How working parents can make family meals happen
As a working mother or father, it’s one of the questions you dread most. And it comes every day, right around 3:00 PM: “So, umm…..what are we doing about dinner?”
Whether the question comes in a text from your partner or whether it pops into your head during the marketing meeting, you reflexively cringe, because dinnertime is one of the danger zones of working parenthood, where the strains of your dual role feel the most acute.
Why? Because what presents as a straightforward, practical problem — meal prep — is actually a psychological, emotional, and even physical one, too, and it hits working parents when we’re the most vulnerable. Exhausted at the end of a long workday and overwhelmed by everything else we have to do, it’s easy to turn to restaurant meals and convenience-food options — which, let’s face it, won’t do your health any favors.
After racing home from the office, with the kids’ bedtime looming, it feels impossible to get everyone eating at the same time and around the same table. And when you haven’t seen your toddler for nine hours, you probably don’t have the heart to fight with her over the need to eat broccoli. You wish the whole family could close out your days with regular, proper, happy, nutritious, sit-down meals, but instead your nightly experience leaves you feeling conflicted, stressed, and guilty. And you’re not alone: many if not most working parents are caught in the same struggle.
Fortunately, there’s a better way forward. By taking a broad-spectrum approach to the problem and by using simple, specific tactics — 13 of the most powerful are below — you can go a long way in taming the logistics, reducing your sense of strain, and making more family meals happen.
Seeing — and Taking Charge of — the Big Picture
Make it a priority. It’s essential to finish the budget report, get the car repaired, prepare for the big client meeting, make you daughter’s school-play costume…and on and on and on. Your calendar is crammed, your to do-list a mile long, and a lot of what’s on there is marked Urgent. If you’re going to make family dinner happen, you need to give it equal priority. This may involve a mindset shift, and seeing family meals as a critical part of your routine (in case you need any additional convincing on that front, check out the scientific studies demonstrating that kids who eat eat with their parents are much less likely to later suffer from substance abuse). A simple, practical step can also help: on your Outlook or Google calendar, block off the evening hours you want to eat with the family, as well as times for grocery shopping and food prep. When they’re recorded as “official” entries, you’re much more likely to actually get them done.
Keep it real — and take the pressure off. Chances are, when you think “family dinner” you imagine hearty, hot, home-cooked meals, served nightly and on real china. Recast your expectations and take some of that pressure off. Maybe you commit to gathering for a meal once a week: every Friday evening, for example. Or maybe it’s a family breakfast instead of dinner, if school and work schedules make that easier. And it’s fine if the meal itself involves the microwave, leftovers, or paper plates. Perfection isn’t the point here. The point is to eat together — regularly.
Set new rules. Your five-year-old refuses vegetables, your seven-year-old wants the pasta without the sauce…or they’re both demanding cold cereal instead of what you’ve served. But your dual role as a working parent is hard enough without also acting as a short-order cook or diplomatic negotiator — so resign those jobs today and set some hard-and-fast new rules. Everyone gets the same meal: no substitutes and no changes. If you choose not to eat what’s served at this meal, you can wait for the next one. If you complain, you do the dishes. Setting — and sticking to — this new regime won’t be easy, but if you take a firm stance, meals will be easier and more pleasant from here on.
Conquering the Food Part
Be ready. It will be impossible to produce any meal, particularly under time pressure, if you don’t already have basic kitchen supplies at home. Need a list? Turn to the New York Times’s Modern Pantry page and stock up on everything in the section marked “Essentials.”
Save time wherever you can. As a working parent, time is your scarcest asset, and if you’re trying to squeeze family meals into your already-packed schedule, you need to be super-efficient. So buy fruits and vegetables pre-cut. Put food staples on Amazon automatic-reorder. Try a grocery-delivery service. (Yes, these things can be expensive — but they’re much cheaper than ordering in.) And as soon as you get home — before you even take your coat off or throw your laptop bag down in the corner — turn on the stove or put a pot of water on a burner. What are you going to bake or boil? Who knows! But by the time you get the kids situated and yourself back in the kitchen, you’ll be ready to start cooking.
Practice strategic snacking. If you’re starving when you leave work or the kids are when you get home, it will be alluring to reach for the take-out menu, fast food, or other similar options. Instead, keep some non-perishable snacks (dried fruit, raw nuts) in your work bag and in the car and set some healthy hors d’oeuvres (carrot sticks and hummus; low-fat cheese) out while you’re cooking. This will tide everyone over until you can enjoy your main meal calmly and together.
Use the “add healthy” approach. If you’re running late from work and decide to get takeout burgers from the fast food drive-through on the way home, don’t beat yourself up. Sure, it’s not your finest culinary or nutritional moment, but we’re dealing in reality here. And there’s a way to make things better: serve up the takeout with some carrot sticks, oranges, and a glasses of milk and suddenly you’ve got a meal long on vitamins A, C, and calcium. Add healthy — and lose the guilt.
Give everyone a job. The more each family member contributes to the family meal, the more likely they are to enjoy it, take pride in it, and feel that it’s theirs. While you’re preparing dinner, have your preschooler put the paper napkins on the table or have your middle schooler toss the salad. Or let the kids prepare the meal themselves. For a little inspiration, show them the recently-published 20 Recipes Kids Should Know — an easy, how-to cookbook written by a 12-year old (the photos were taken by her high-school-age sister). If a 12-year-old can write a fantastic cookbook, your 10-year old can follow it.
Have a go-to emergency meal. An omelet and salad. A frozen burrito and a piece of fruit. A bag of frozen vegetables cooked in the same water the pasta is and served with sauce from a jar. It doesn’t matter what your five-minutes-until-its-ready, I-know-the-kids-will-eat-it meal is, but be sure to have one. It will help you out in pinch, and you’ll feel more in control with a family meal fallback.
Making Your Time at the Table More Powerful — and Enjoyable
Label it. Call it whatever you want — “family dinner,” “our family meal,” “eating in the dining room,” or “sitting down together, all five of us” — but call it something and be consistent. The label sends signals about the meal’s meaning and importance, and it makes even the simplest and quickest dinner feel like part of a larger family tradition.
Focus on behaviors as much as food. You don’t have to set the table with separate meat and fish forks, or expect your 4-year-old to use a finger bowl, but you can use family meal times as way to teach and underscore the importance of respect and manners. Encourage the kids to wait until everyone’s seated to eat, to not interrupt someone telling a story, to use their napkins, and to thank the person who passes them the ketchup. Think of life at the family table as preparation for adulthood.
Keep it happy. For the family meal to work, it needs to feel like a shelter from the experiences of the day and like a reward instead of a task. So keep things positive: Use this time to share any good news — about weekend plans, for example, or an upcoming visit from Grandma, and start comments with upbeat lead-ins like “the funniest thing happened today…” And no interrogating the kids about yesterday’s geometry test — let them decide what they want to talk about.
Keep it brief. For children of any age, end-of-day events can be tough. They’re tired, they have shorter attention spans than adults do, and good behavior fades fast. But family meals don’t need to be long to have impact. It’s their regularity and quality that count. When starting your new routine, aim for just 15 minutes around the table. That timing will naturally lengthen as your kids grow — and as the practice of connecting over shared meals becomes an essential, treasured habit for every member of the family.