Once you’ve made the commitment to making frequent family meals part of your routine, you may be faced with some challenges in translating that commitment into reality. In today’s busy world, it can be very hard sometimes to organize and implement family meals. Below are some tips that may ease some of the most common difficulties parents face.
1. Plan in advance.
This is by far the most important tip. Planning involves not only the menu but also the timing of meals and the responsibility for particular tasks. Planning your menu involves selecting which recipes you’ll prepare on given nights. Knowing what you will be cooking will guide your shopping list, save unnecessary trips to the grocery store, and ensure that you’ll have everything on hand when it’s time to cook. Knowing your schedule for the week, will also guide your plan for what time everyone (or most) in the family will be available to sit and eat together, and this may vary somewhat from night to night. Involving older children and spouses, if available, in some of the tasks involved in getting a meal on the table (e.g., shopping, meal prep, setting the table, etc.) can be a huge help in making family meals successful. I’ve gotten into the habit of checking my menu plan each night before I go to bed to make sure I’ve taken anything out of the freezer that I need for the next day. I’ve learned from experience that it’s very frustrating to have a planned a meal in advance but to have forgotten to thaw ingredients!
2. Double and freeze.
This cooking strategy will free up some of your nights. I love it when I have a home-cooked meal ready to go and I don’t have to cook that night. Not everything, however, freezes well. I’ve found that the meals that work best with this strategy are baked pasta dishes (e.g., Baked Broccoli Pasta ), chilis (e.g., Simple Beef Chili), some soups (soups with pasta and/or potato don’t tend to taste as good reheated), and ready-to-grill meats in their marinade (e.g., Grilled Flank Steak). I also have had success freezing leftover cooked meat, especially chicken, and then using that meet in other recipes. Just make sure to label and date whatever you freeze; you want to use your frozen items within a few months.
3. Use a Slow Cooker.
This is a great solution if you have some time early in the day to assemble some things together and get your meal started. It’s wonderful to come home to the smells of a dinner already prepared. If you’re out of the house for 10-plus hours this may not be the solution for you because most recipes might be overcooked in that time frame. One of my family’s favorites is Slow Cooker Teriyaki Chicken, which has the added bonus of being amenable to advance assembly and freezing.
4. Cooking without a recipe.
The less you have to think, the quicker you’ll be able to pull dinner together. Knowing at least two or three recipes that you can make without having to refer to a recipe will help you get a meal on the table more quickly during those really busy nights. Dinner can be simple. Eggs, sandwiches, and salads make great quick weeknight meals. Mediterranean Tuna Salad is a delicious quick meal, with no cooking involved.
5. Nights off from cooking.
In addition to planning what you will cook and when, also plan when you will not cook. Look at your schedule and plan your nights off from cooking. Have a strategy for how you will get your relief whether that is take-out, eating out, or meal sharing with friends or family members. I find that when my nights off are planned, there is very little guilt involved.
For more information on strategies for successful meals and a discussion of why family meals matter and how to enhance your family’s connection at the table, please join the founding partners of The Blog for Family Dinner for a teleseminar on Tuesday September 20, 2011 at 12 noon Eastern. We will also be discussing the Blog for Family Dinner project and ways that you can get involved.