by Kati Chevaux
This is Kati and I work at Cozi, the family calendar and organizing app. In the spirit of helping families get more home-cooked meals on the table, I’d like to share a story about what I learned making dinners for my own family over the last year while I was also running a dinner recipe newsletter for Cozi.
I like to cook, and I value cooking for my family. I’ll put off other things just to get a meal on the table. When I think about why family dinner happens to work for us, a lot of things come to mind. Home-cooked meals were the norm during my childhood and food traditions were strong, so cooking dinner seems natural. (Food is center stage of my childhood memories – weekly Sunday dinners for a family of eight that were all kind of like Thanksgiving, sauerkraut for luck on New Year’s Day, the same homemade white frosting on every birthday cake, those three or four unique dinners my mom made over and over but that we all loved.) It helps that my kids are at what might be the optimal ages for having smooth family dinners. They are ten and seven – independent enough so that dinner prep isn’t interrupted by their need for attention, but not so independent that they are planning their own activities that take them away during dinner. Or perhaps they are simply old enough that the years of hard work ‘grooming’ them to accept that there is only one meal served, to eat most of what’s on the plate without complaining, and to clean up after themselves are finally paying off! (I realize this could change next week.) And perhaps the biggest reason I cook often is a selfish one: I really really enjoy eating a home-cooked meal!
But it sounds like my cooking habits make me an outlier. At Cozi, we survey thousands of families (mostly moms) each year and have learned that very few are satisfied with their dinner routine: a whopping 94% say they want to make home-cooked meals more often. And we’ve also learned that planning what to have for dinner (not cooking or cleaning up, but planning it) is one of the least favorite chores around the house, second only to doing laundry. It’s clear that families want help getting dinner on the table.
So last year we created the Cozi Family Dinner Club. We sent our first club newsletter in January of 2011. We select two dinner recipes each month that are great for families and suitable to make on a busy weeknight (or that you can make ahead and serve through the week). Our recipe submissions come from families, magazines and food bloggers and at least one person at Cozi tests each recipe that gets selected. That person is usually me!
As a quick aside, if you’re reading this you might be looking for great ideas yourself, so I thought I’d share the most popular recipe from the club last year. It was Tex Mex Slow Cooker Chicken – a delicious and versatile crockpot dish. Enjoy!
Not every recipe submitted works out or meets our bar for what makes a great family meal, so since last January, about four of the family dinners I cook each month happen to be recipe submissions to the club.
On the days when I had planned to test a dinner club recipe over the last year, I noticed that a good thing was happening. I felt much more positive about dinner prep than usual. Here’s why: Since I knew what I was going to make for dinner before the day even started and I had all the ingredients on hand, I didn’t have to spend one minute during the day or when I got home from work spending any mental energy deciding what was for dinner (and when anyone in the family asked what’s for dinner, I could answer without a second thought.) In short, I was forced to meal plan a few times a month.
WHAT A RELIEF. I still had to make the dinner and clean up, but it was such a huge relief when dinner time rolled around and I could just get down to cooking. The bottom line: it’s much easier to execute on a good idea than it is to come up with a good idea (with the deadline imminent) and then have to execute it as well.
So now I feel pretty strongly that a little planning can make family dinner tons easier on your mental self. This isn’t a novel idea. Lots of families make a meal plan each week. And even those who don’t plan ahead understand the beauty of it.
For those who don’t meal plan but want to, there is good news. Meal planning is a practical pursuit that can help ANY family get to their goal of making more home-cooked meals. Planning ahead is an option that you can do on some days or weeks but not others. And if you feel like you’re out of dinner ideas, here are some pointers: Start with meals you know you’re family likes, keep your meal history so you eventually have a backlog of ideas that worked, and seek out new recipes from trusted sources (trusted sources is key – a failed family dinner is not fun for anyone).
Good luck! If you’d like to see the entire year of recipes we tested and selected, check out our Family Dinner Club on Cozi.
Kati Chevaux is the content and food editor at Cozi.com. She lives in Seattle with her husband and two sons. When she visits her family in her hometown of York, Pennsylvania, her “to-do list” always includes eating hard shell crabs, fresh produce (and donuts) from the Central Market, Smittie’s soft pretzels, and at least one of those meals from childhood that her mom still makes on request.