The 10 Commandments of Drama-Free School Night Dinners
I know that some of you aren’t in the back-to-school groove just yet—we do go back stupid early, here in the south—but even if you’re not there yet, the time is coming. And I don’t know about you, but summer ’round here is when the various shifting schedules and travel and such mean that I give up on a lot of the organization I insist upon during the academic year. Over the summer, maybe we eat out or throw hot dogs on the grill and pick some green beans and cucumbers straight from the garden and eat them raw alongside the dogs. Maybe I look askance at the teenager proclaiming “I’m hungry” in the evening and suggest they make themselves something to eat. We aren’t always eating together, we’re rarely eating at the table, and the truth is that I’m much more likely to suggest we all go out for ice cream than I am to plan a nutritious meal.
Once we’re back to school, though, dinner is the glue that binds us (or at least that’s the fantasy in my mind). I actually try to plan out meals ahead of time, and we eat together at the table on most school nights. It gives us a chance to check in with each other and decompress from the day. And it goes a lot better if I’m not standing in front of the fridge at 6:30pm, muttering about how “I just fed you people last night.”
There are two things you have to understand about me and meal planning, however. First: I actually like to cook (I know not everyone does), most of the time. But second: I’m also lazy. What this means in practical terms is that I don’t mind putting in some work on a meal, but if I do, I expect said meal to feed us more than once, because I don’t always have the time or the inclination to cook every. single. night. And while I would happily eat the same meal over and over, my family can be sort of picky about that. So I often cook something which can be transformed into a second (or even third or fourth) dish, later.
The 10 Commandments of Busy Family Dinners
1) Thou shall stick to reasonable expectations and minimal effort on the weekdays, and save experimentation for the weekends.
2) Thou shall utilize thy slow cooker and keep it holy, for it is a wonder when it comes to doing prep when you have time and then holding dinner until everyone assembles, on time or not.*
3) Thou shall not force foods upon the picky by making casseroles or other “combined” dishes when a new or suspect item is in play, but said food may be presented, cooked separately, as a means of introduction which can be partaken of or not.
4) Thou shall recognize that breakfast for dinner every so often is most excellent and not a moral failing.
5) Thou shall not respond in anger when thy dinner offering is rejected or mocked, but shall instead raise an eyebrow and calmly inquire, “I’m sorry, what did you make for dinner?”
6) Thou shall attempt to prepare a meal which is balanced and wholesome the majority of the time, but remember that all things in moderation (even moderation) also applies to supper.
7) Thou shall not cook just enough for a single meal, unless that meal is made of leftovers, but always make at least double what is needed, either to freeze half for another time or repurpose the excess later in the week.
8) Thou shall honor those dishes which are amenable to a variety of leftovers: the salads, the frittatas, the pizzas, the pastas, and the most holy of holies, the “top your own” baked potato.**
9) Keep peace and harmony in the homestead by maintaining the covenant wherein those who do not cook, clean up.
10) Thou shall not freak out when the planets fail to align and last-minute take-out is the logical solution.
I’m telling you, this approach works about 99.99% of the time. I mean, no one in my house is starving, so I call it a win.
*If you don’t own a crock pot—or you do, but you’re either afraid of it or believe all you can use it for is roasts and stews—it’s time to do a little research into the million things you can make with this miraculous device. Although I work from home, I still have a lot more time (not to mention, patience) to assemble a meal in the morning than I do in the evening. Being able to throw everything in the crock after breakfast and have dinner waiting for us later is one of my favorite things. If you need some ideas, start with Stephanie O’Dea’s A Year of Slow Cooking site. (If you prefer actual cookbooks, well, she’s written three of them, so take your pick!) I mean, yes, I do make a lot of soups and chilis in my crock, of course, but I also bake potatoes in there (wash, rub with olive oil/salt/pepper and wrap in foil, stack in the crock, cook on low all day), cook beans from dried so that I never have to buy cans (I freeze them in can-size portions to use in dishes as needed), I’ve made lasagnas in there, tamales, bread—the possibilities are nearly endless.
**Having a stable of go-to “use up the leftovers” meals is essential. I make my own pizza dough, but you can buy dough at the grocery store, and what’s not delicious on a pizza? I can’t think of anything. Ditto for throwing an assortment of veggies and/or meats on top of a bed of salad. Sometimes I cook up a bunch of ground beef with some onions and spices and use some in a pasta dish one night and then some for potato-topping another night (pro tip: baked sweet potatoes are also delicious, if you’re feeling guilty about serving starchy white potatoes, and work great with various toppings even with all that added nutrition), and then maybe it gets used up one night on baked nachos. Never made a frittata before? It’s a crustless quiche/baked omelet, and it’s easy enough for even young kids to make, and you can add whatever you like (and have on hand).
If dinner is stressing you out, it’s time to take a step back and figure out how to make it easier. And if you have tips to share beyond these commandments, I’m all ears!
Photo source: Depositphotos/oksixx
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Published August 23, 2016. Last updated February 26, 2018.