My parents split up when I was 2, so both of my parents had a lot to juggle in the evening with 2 kids and full-time work. Through my school years, my older sister and I lived mostly with our father. He would pick us up from daycare at 6, go shopping for dinner ingredients on the way home, make a from-scratch family dinner that was on the table by 7:30 and I was in bed by 8:30. Things flowed. Sometimes we helped with dinner, sometimes we watched TV. I set the table and my sister washed the dishes after dinner.
Family dinners were the place where we connected, bonded, and shared our days.
Even as we got older it was always assumed that we would be home for dinner and we had to let my dad know in advance if we had a conflict. Same goes for now when I go back to visit.
Looking forward toward the day that I would have children, I always knew that I wanted the same sense of celebration and connection to stem from family dinner, but I also didn’t realize how something like that came together night after night.
I remember one of my father’s girlfriends being amazed that my dad could come up with a meal in under an hour and I also remember thinking that she was weird.
Now that I have a child (with another on the way), I realize that living and eating that way takes some planning and a repertoire of easy to make dinners. And some balancing of expectations. When Maia was itty bitty I needed to slow the roll on my expectations. I wanted to eat dinner with my husband and my daughter was a boob-latched baby from 6 to 9 every night. So I put a napkin on her head and dug into the meal that my husband put together. Then there was a stretch that Maia was going to bed at 5:30 every night, which was right as we got home from daycare. So we would get home, I would nurse her to sleep and lay her down for the night (or rather until about midnight when she woke up to feed again). So family dinner was pretty much off the table. But her bedtime finally stretched out far enough to fit it in. Now we get home from daycare around 5:30, have dinner on the table by 6:15 and charge on up to bed by 7. It’s not a big window, but that time means the world to me.
I always give Maia a snack on the way home from daycare. It’s an extra snack in her day and usually cuts down on how much she eats at dinner, but it also means that she won’t melt down from hunger the moment we arrive at home. This snack is usually some cereal (O’s and puffed corn), dried fruit and pretzels, plus her water bottle. Little baggies of these snacks live in my car, so that I always have them on hand in a pinch.
While we cook mostly “from scratch,” it definitely doesn’t mean we do anything fancy in our house. Sometimes it just means a random assortment of fixings on the table that we all grab from. At the table burritos (“beetos!”) have become a fast favorite in our house. We cook longer and larger meals on the weekends to make up for our quick weeknights.
Here is a list, in no particular order, of the meals that we can get on the table in our allotted window.
– Premade casseroles.
Whenever we make any kind of casserole (mac and cheese, bread pudding, or lasagna are regulars) we always make double and stick the extra in the freezer. Pull the frozen casserole out in the morning and it makes for a quick reheat in the evening.
– Crock pot meals.
We’ve got a large 8 qt crock pot and many of our meals can be made into lunches as well as frozen for another night down the road. We usually prep the crock pot ingredients the night before, so in the morning it’s just a matter of tossing everything in and turning it on. I know some folks who go a step further and make frozen prep ingredients for their favorite crock pot meals, so it’s just a dump and run in the morning.
We keep a stock of frozen pizza dough in the freezer and will pull one down the night before to thaw in the fridge and then do a quick assembly after arriving home. Or we go even easier and use English muffins, so everyone gets their personally favorite toppings.
This is a toddler favorite. My husband makes a long time family pasta sauce recipe and freezes it in small batches. We thaw it the night before and just have to heat the sauce and cook the pasta. We also often just open a jar of Boves and thin it a bit with some frozen pureed tomatoes that we put away in the fall. Then we either just throw in some leftover meat or sauté up some ground beef with onions, garlic and sometimes other veggies. Another even faster pasta option is pesto. It doesn’t even need to be heated up. I’ll make big batches of pesto and freeze it in small containers, or just use something store-bought. Carbonara and Pad Thai are other pasta staples in our house.
We’ve got a great, cheap rice cooker with a timer, so we can set it up in the morning and then sauté up some toppings when we get home. I’ve also cooked other things with the rice to great success. You can add chicken, veggies, herbs, olive oil, etc (just don’t add meat if it’s going to be sitting on your counter all day). My current favorite “just rice” combo is brown basmati rice, water, a splash of olive oil or a knob of butter, a bouillon cube and a rosemary sprig.
It might be something as simple as heating up a fully cooked sausage. Or we might marinate some chicken or turkey during the day. Grilled soup was one of my favorite things that my dad would make when I was a kid. Grill a couple tomatoes, an onion and a bell or poblano pepper. Remove the pepper skin under cold running water. Puree the veggies with some chicken or veggie broth. So fantastic and simple. Hamburgers are an easy staple that produce a little leftover meat to use in another dish.
– Marinated meat.
Grill, stove or even oven (for small pieces of meat) are great ways to cook meat that’s been marinating all day to pair with the starch of your choice. Vindaloo marinade has been a fast favorite in our house. You can make your own marinade ahead or buy a premade one.
– Already cooked meat options.
This might be pate or creton (a super tasty Quebecios pork spread) in our house. But other fast options are deli meats, sausages, hot dogs and lox.
So easy. So toddler approved. It might be grilled cheese sandwiches, cream cheese on a bagel, or even cheese on a platter of other stuff that Maia probably won’t eat. I make sure to have some fruit or veggie that she’ll likely eat with it.
Breakfast is designed to be fast, simple and nutritious and there is no reason to keep it relegated to the mornings. For us, this might mean anything from eggs, pancakes, French toast, bacon, bagels, toast, or even sometimes cold cereal with fruit and milk.
– Cold salads.
Potato salad, egg salad, chicken salad, tuna salad, pasta salad. There are a myriad of choices that can be made several days ahead and pulled right out of the fridge for dinner.
And let’s be honest here. If my husband isn’t going to be at the dinner table then I often go suuuuper simple. Yogurt, fruit and bread keeps both me and my toddler fed and content. It’s very important to me to introduce my kids to the flavors of our home. But I don’t need to push the envelope at every meal.
For family dinners, I keep including the ingredients that I want her to be exposed to. Maia can eat them or not. She can pick stuff out or eat around the ingredients that she doesn’t like, but I’ll keep putting them in there.
There is a food preference practice called “Tiny Tastes” that has been studied and found to actually change a person’s food preferences over time through exposure to small amounts of the offending food.
So I figure that even if she picks out 95% of the onions in a dish, the other 5% will work their way into her repertoire.
She’s a pro at dumping, so I’ll often put an ingredient into one small bowl that she’ll dump into the bigger bowl. She likes to mix things. I even bought her some toddler safe knives, but she doesn’t quite get how to use them yet. She’s good at mixing eggs around on the stove and (with supervision) understands that the stove is hot and that she needs to be careful. Heck, sometimes I don’t have anything fun to give her to do, so I will let her play in the spice cabinet or food storage container cabinet (my husband hates that, but eh, it keeps her entertained and she’s learning stacking and sorting – it’s all good).