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When Dinnertime Becomes a Dinnersaga

Jul22

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Hi Amy,

So this isn’t going to sound like a problem starting out, but my husband is an excellent cook. Seriously, probably the best cook I know. He’s also home with our 11 month old daughter full-time. The issue is that, now that he spends his days dealing with an exhausting baby, we both end up treating that first hour after I get home from work as well-deserved down time. So if he starts working on a masterpiece meal after that…we’re eating a lot of meals at 9:00 PM. I feel like it might be time to switch to a few more family-style recipes, and for me to start cooking dinner more than 3 times a year (I actually like to cook…but I inevitably end up leaving a single droplet of water on his perfectly seasoned cast iron pan, or MOVING THE SALT AN INCH TO THE RIGHT OF ITS PERFECT PLACE, so it’s easy to just let him do everything). It seems like your family eats pretty well despite being busy people…do you have any secrets? Any secrets that conveniently leave no trace that you ever even looked at anything in the kitchen?

Thanks!
Eating-at-midnight-because-the-meat-had-to-salt

Haaaaaa, yes. YES. I also married a man who is a wonderful cook, and who generally loves to cook, but who also maaaayyyybe occassssssionally tends to be a little too ambitious and gets a little carried away in the face of a delicious-sounding recipe that he just HAS to try. Right then! On a Tuesday. At 6 p.m. After completely neglecting to read it all the way through, thus skipping the step that involves like, two and a half hours of cooking time plus an hour in the fridge and whaaaaattt?

(We are also a couple that has “issues” when we cook “together,” as Jason is a clean-as-you-go cook and I’m the sort who lets everything pile up into a mountainous pile of ingredient-caked ruin to deal with when I’m done. Thus he gets an eyelid twitch from the mess I make, then he follows me around and cleans up things I’m still using. We drive each other INSANE.)

Honestly, you guys will eventually be FORCED into better cooking/meal planning habits as your daughter gets older. You’ll need to get dinner together and on the table at a more reasonable time for her sake, lest you be making HER a meal of nuggets at 5:30 while you guys get the duck a l’orange at 11:45. And if you do that, I will know, and I will find you, and I will…uh. GLARE AT YOU TIREDLY. Or something. And may lightly smack you in the head with that Ellyn Satter book.

But now is as good of a time as ever to start moving dinnertime up to something that your daughter could realistically join in — 11 months old is a GREAT age to start including her in family meals and modeling good table manners and eating habits. So here’s some things that work for us:

1) CROCK POT. Don’t let your husband get in a snobby snit over the Crock Pot. It’s God’s gift to busy families and it’s NOT just for watery overcooked stews anymore. There are some really, really great slow cooker cookbooks out there that will blow your mind with what’s possible to make (and make WELL). You do all the prep the night before. Some recipes cook overnight and then rest in the fridge, while others just need to be turned on at some point during the next day. Some you serve right from the cooker, others benefit from a nice sear on the cast iron or grill — either way, your dinnertime duty just got demoted down to whipping up a salad or side, rather than putting the whole meal together from scratch. Your husband can still stay up late making his masterpiece…but it will be ready at a more realistic time the next day. We really love the America’s Test Kitchen Slow Cooker Revolution series (here’s volume one and volume two is available for pre-order) — think barbecue ribs, jerk chicken, ragus, etc. (And it’ll also help you learn to modify other non-Crock-Pot recipes, since it’s very educational.) We also use this Indian Slow Cooker cookbook since we loooooove Indian food. If there’s any ethnic food that’s a favorite of yours, there’s probably a guide to slow cooker versions out there. (Oh, and Smitten Kitchen has great slow cooker recipes. Have I mentioned the brisket? I believe I have mentioned the brisket. OMG, the brisket.)

