When my children were little I worked part-time and so 3 days a week they happily went off to day-care. Not surprisingly, on those days dinner time were very challenging as the kids were thoroughly exhausted. Early mornings, lots of stimulation, engaging play, learning new things plus late pickups, meant that by the time I was there to collect them, they were tired, grisly and needed to go to bed. Between the kids and bed, however, was bath-time and the dreaded family dinner.
With two tired parents, outnumbered by three tired children, the evening process was far from enjoyable. In fact, instead of winding down, it always felt to me like the kids started winding up, and my energy levels and patience started crashing.
About half way through my “stint” at daycare (before the kids went to big school), I went looking for a solution and with a little trial and error I did find a few tricks that really helped. The 4 little tricks were:
- The lunch at daycare is really nutritious and plentiful – dinner can be simple.
- I needed to plan my meals for my week ahead, this was not the time to fly by the seat of my pants.
- Recognize early signs of your children (and parents) being over tired and always have a “plan b” dinner handy (aka the smoothie).
- Family mealtimes are extremely beneficial for my children but I needed to pick the right opportunities for this to matter.
What does this all mean?
I discovered that my children were eating a warm full dinner style lunch at daycare, so I chatted to the staff to ensure my children were in fact eating it. From this I was able to surmise that they were eating a full and nutritious meal at lunch. They were actually eating a much better lunch than I was! This made me think that I could simplify dinner, knowing that a good lunch and afternoon tea was already had.
I decided to make our life a lot easier, on the 3 days they were going to daycare and embraced the fact that daycare was offering a hot nutritious meal. This meant that if even on those days the only thing I could quickly muster up was a sandwich or toasties, the kids weren’t going to whittle away to nothing (like the dreaded mum guilts tells us will happen).
So I decided to be kind to myself and served up food on those days that I knew my children loved so it was fast to eat and quick and easy to make. This was not the time to try new foods. With my ultimate fall back being toasties or a sandwich. The choice of simple pre-chopped fruit and yoghurt offered for dessert meant that it still felt like “dinner” for the kids.
Meal planning also became really important, recognizing that cooking from scratch (even if just a basic meal) takes time. I needed to have meals ready in minutes, so that any spare time we did have could be spent connecting around the table not spending time in the kitchen. This meant that I double batched meals on the weekends where possible, and chopped fruit on a Sunday to have it ready for mid-week desserts. When I had spare time on weekends, I would batch up some soup or spaghetti bolognaise so that it was a simple re-heat not cook. In fact, I have recently been inspired to get back into meal planning using @freshfastfrugal, check them out HERE it has yet again made my life so much easier now with work, kids homework and sports commitments taking over most of my evenings (if you want to try them out, use code ATTBONUS for 20% off the first month).
I also recognized that no two days are the same with kids and towards the end of the week I found they were even more tired, so I planned for this. This meant we all had a smoothie for dinner, or smoothie with weet-bix or a green smoothie. So that a full meal was in one drink! This saved my sanity at times. Of course my husband and I (equally exhausted), also had a smoothie for dinner too, so that we could all eat (read drink) the same meal. We actually still do this today when we have had a big day out and everyone is tired. Even if you just incorporate this one tip into your week, it will take so much pressure off your evenings and it’s a bit of fun too! If you aren’t sure what to include, look for inspiration HERE at the best and worst ingredients for smoothies from the website eatingwell.com.
And finally, whilst I am very passionate about prioritizing family mealtimes and recognize the importance of them (read why they are important HERE), I’m also very practical. If your kids are so tired that they arent engaged at the dinner table or you find yourself using more “functional language” (sit up straight, eat up, one more spoonful) then you are missing the point of family dinners. The real richness of family dinners comes from the conversation (see our Dinner Conversation Cards range HERE) not just the physicality of sitting at the table together. I found that understanding your week and picking the best times for family dinner nights, and planning for them, helps to also show that it is a priority in your family and whilst eating together every night would be great, it sometimes isn’t realistic or beneficial for anyone.