Back to School: 5 Strategies for Successful Family Dinners
For many parents, family dinners can be the most difficult time of day for so many reasons: it’s the end of the day and everyone’s tired, the food tends to be the least “kid-friendly” (it’s not Cheerios or PB&J), and it usually involves a bit more cooking and preparation than other meals. I tend to see silver linings in a lot of things; when it comes to dinner, I embrace the challenge and opportunity and strive for fun, fast, and educational.
I’ve involved my daughter in cooking and taught her about nutrition from as early as she could understand. Part of that comes from my commitment to good health, and part of it comes from helping her understand my need to manage Type 1 diabetes, which I’ve had for 22 years and necessitates that I calculate all the carbohydrates I consume each day. So, meals have always been a learning opportunity for my daughter. But that doesn’t mean they have to be complicated.
Here are some of my sources and strategies for keeping family dinners fun, fast, and educational as well as ensuring they get eaten (at least most of the time):
Grocery Shopping Together
We’ve all dreaded toting kids along when we want to get in and out of the grocery store as quickly as possible. However, I’ve found involving my daughter in the process can help save time down the road. I set nutrition parameters, and she helps make lists and then finalize choices as we peruse the aisles. This way, I’m getting her “buy-in” for when it comes time to make dinner with those items. Pinterest has many great ideas for grocery list-making, such as the example below.
My daughter loves avocados, cheese, strawberries, tomatoes, and eggs. While I like to introduce new things, I try to involve at least one of her favorites for the last meal of the day. A main dish or vegetable she’s not a big fan of can be more appealing with strawberries on the side or for dessert. I also talk to her about why a variety of foods is important for getting all the nutrients she needs.
Don’t try recipes that take more than 30 minutes. Just don’t. There are so many options that can be made in 20–30 minutes. I’ve used several from Fitness Magazine and, if you can believe it, Martha Stewart. She has a bunch of ideas specifically for kids and gets rave reviews for her Perfect Macaroni and Cheese (pictured below), but I like to broaden the horizons a bit with my daughter. I have found several from her “under 30 minutes” set that are fabulous and that my daughter adores. The Summer Beef and Rice Casserole was a huge hit. I’m stumped as to why “summer” is part of the name for this dish, but it’s fantastic nonetheless. Finally, recipes are a good chance for kids to help measure, stir, and slice (if they’re old enough). Bonus: all involve a bit of math skills and telling time!
A good strategy for feeding kids and getting them interested in helping with supper is mimicking takeout. I’m talking chicken nuggets and such. But believe me when I tell you that making your own is super fast and arguably healthier than the frozen or fast-food variety. A little flour on some chicken tenders and a few minutes in the skillet and you’re good to go. There are also a whole bunch of takeout-inspired recipes to try.
Keep It Simple
When all else fails, I’ve been known to serve a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables for dinner. Learning how to slice a mango, noticing the colors, and counting carrot sticks can make for a pleasantly educational and easy evening of eating. No matter what you choose to do for dinner, remember to keep it simple this back-to-school season, so you’ll have time and energy for enjoying the journey and making memories.
This article was updated August 2015
Deanna Glick has spent two decades as a writer and editor, covering education policy, adoption, and other issues of interest to children and families. Deanna has also worked and volunteered for youth-focused nonprofits, including Students Run LA and the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. A California native, Deanna loves to hike sections of the Appalachian Trail and spend time on the Shenandoah River near her Northern Virginia home. She often finds writing inspiration through her 8-year-old daughter, who loves to read, paint, play sports, and learn.