2) MEAL PLANNING. This was a hard one for me. I liked deciding what I felt “in the mood” to eat each night, rather than committing to “Okay We Will Make Turkey Meatballs On Wednesday.” But that’s what we have to do in order to get reasonably-priced meals on the table by a reasonable time each night. Before we go grocery shopping we each get a couple votes on what we feel like eating/making that week and we make sure we have all the ingredients. If the recipe on the docket for Monday requires extra prepping time, we can plan accordingly for it. (Make a marinade on Sunday, or I set a reminder on my phone to do X, Y or Z when I get a minute in the afternoon. Get meat defrosted, vegetables chopped, let something come up to room temperature, etc.) Having a meal plan for the week has the extra bonus of reducing our food waste — no bunches of rotting vegetables getting tossed because we never got around to using them. We only buy what we actually plan to make that week.

3) EXPERIMENT ON THE WEEKENDS. Jason loves trying new recipes, but whenever he does it on a weeknight, it ends in semi-disaster. It takes longer than he expected, the kids are whining and can’t wait any longer, we’re missing some key ingredient and have to find a weird substitution, etc. So now, before anything can get added to the weeknight rotation, we try it out on the weekend. Practice! Plus it gives us a chance to see if any aspect of the recipe can be done ahead of time or if there are any other shortcuts we could take.

4) PREP/STOCK UP ON THE WEEKENDS. Make your go-to meat marinades and sauces and freeze them. Stale bread + herbs + food processor + freezer = all the seasoned breadcrumbs you’ll ever need. Chop up your onions/carrots/celery and bag it up all portioned in the fridge. Make and freeze dough for pizza, rolls, etc. Even if your husband still wants to whip together an improvisational masterpiece on Tuesday, there are still probably some basic building blocks he uses regularly that you can prep ahead of time.

5) DO WHATEVER YOU GOTTA DO. Look, the first hour after you get home from work? Absolutely 100% deserved down time and I would never mess with that. But let’s say the hour BEFORE you get home, your daughter maybe watches some Blue’s Clues from her play yard while your husband at least gets the ball sort of generally rolling in the direction of dinner. That would…not be terrible. Or all that different from hundreds of thousands of homes across the country around the witching hour. If he could commit to at least THINKING about dinner by say, 4 pm, he could at least get meat defrosted, oven preheated, chicken in a bag of the marinade you made a couple nights before, etc.

While Jason and I aren’t awesome at cooking together, we do operate in shifts. I take the first prep shift because I’m home and can start getting stuff together, then he comes home and will take over. We hang in the kitchen together and talk, so it’s a hybrid of active cooking and downtime — maybe I’ll make us a cocktail while Jason sears the meat, he’ll roll out dough while I make pot pie fillings, we both sit down and relax while the chili (made with a spice blend we make in bulk and keep on hand) simmers unattended because ahhhh, easy meal. The kids might be in the backyard or watching TV or just beating the crap out of each other in the basement. Meh. They’re fine.

It’s great that your husband cooks and enjoys it, but he does need to start planning it out a bit…not better, but tighter. Dinner just can’t happen at nine or 10 p.m. anymore, so if he wants to be ambitious and make gourmet meals every night, that’s fine: Just find the shortcuts and do-aheads, much like he would in a restaurant kitchen. Agree that maybe on Friday nights, you’ll make some mac-and-cheese for your daughter and he can go nuts on a later meal just for you, but the other weeknight meals need to happen at a more realistic time, even if it means simpler recipes, a slow cooker or — GOD FORBID — you are allowed in the kitchen to help out even though you never put the salt back in the right place.

About the author

Amalah

http://www.amalah.com
Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy's daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it's pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to amyadvice@gmail.com.

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.


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23 Responses to “When Dinnertime Becomes a Dinnersaga”

  1. Kari Weber Jul 22 at 6:12 pm Reply Reply

    I have started meal planning… for real. I used to WANT to do it… but never committed. Now on the weekend, I sit down with my cookbooks, the internet, or my own imagination and plan out dinners for the week. It gives me a chance to try some new things, or break away from the boring stand-bys… It also gives me a reason to make sure I know what is GOING ON that week. Husband working late on Wednesday? Then maybe that is the day my boys and I go to sushi (since my husband doesn’t eat fish… we call him a Continentarian…) I have a meeting Tuesday? Crock Pot Day!  Then I make a grocery list that is organized by category. I also have been trying to make recipes that may double up on.  For example: if I am going to have to buy fresh basil, I try to make sure I am using it for 2 to 3 recipes or sides. Then… and this is the IMPORTANT thing: I right down the weeks dinners on a notebook page and tape it to the fridge.  This keeps me on track, and organized… but MORE IMPORTANTLY- keeps me from having to hear the dreaded words coming from my husband’s mouth when I come home from work, “What’s for dinner?” BLARGHHHHHHHH!

