Family Dinners and Small Kids

5 years ago

I was moved by this question on Casual Kitchen - Ask CK: Finding Time to Cook…With Small Children.

The mother of a 18 month old asked: how do we cook at home when we don't have much time? Both she and her husband work. After picking the little one up from daycare, they have an hour and fifteen minutes, then it's time to start putting the kid to bed. (Those little ones go to sleep early.)

Much to her credit, she wants to cook real food for dinner. But how is that possible in the brief window of time available?

My heart went out to her, because I lived through a similar experience. Diane was pregnant with Tim, our youngest. Tim decided after three months of pregnancy that he was ready to join us. The doctor strongly disagreed. Tim would have to wait, so Diane was put on full bed rest for the next six months. Natalie was eighteen months old, Ben was just about to turn three, and I was suddenly a short-term single parent. I was asking myself the same question - how to get dinner on the table when we all got home from daycare at 6PM, and the kids were ready for bed at 7:30?

I was already DadCooksDinner by that point. I started cooking every night back when it was just me and Diane; by the time of the bed rest, I had years of experience putting quick weeknight dinners on the table for us and the kids.

*As usual, I have to thank Pam Anderson at this point. If you want to know how to really cook, not just follow recipes, start with her How to Cook Without a Book. It pushed me out of the nest and taught me to fly.

Cooking is important to me. I was determined this would not be the end of my home-cooked meals. I am past cooking dinner because I want to, or because I'm obligated to. It has become a need. It is part of my daily routine. If I don't cook, I get twitchy. When I do cook, I feel more centered. For my mental health, home-cooked meals were not optional. Still, this was a formidable challenge. How could I squeeze in dinner, and have a little time to spend with the kids before they went to bed?

Time Shifting:

That hour and a half window between our arrival and the kids bedtime was too short. I quickly learned to move as much work as possible outside that window. A big one was cleanup. Clearing the table? Doing the dishes? That could wait until the kids were in bed. Then I could pour myself a glass of wine and start cleaning.

The other task to move was the actual cooking. I did a few different ways:

1. Pressure Cooker meals: My pressure cooker let me make tomorrow's dinner tonight. After the kids were in bed, while I was cleaning the kitchen, I would cook a meal in the pressure cooker. Once it was finished, it went in the refrigerator. The next night, the moment I walked through the door, I would scrape the fat off the top of the pot and reheat it on the stovetop. Dinner was ready in 15 minutes. And, I had an unexpected bonus. Pressure cookers are best at soups, stews and chilis. They all taste better the second day. There is something about an overnight rest that lets the flavors mingle, causing the stew to taste more complete. My dinners tasted better because they were made a day ahead!

*I also have to thank Lorna Sass. I would have been stuck without her collection of one-pot pressure cooker meals, The Pressured Cook.

2. Slow Cooker meals: As with the pressure cooker, I did most of the work the night before. I would assemble everything in my slow cooker crock, and put it in the refrigerator overnight. The next morning I would drop it in the slow cooker base, turn it on, and dinner would be ready when I got home.

There are two problems with this approach. The first one I learned the hard way - a cold crock plus a hot slow cooker base can crack the ceramic crock. (I was wondering what the spider web of cracks was…until the crock started leaking, and I had to buy a replacement.) The second problem is a crock straight out of the refrigerator takes a long time to heat up. This keeps food in the "danger zone" of temperatures for bacterial growth for too long. I never got us sick, but that was probably more luck (and really long cooking times) than anything.

The solution to these problems? I get up a little early and prep the crockpot meal first thing in the morning instead of the night before. Or, I prep the night before and store the food in a covered bowl in the refrigerator. The next morning I transfer it to my room temperature slow cooker.

3. Make ahead meals: Sunday was my chance to get ahead of the curve. I would make a large roast, so I could have leftovers for a meal during the week. Sometimes it was just reheated pork roast with mashed potatoes. Other times I would pull the roast chicken from the bones and serve it with tortillas for taco night.
Also, when I had time, I would make big batches of white rice, my kids' favorite food. I would always have a 2-quart container or rice in the fridge, waiting to be reheated in the microwave for a quick side dish.

*Leftovers have a bad reputation. "Let's clean out the refrigerator night", where everyone grabs their favorite two quart container of leftovers, is a standby for us.

4. No Cook Meals: My final trick was to skip cooking altogether. If you don't have to turn on the stove, a meal is much faster to assemble. I started "Dad's Super Sub Sandwich" night, with a loaf of french bread sliced down the middle and filled to order with lunch meat, cheese, and bagged salad.

Big dinner salads were another mainstay. Toss bagged lettuce with a good homemade vinaigrette; add a couple different pre-cut or shredded vegetables, some good crumbled cheese, and maybe dried cranberries or pickled peppers. Top with leftover roast chicken, and we were ready to eat.


I had to give up on a lot of my gourmet pretensions. Yes, I know, Mr. "make your own chicken stock" had to scale it back.

Vegetables came out of bags, either pre-cut (think bagged salads and bagged carrots), or frozen (microwaveable bags of frozen corn and peas make quick and easy side dishes), or fruit substituted for the vegetable. Apples, grapes and pineapple are all favorites.

Starches were either part of the pressure cooker meal (potatoes or beans in the stew), made ahead of time (see the rice idea above), or no-cook (Bread, pitas, tortillas). Quick cooking couscous is about the only pasta I could manage, and that was with an electric kettle to boil the water.

My gourmet cooking and farmers market shopping would wait for the weekends, when I could give them the necessary time.

Meal Planning:

Planning is critical. I couldn't come home and think "hmmm…what do we want for dinner?" There wasn't time. I had to know exactly what to do the moment I walked through the door. Every Saturday I sat down with my grocery store flier and did my meal plan for the week. That plan would go on the whiteboard on my refrigerator, so I could check it every night to make sure I knew what was next.

I'm Not Perfect:

Finally, and most importantly: Perfection is the enemy of good enough. More home cooked food is always better than less. I did what I could, and cut myself some slack when I just couldn't get it done. Sure, bagged and frozen vegetables aren't as good as fresh from the farmers market. But they're better than stopping for fast food on the way home. This was a chance to get creative. What's wrong with breakfast for dinner? Eggs and toast are really quick. Or PB&J and an apple?

*And, I wasn't perfect. If I got knocked down, and gave in to the lure of a delivery pizza, I would get back up the next night and try again.

The good news is: as the kids get older, time will open up. Cooking won't always have to be in a rush. Someday, there will be time to spend a whole 45 minutes on dinner before the kids start complaining about how hungry they are.

*Except on soccer night, and then you'll have all these techniques to fall back on!

What do you think? What are your experiences with home cooked meals with very little time? Any other tips or tricks I didn't mention? Share them in the comments section below.

Check out the orignal post on Casual Kitchen that inspired this blog:

Casual Kitchen - Ask CK: Finding Time to Cook…With Small Children

There are a lot of great suggestions in the comments, including one from me that turned into this post.

This post is part of BlogHer's The Smart Mom's Guide to Being Busy editorial series, made possible by Rice Krispies.

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