This past Father’s Day, something pleasant happened: all five members of my family enjoyed the same meal (ribs, mashed potatoes, and an array of roast veggies), at the same time, at the same table, without coercion. Before we had kids, my wife and I had a Rockwellian notion that every family meal would be just like this. Right now we would settle for 10% of them.
We have three children, ages 7, 6, and 2. Out of the five of us, three have food allergies and sensitivities. If that’s not enough, we’re each sensitive to different foods—proteins, fruits, vegetables—that encompass every part of a menu. Factor in work schedules and after-school appointments (pre-pandemic) on top of this, and dinner planning and execution is, in the words of Willie Stargell, often like trying to drink coffee with a fork. Also did I mention kids can have emotions around dinnertime?
Despite the complexity, we’ve managed to keep all our kids on the growth charts. How we do it is the culmination of decisions that happen throughout the preceding week, and leading up to the minutes before and during mealtime. We’re not experts in this field, but we’re certainly not novices. Here are a few strategies that work best for us to ensure we avoid the hangry child tantrums that can derail the late afternoons and evenings.
Plan the menus in advance
The preparation usually starts Saturday morning. An outline of the upcoming week is our best ally, especially ahead of any grocery trip. This outline includes activities, an inventory of what we have on hand, what’s on sale, and what folks want to eat. We winnow this down to a list of meals for the following week. It’s not necessarily a strict daily schedule, but rather an array of meals for an array of days.
This sounds obvious when I type it, but something I was slow to realize is that it’s better to actually ask the kids what they want during the week versus imposing something on them that evening. Having your kids be a part of the planning assures a higher probability of cooperation when it’s time to serve what they suggested. If they don’t have any ideas, the “you can pick x or y” strategy works well too.
Nearly every week our kids suggest pasta. So we built that into our meal planning. That decreases what we need to plan for by one-seventh. Throw in a takeout night to support local establishments (and give Mom and Dad a cooking break), and that leaves five nights a week where we have to solve for future dinners.
Here’s a plan for a typical week: Chicken and dumplings are a favorite in our house. We’ll sketch that in for a Sunday for everyone and allocate leftovers for Monday for three of us while the other two have fish. We’ll plan to take the ground beef out Monday to defrost for sliders on Tuesday; since Dad can’t eat sliders, he’ll have lentils Tuesday night instead. Nobody has time to cook Wednesday, so that’s a takeout night. Thursday’s pasta, and since we have a decent amount of stuff on hand, Friday is a “pick stuff out from the freezer” night or breakfast for dinner. We’ll grill pork chops on Saturday or Sunday, depending on the activities for the day. Rinse, repeat!
Stick to the shopping list
We stock up on pantry staples and ingredients that align to our dinner outline. We’ll also throw in a few prepared entrees, as they serve as good emergency meals for the kids when Mom and Dad make something just Mom and Dad like. If we notice a protein on sale in a given week, we’ll fold that into the plan or freeze it for an upcoming week.
Prep meals in advance
After shopping’s done, weekends or early morning slots when the kids are preoccupied are dedicated to meal prep. With three allergenic people in our family, we make a lot of food ourselves. As a result there are some standards that get portioned out into frozen individual servings: think white bean chicken chili, red chili, vegetable soups, casseroles, or individual portions of meat loaf and shepherd’s pie. The Crock-Pot is a four-season tool in our house.
Once we’re stocked and have a plan, we typically decide today and tomorrow’s meal based on what we have on hand. The question is never just “what’s for dinner tonight?” but also “what are we thinking for tomorrow?” We’ll run the menu past the kids in order to gauge whether we need to deploy a Plan B entree for any of them.
Keep hangry feelings at bay
Hangriness is real, and it affects everyone, adults too. We’ve been fighting this battle with a small snack ahead of dinner time, usually some raw veggies with ranch or some crackers. These are unlikely to ruin the kids’ appetites, and if they do, I’m not going to fuss if someone ate too many vegetables.
Let it go
During the actual dinner, our main concern is that everybody eats something at some point. Since we’ll often have two (sometimes three) different meals going, we don’t always have everything ready at 5 p.m. on the button. This isn’t the end of the world, and as long as we’re communicating, we’re not losing. Everyone will still eat. On the pasta and taco nights, we make sure the ingredients are separated out to accommodate the allergies since it’s hard to take tomato sauce out of pasta once it’s been tossed together.
Geographically, although we’d like everyone to sit at the kitchen table, we’ve become more accommodating on the when and the where. My son likes to eat in the dining room and draw; I like to stand at the kitchen counter. If food is being consumed, and nobody swears, and everyone buses their dishes and washes their hands, I think it’s a fair trade-off. We still have meals where everyone sits together. It just doesn’t happen every night.
Have a soundtrack
Tunes can defuse tension, whether they’re Debussy, Louis Prima, ABBA, or The Beatles. Plus, getting to pick the station is another way for the kids to play a role in the dinner ceremony. Even if it’s “Let It Go” for the umpteenth time.
The best word to describe our approach is “pliability.” We always make sure to allow ourselves options throughout the week, right up until dinnertime. Not only does it save money (we’ve had many fewer “nothing’s ready, we’ve gotta get pizza” nights), it also reduces stress for both the adults and the kids. Single-serving containers allow for everyone to enjoy something without fear of allergic reactions or going without dinner. And at the end of the day, if dinner doesn’t go well, there’s always breakfast tomorrow.