Last month the editors at New York Family Magazine asked me to participate in a project for their January issue. A few of their writers were enlisting experts to help them achieve a New Year’s Resolution. My job was to take the drama out of dinner for writer Michelle Levine, a Long Island mother of two.
Before we met, Michelle and I spoke on the phone about her dinnertime challenges. She told me that many nights she ends up preparing several different dishes for her family of four, since virtually no one likes the same things. She explained that she struggles with planning menus ahead of time, and that because mealtime could be disorganized she often resorts to frozen foods. The good news was that the family ate dinner together every night – a huge step in the right direction. We scheduled a time to meet in person, cook some recipes, and talk about strategies to make mealtime less fraught and more fun.
I drove out to Michelle’s home on a Saturday morning. The whole family was very welcoming, and Michelle and I chatted in her sunny kitchen. I talked her through the recipes we would be preparing and gave her my suggestions for making dinnertime run more smoothly:
1. Set aside a half-hour each weekend to plan at least four nights of dinners. Make a grocery list at the same time.
2. If menu-planning every weekend seems unrealistic, plan three weeks of dinners and just alternate them.
3. Explain to the kids that from now on the whole family is going to eat the same meal at dinner, and try to find dishes that everyone will at least tolerate. Have something on the table that you know everyone will eat – be it bread or fruit – in addition to the main meal so no one has to leave the table hungry.
4. Try to make dinner less tense. It should be enjoyable and not a battle. To that end don’t force the kids to try anything. A healthy, tasty dinner is on the table, ideally incorporating something everyone likes. Knowing that this is the last meal of the day, each family member can make his/her own choices about what they want to eat.
5. To avoid processed foods, have pre-made meals available in the freezer to defrost when you get stuck for dinner. Soups, stews, and baked pasta dishes are excellent freezer candidates.
6. Keep a well-stocked pantry and freezer to enable you to put together healthful, last-minute meals.
Michelle and I also talked about “deconstructing dinner”. For example, instead of serving a tossed salad, offer lettuce, carrots, broccoli, and dressing in separate bowls. Letting each family member design his or her own dish will help picky eaters feel comfortable with the meal.
After our chat we prepared three recipes: turkey chili, spiced sweet potato fries, and cauliflower macaroni and cheese. Soon enough Michelle’s husband and daughter were in the kitchen with us, helping and tasting. The recipes were a hit, and I really enjoyed meeting the whole family. Michelle’s piece (read it here) turned out great, and I’m hopeful that some of the strategies we discussed improved the family's dinners!