    I pretty much do 100% of the cooking, and this keeps us all sane. AND I have noticed, like Amy, that I have less going bad in my fridge, and my grocery bill has been dropping since I am not just buying randomly at the store.

  2. Susan Jul 22 at 7:26 pm Reply Reply

    YES! Meal planning!

    Plus preparing/cooking during naps. Thankfully with kid #2, I’ve been blessed with a great napper so I use that time to cook dinner every day. Sadly, we aren’t really eating any hot-off-the-stove meals these days, but eh, the food is home cooked and we all eat together (including the 7 month old, albeit pureed foods) and that’s more important to me. 

  3. Alissa Jul 22 at 8:34 pm Reply Reply

    I only do easy meals (grilled meat and veggies) or I do crock pot meals.  But we eat pretty much right when hubby comes in the door at 5:30, so kids can get to bed at a decent time.  The ONLY way I can make that happen is with Independent Playtime.  My son plays in his room, by himself, for an hour (he’s 4 years old).  The baby plays by herself in a pack-n-play for 30 minutes (she’s 9 months old).  I cook, set the table, get drinks on the table, and have everything set to go.  It totally would not happen if I didn’t work really hard, for their entire lives, at getting the kids to be able to play happily on their own.  Highly recommend it!

  4. Corinne Jul 22 at 9:47 pm Reply Reply

    Oh my god, you just described the cooking relationship my husband and I have to a T.  He gets ambitious and sometimes dinner doesn’t get served until 11pm because he decided to hand make ravioli and the dough wouldn’t firm or something.  And the cleaning as you go vs. clean it all at the end.  He takes away things I’m using!!! Or makes comments about it being a disaster.  Of course the kitchen’s a disaster, I’m in the middle of cooking!  We are desperately trying to figure out how to do family dinners with a 2 year old who must be in bed by 7 (which means we need to start getting ready around 6:30 which means dinner must be on the table by 6pm, and we don’t get home from work until 5:30…  So far, not super successful.  Definitely will be trying some of the crockpot recipes!  

  5. Olivia Jul 22 at 11:29 pm Reply Reply

    We try to get dinner on the table no later than 6:15 for a 7:30 bedtime. My husband cooks in bulk and freezes so about half the week we just need to cook pasta or rice and a veg, and the other half I cook simple meat/starch/veg meals or use the crock pot. And I just got a cook book for cooking a variety of things in the rice cooker: set it and leave it FTW!

    And, this may not work for the OP, but I don’t do meal planning. Instead I go more with well stocked pantry sort of like this http://thenonconsumeradvocate.com/2010/05/the-pantry-principle-vs-menu-planning/. I might think of a meal I haven’t made in a while or a new recipe before I go shopping for the week, but for the most part I just keep a lot of basic ingredients stocked at all times. I even buy primarily frozen veggies because I’ve had way too many go bad on me in less than a week.

  6. Eszter Jul 22 at 11:43 pm Reply Reply

    Our son is only 6 month-old but I am already taking notes!

    So far, we always had one of us cook and the other person took up the role of being the “Little Helper”-as we call it.

    My husband and I also have an ongoing competition about who can waist less food. Whatever we pick out at the market or grocery shop we are in charge of meaning its the “pickers” responsibility that something eventually will happen to that vegetable, fruit etc.

  7. Autumn Jul 23 at 12:00 am Reply Reply

    Kind of a role reversal, I’m at home 2 days a week and I’m the cook.  When I”m working, those are days for fast and easy stuff or leftovers.  Fridays are almost always pizza.

