Family Dinner, Take Two: Weeknight Challenges

Yesterday’s post on the relative feat that is family dinner seems to have started a larger discussion (hooray!  Nothing a blogger likes better than discussion); both on the comments board and in my inbox, personal Facebook account, etc., people are asking questions.  Two examples:

How are you able to cook almost every night while working? I try to rely a lot on the crock pot and cooking large batches on the weekend as my DD is starving by the time we walk through the door during the week.

I’d love to hear how you do it on a weekday – is everything prepared ahead of time? That’s been working fairly well for us (preparing all the week’s meals on Sunday), but kind of falls apart when we have a Sunday committment (sic) or go out of town for the weekend…

Time to deconstruct the art of the weeknight meal, with a few disclaimers.  First, let me say that as always, I can only speak about what works in our house.  Our kids are still young, my husband and I work full-time but in an office close to our home, and we get home by 5:45 at the latest on most weeknights, so that all may help to put in context the big picture of weeknight cooking and eating in our home.  I’m well aware that for many families, the commute may be longer; the kids may be older and have more evening commitments; there are homework assignments and so forth to be tackled…. The list of reasons why family dinners can be challenging is endless, but I choose to continue to believe that we can all find ways to make the family dinner more possible.

That being said: Plan, plan, plan.  And plan some more.  And plan wisely.  I haven’t gone deeply into the art of the monthly meal plan, really — in some ways, it is so much an intuitive process for me at this point that it can be hard to articulate how I do it.  But I have to try, because planning well is the cornerstone of how we pull off weeknight meals.  Both of the commenters I quoted above allude to crock pot cooking and/or cooking things ahead of time; while I sometimes do these things, I wouldn’t say they are crucial to our family dinner success.

When I sit down to plan, I keep my calendar handy.  Step one is filling in Fridays, because I know they’re always fend nights.  Step two is writing “slow cooker” on every Tuesday of the month — because I have to be back out the door by 6:45 on Tuesday evenings to get to choral rehearsals, it’s the one night when slow cooker dinners are absolutely necessary.  I fill those meals in first, because while there are a number of things one can make in the slow cooker, my repertoire of recipes using that piece of equipment is smaller than the rest of my arsenal, so deciding on four slow cooker meals for the month is a manageable step.

After I do those things, I match the calendar against the meal planning page and write in any unusual conflicts that might require me to adjust our meals accordingly, like evening rehearsals or concerts; special days like birthdays and anniversaries; out-of-town guests; or late-day therapy appointments for L.  I then deal with planning the meals for those days immediately, while my brain is still fresh to the task and I’m feeling energetic.

All that remains, after those steps are completed, is the run-of-the-mill planning.  I keep a few things in mind:
Mondays usually mean more time to cook after work, because the kids are with J.’s folks that day and there’s no daycare pickup.  I can plan something on a Monday that takes up to an hour to prepare, if I want to.
Wednesdays are usually hectic, for no good reason at all.  They’re also a day when I often find the need to replenish our stock of good lunch options for the boys.  Things like pizzas and big salad platters and hearty sandwich nights work well here.
Thursdays tend to be good nights for either fish or pasta; fish because I can often make a run to the seafood market at lunchtime on a Thursday, and pasta because it’s quick and easy, which is appreciated late in the week.
Saturdays are my day to have fun in the kitchen.  I might try something ethnic, or something simple and a little less fussy, like a nacho or quesadilla bar.  The sky’s the limit, too, on Saturdays, because we’ll have done all our shopping Friday night or Saturday morning and thus I’ll have tons of ingredients on hand to work with.
Sundays are generally devoted to either a leisurely traditional Italian dish, like a baked pasta, or an old-school roast, like my Roast Chicken or a pork loin.  I cling firmly to my memories of what Sunday dinners used to be at my grandmother’s table, and J.’s recollections of family affairs with his Italian great-aunt at the helm; I want to recreate those things as much as I can for our boys.  We hold Sunday dinners sacred.

The other considerations are balance — too much chicken?  Too many pasta dishes? — and time.  Most of the things I make can truly be prepared, start to finish, in 45 minutes or less.  It’s rare that I’ll experiment too heavily on a weeknight.  I need to come to the stove or the prep counter knowing how to make what I’m making, and knowing how much time it takes.

