ready to use. Click here to check out Everyday Food, a petite magazine that has some great recipes, menus, and shopping lists in every issue.
2. Prep ingredients in advance. There are many cooking steps that can be accomplished in advance. For example, if you’re doing a stirfry one night, and making omelettes the next night you could easily chop some bell peppers for both meals in advance and have them ready to go in the fridge. Or cook up a pot of pinto beans and use them in a couple meals through the week — ie, beans and rice, quesadillas, taco salad.
3. Prepare your kitchen. This may sound obvious, but it’s no fun to come into a cluttered kitchen with a sink full of dirty dishes and make make dinner. Much of what we perceive as a time drain is perhaps more accurately the natural consequence of disorganization. Chefs are obsessive about mise en place, what they call their gear setup, for good reason. Getting your kitchen organized and clean before you cook will significantly cut your time cooking and cleaning up after the meal. Plus it’s just more enjoyable to walk into a clean, well organized kitchen and cook. If you are challenged with a disorganized kitchen, don’t let it become a daily drag on your cooking. Take a couple hours one day and really deal with your kitchen. A couple hours spent getting it together will save you many, many more hours in future cooking time.
Let me know what other helpful time techniques you have. I’m still learning.