    I get to “play” and have fun on the weekends and during her nap times.  Our 23 month old has a later nap (230 to 5) so she doesn’t go to bed till 9, which means she sleeps in till 730 or so.  Which is Awesome! With the later nap time, the last hour is when I start all my prep work, get marinades going, etc so I”m ready to cook around 630 when she is playing with Mr Autumn.  We give her a snack when she gets up from nap to tide her over.  But I have a hard deadline of food out by 730 cause otherwise cranky kid and hubby.  

    On the weekends, I will tackle longer, more complicated things.  I guess I choose to cook during her nap time as my way of relaxing.  Mr Autumn fed himself for 5 years before we married, so he can cook, but he’s better at baby wrangling so that’s whay we are doing now.  

  8. Rebekah Jul 23 at 1:07 pm Reply Reply

    We are in a similar boat over here.

    My son is 19 months and we’re still trying to figure this whole eating together thing out, too.

    I make him dinner that he eats by himself at around 5:30, husband comes home around 6:30, we do bed time routine together and then husband starts making dinner while I work. We’re normally eating by 9:30 or 10.

    I’d love to have our family eat together, and I’d love to model eating different foods in front of our 19 mo. old to expose him to more, but I just can’t figure out how to do it.

    Would Satter have a fit if she saw us eating two meals at night?

    • Kate Jul 24 at 2:57 pm Reply Reply

      This is what we did from the time my oldest was a baby until a few months ago. It seemed to work fine when he was little because he woudl be asleep at 7 and we could be eating by 8. But now, he’s 4 and sometimes isn’t asleep until 8:30, plus I have a toddler now too. The two meals schedule was becoming a nightmare because my oldest was used to only “kid food” and is a terribly picky eater. All my own doing, I know. So we had to make a change, which is that I gave up my 1:1 dinner time with hubby (who also isn’t home until 6:30 usually –too late for the kids to eat). I plan and prep like crazy so I can get dinner on the table in less than 30 minutes after I get home (by 6), then I sit and eat with the kids. If hubby makes it, great. If not, he can eat later. But it became clear that my kids needed to see a family dinner, even if it’s just them and me –with a variety of foods — modeled for them. It’s much harder, but it’s worth it.

      • autumn Jul 25 at 1:12 am Reply Reply

        Satter would probably have a gentle frown, but I couldn’t say for sure cause my 23 month old found and hid my copy.  My guess is under the couch but too lazy to look. . .

        We compromised with your situation.  I generally pick our daughter up from day care between 5 and 530, and we go home and have a snack, which tends to be some chopped fresh fruit, cottage cheese (kiddo LOVEs) or a hard boiled egg, and sometimes part of a muffin if she’s in a growth spurt and eating everything.  This satisfies her so she’s not starving and can have dinner with both of us around 7 where she’s served whatever we are having (except salad, but we will give her some if she wants).  we do bed time a little later cause she typically (watch me jinx myself here ) till 730 so we keep her up to eat with both of us.  

        • Rebekah Jul 25 at 4:02 pm Reply Reply

          OK, so Kate and Autumn, you’ve both inspired me to try to do the whole family dinner thing.

          I do love just vegging out on the couch with hubby while we eat dinner and watch old episodes of Psych.

          Thanks so much for the suggestions!

  9. BA Jul 23 at 4:10 pm Reply Reply

    You have no idea how happy I was to see this post! Seriously, this is just like our situation, except our kids are older so they are waiting (NOT patiently) to eat as well, and/or have activities that throw the whole evening routine off. My husband also doesn’t like for me to cook because of the mess I make! I haven’t found a way to approach him about this problem without sounding like I’m nagging or not appreciative of his cooking. Would it be too passive/aggressive to send him a link to this post?!

  10. Kristen Jul 23 at 4:21 pm Reply Reply

    We do our meal planning on Sunday and write everything up in a Google Calendar we created to track dinners.  We usually eat in front of the TV, but are transitioning to the table now that our baby is 5 months old (of course, we totally forgot to do it last night).  We also instituted a rule that whoever cooks is exempt from cleaning the dishes.  