However, as I consider all of this, I realize that there are some strategies I should list that help shore up the plan so that it (almost) always works.  In no particular order:
1) Keep fruit and frozen vegetables on hand at all times for a five-minute side dish substitution.
2) When you make rice, cous cous, or potatoes, you may want to make a double batch.  The extras can go into lunches or round out another weeknight meal, if need be.
3) Always make extra marinara sauce and keep it in the fridge or freezer.  Always.
4) Have in mind a fall-back position for true dinner emergencies that does not involve take-out, then make sure you keep the necessary items on hand.  For us, the fall-back positions are grilled cheese sandwiches or quesadillas, or a quick round of pancakes or eggs.  In any of those cases, we serve up some fruit alongside and consider it good to go.

Yes, there are certain things I may make ahead of time; last night, after the boys went to bed, I mixed up some pizza dough so it could rise and be ready for tonight’s meal (and that extra marinara sauce I mentioned?  It’s hanging around from Sunday’s eggplant, ready to be pressed into service).  Last week I made a double batch of cornbread over the weekend, half of which went into stuffing, and the other half of which was wrapped well and saved for a weeknight side.  But in general, I do believe that weeknight cooking is possible, and good meals are salvageable, if you know what to make, how to make it, and you have the ingredients on hand.  That’s it.

No big secrets, I’m afraid, but a small, further glimpse into the method behind the madness, perhaps?  What works for me is laying out the big picture, then taking things day by day and meal by meal, so our whole week doesn’t get derailed by an unexpectedly long and wonderful trip to the park that ate up weekend cooking time, or a Wednesday evening scheduling/traffic snafu that waylaid us and meant we didn’t get in the door until 6 p.m. or later.  It’s amazing, I find, how having a good foundation can provide me with the freedom to be flexible as needed.  Now.  There may be more questions than answers, after this post.  Ask away.  This week, I’m devoting the blog to what you want to know.

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14 Responses to Family Dinner, Take Two: Weeknight Challenges

  1. TB says:

    Thank you, that really helps. I read somewhere and I really liked it: you decide what they eat, they decide how much they eat. So, if meat, carrots and potatoes are on the menu and they only eat the carrots, fine. I like the idea but I’m not sure putting it into practice will be as easy.

    • I think that’s one of those ideas that can be taken with a grain of salt. I mean, yes, in theory you decide what to serve and when; they decide whether to eat and how much. But it doesn’t always work exactly the way it seems like it would. Yes, if they only eat the carrots, that’s fine to a point. But once L. hit age 3 we started the one-bite rule, because if we didn’t mandate that he try new foods, he wasn’t going to do it of his own accord. And same thing with P. — no, we’re not going to force-feed him, but we’re still going to encourage him to take a tiny taste of each food, even if he spits it out or just licks it at first. I think you’ve gotta go with your gut!

  2. TB says:

    I don’t think you’ve labled your children as “picky” eaters by a long shot, but I know there are some texture issues and such. My question is: was there a certian age that they start having issues with food? My little guy will eat just about anything. I know he doesn’t prefer mashed potatoes but so far so good with other stuff. I don’t expect this to last forever though. Just wondering if there is a typical age that they get fussy?

    • Great question! First, let me say that yeah…I try to avoid the “picky” label as much as possible. I figure it’s like almost any other label you try to throw at a kid — it can tend to become a self-fulfilling prophecy; plus, eating and trying new things is a learned behavior, not an innate character trait, so if you call a kid “picky” it’s really just a way of saying that either they haven’t yet been taught that behavior, or you want an easy explanation for why they’re not eating a large variety of foods.
      As to the texture issues, etc…with L., his sensory issues have been lifelong, so literally, he would never, ever, ever eat fruit. I mean, even as a baby, he’d refuse to even touch any kind of fruit other than bananas, and then he’d insist on holding the whole banana by its peel. With P., his major no-go foods are pasta and rice, which I also think is a texture issue, and again, those are foods that he has not once in his life eaten.
      However, as to OTHER types of fussiness…L. would eat anything other than fruit, and I mean ANYTHING, up until sometime between 18 months and 2 years of age. Then, from 2 years until just around age 4, we had lots of ups and downs about various foods, mainly vegetables. I think that’s roughly typical of the toddler/preschooler food jag thing. P. has become fussier recently as well. It seems, from my experience as well as hearing from other parents, that anytime after 18 months the food control stuff can set in. Makes sense, though — it’s developmental — they’re trying to exert control over their environments, and one of the few things toddlers and young preschoolers can control is what they eat.