    For all of you who use crockpots, do you leave the house with them cooking?  I didn’t think that was safe, but then someone is tied to the house if we use one.  Since we both work outside of the home, we never use our crockpot. (And I want to!)

    • bean Jul 23 at 9:42 pm Reply Reply

      For what it’s worth…. I’ve never stayed home to babysit the crockpot.  :)

    • Liz Jul 24 at 2:53 pm Reply Reply

      Yep!  I leave the slow cooker on low all day while the house is empty.  Slow cooker recipes are so forgiving that it can generally sit for 10 hours (who can get home in 8 hours, what with travel time?) until I’m back.

  11. Ally Jul 23 at 5:15 pm Reply Reply

    Kristen, I contacted our local fire department about using a crockpot while not at home. They said it is very safe and I shouldn’t worry about leaving it on all day.

  12. Jeannie Jul 23 at 10:09 pm Reply Reply

    Meal planning is the bane of my existence as a parent, but is the only route to survival, IMO. Otherwise there is too much wastes food, too many late nights, and / or too many trips to the store …. Not to mention too much money! Like you, my husband is the better cook, and likes to do it, and like you, he also is often overly ambitious. When we tried to combine that with a kid who HAD to eat at 5:30, or didn’t eat at all and lost his mind in a meltdown … Well. Clearly that didn’t work. Both my kids are much better at waiting now, thankfully.

    We do all those things, above, we plan and shop on the weekend, and even do prep for week nights on Sunday (amazing how helpful chopped veggies are for a busy Wednesday!) And the crock pot is great too. And no more experiments spur of the moment, alas. Plan those ahead too. Same day, sure. But just not at 6pm!

    Good luck!

  13. Alison Jul 24 at 12:16 am Reply Reply

    We don’t have kids but had a similar problem.  Come home look in the fridge, then discuss what we want for dinner, then go to the store, buy ingredients, come home start cooking.   I drove me nuts.
    Sundays I write up a meal plan for the week and grocery shop for everything.  Early in the week are fresh meats etc, later in the week I use up the pre prepared meals from the freezer – marinaded chickedn / meatballs / soups etc.
    To stop waste in our house, top shelf in the fridge is dedicated to FOOD THAT MUST BE USED UP FIRST, which are any leftovers, open packets etc.  

  14. Diana Jul 24 at 2:34 am Reply Reply

    One of my friends just cooks a day ahead. So he cooks Monday night till late, then reheats and serves at dinnertime on Tuesday. Does it every day of the week. For me, I prefer to cook most of dinner during nap time, and just heat and serve at dinner.

  15. JCF Jul 24 at 4:14 pm Reply Reply

    I stay at home with my three kids (5, 4, 3), and I do the cooking.  They need to eat by 6, because they’re hungry, and we need to start the bedtime routine, and my husband gets home by 6 at the earliest.  I’ll hold dinner a bit if he’s on his way, but otherwise the kids and I eat together.  I don’t love it, but they need to eat a real dinner (not kid food), and they need to sit down with a parent to form those family-dinner habits.  

    As far as cooking goes with the kids awake and no other adult home to watch them…
    -I used to do a lot of the prep during naptime, but now nobody naps, so I don’t really get that time anymore.
    -I do take advantage of the crockpot to save time during the witching hour.
    -I use the grill a lot this time of year, to avoid heating up the un-air conditioned house, and to save on clean up.
    -I save the fancy meals for the weekends when we’ll have friends for dinner after the kids are asleep, or when my husband and I have an at-home date night.

    Before we had kids, I came home from work and cooked for hours at a time to produce gorgeous fancy meals every night.  When the oldest two were just babies, I fed them first (nursing and finger foods) and cooked after they went to bed.  But I agree that around a year is a good time to start serving one meal for the whole family.

  16. Delora Jul 25 at 11:04 pm Reply Reply

    That paragraph about not being able to cook together? I just had to read that out loud to my husband, because you basically just summed up our entire relationship right there.

  17. Jesse Aug 06 at 3:28 pm Reply Reply

    SPICE MIX RECIPE PLEASE!!

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