  3. Danielle says:

    Three canned things that I always have in my pantry that make meals easier and quicker to get on the table (and which allow me flexibility for the meal, in case something changes last minute):

    1) Canned broth. Homemade is so much better, of course, but canned works well in a pinch.
    2) Canned tomatoes (whole, crushed, stewed, and diced) and tomato paste/sauce. Great way to punch up the flavor, and to sub in for tasteless winter tomatoes.
    3) Canned chickpeas and beans. Rinse and drain them and they are ready to add protein to veggie dishes, or mash them to add body to soups or make spreads for sandwiches.

    • These are absolutely essential. I think the well-stocked pantry is something that isn’t talked about enough when discussing family dinners — somehow, it seems daunting and unreachable and incompatible with our hectic family lives. But in reality, a well-stocked pantry not only makes things so much easier; it’s also less complicated than many people think. You’ve proven with this short list that it takes just a few ingredients that are always on hand to be sure that you’ll have the ability to get SOMETHING on the table at dinnertime!

  4. Kim B. says:

    Actually, this was really, really helpful. And I would say you revealed a ton of “big secrets.” Thanks for the insight!

  5. Kim B. says:

    LOL, I can never spell “commitment” correctly! *blush*

  6. is your pizza dough recipe on here somewhere? i love your recipe section, but it can be a little bit daunting when i’m looking for something without knowing when it might have been posted. btw – just as a side note, i may not have kids, but i’ve been putting more effort into meal planning and home cooked meals just for me and jen and it’s made a huge difference in how we feel and our budget, even with my crazy schedule where i work a lot of nights and weekends and class twice a week! it can be done…!

    • The pizza dough recipe is not on here, but I’m happy to share. I know, I’ve been working on trying to make the recipe section more user-friendly, but it keeps falling down the list of priorities. One day soon, I swear!
      Glad to hear that meal planning and home cooked meals are working out for you (kids or no kids!). It CAN be done!
      Now, pizza dough:
      4 cups flour (all-purpose works best; you can also sub in bread flour or whole wheat flour with the all-purpose, but I’d only do 25 or 50 percent at most for optimal texture)
      1 1/2 tsp. salt
      1 package active dry yeast
      1 tsp. sugar or honey
      1 1/2 cups warm water
      4 tablespoons olive oil

      You can do this in a stand mixer with a dough hook; in a food processor; or by hand. I usually do the stand mixer. Put the flour and salt in the mixer bowl and briefly combine. Dissolve the yeast and sugar/honey in the warm water; let proof for about 5 minutes, then pour into the flour mixture with the mixer running. As the flour begins to moisten, stream in the olive oil and let the mixer run until the dough comes together in a soft ball and pulls away completely from the sides of the bowl. Turn out onto a very lightly floured surface and knead BRIEFLY just to make sure it’s fully incorporated and is nice and soft and smooth. Now: you can either let it rise right away, or do an overnight refrigerator rise (both work fine, but lately I’ve been doing the pre-rise because I think it gets just a touch more air). To let rise, return the dough to the mixer bowl, cover loosely with a clean towel, and set in a warm place for 45 minutes to an hour; it should double in bulk. After the rise, cut the dough into four equal pieces — each one will make about a 6-8 inch pizza — and either use right away, or wrap in cling film and place in a sealed zip top bag in the refrigerator for up to 2 days. To do an overnight rise, cut the dough into 4 pieces immediately after kneading. Set on a greased baking sheet several inches apart, brush liberally with olive oil, and cover loosely with plastic wrap. Then place the baking sheet in the fridge for 18-24 hours. The dough balls should be roughly double in size when you remove them from the fridge. Make sure to let the dough sit out at room temperature for a minimum of 15 minutes before using, if it’s been refrigerated. The warmer the dough, the easier it is to stretch and shape.

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