There are three times every day when my life gets really stressful:
- The morning when I’m rushing to get the kids out the door and on the bus
- The homework-bath time-bedtime routine (need I say more?)
- And of course, dinner time.
When you work and have after-school activities, appointments and errands, getting dinner on the table almost every night is no easy feat.
In fact, according to a 2013 joint poll by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health, nearly 50 percent of families find it difficult to find the time to eat dinner together.
Still, about 85 percent of families manage it four or more times each week, a 2016 survey found.
Although getting everyone around the table is half the battle, there’s still the time needed to prep and cook said dinner and clean up afterwards.
Add to that picky eaters and sibling splats and dinner can turn into one meal you dread.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. Here are 7 tips for stress-free dinners—no wine required!
1. Batch cook ahead of time
Rushing home to get a healthy dinner on the table is time consuming and stressful, no matter how much you may love to cook or how many simple meal prep hacks you have.
If you can find pockets of time throughout the week to cook large batches of vegetables and grains for example, all you have to do when you come home is add a protein, which you can also pre-cook or add something ready made like a can of salmon.
If you’re so inclined and have extra chunks of time throughout the week, make a meal or two ahead of time that can be reheated.
2. Serve up an appetizer
When my kids walk in the door at 5pm, their first complaint question is, can I have a snack?
Eating together as a family is a great way to teach kids about healthy eating if you’re serving the same meal for everyone (I hope you are!).
If your kids are vying for something to eat while you’re cooking dinner or waiting for other family members to come home, serve an appetizer.
An appetizer is so much more exciting and sounds fancier than a snack, and it can also be healthier. Try vegetable crudités, veggies with hummus or guacamole, or fresh fruit.
3. Play it cool
Picky eating is by far one of the biggest sources of stress at the dinner table.
In fact, a survey by Abbott Nutrition Health Institute found parents of kids with picky eaters report feeling stressed about meal times and are more likely to have meals end in an argument.
Parents of picky eaters often try to control the situation and beg (take one more bite), negotiate (eat your vegetables and you can have dessert), or use pressure tactics like waving a forkful of food in their faces or telling them they can’t leave the table until they finish their dinner.
Put yourself in your kid’s shoes: would you want to eat if someone was forcing you to do the same?
Kids don’t learn manners, respect and good behavior overnight and the same goes for raising healthy eaters. It takes teaching, plenty of patience and modeling the desired behaviors.
Kids also need time to develop their food preferences and opportunities to touch, smell and taste their food.
Stay consistent, but don’t stress.
4. Get rid of the distractions
Taking phone calls, checking emails, or watching the game are not only distractions at the dinner table that take away from meaningful conversation and quality time together as a family, but they also make for stressful meals.
Make a commitment as a family: no phones, devices or TV allowed.
Instead, focus on what you’re eating, how much you’re eating and the people around you.
The one caveat? Music in the background, which can help ease stress and make mealtimes happy.
5. Get kids to pitch in
Cooking, cleaning up and setting the table shouldn’t be all on your shoulders.
Getting your kids involved in age-appropriate activities empowers them to take responsibility, teaches them how to work together as a family, and can ease some of the mealtime burden.
Kids as young as 3 can put out napkins, while older kids can handle place settings, help plate the food, load the dishwasher and wash dishes.
6. Be positive
When you’re already pressed to spend time with your spouse and kids, it’s tempting to talk about everything that’s on your mind.
I’ll admit, this is one area when I fall short.
I’m constantly telling my kids “please don’t interrupt,” and “close your mouth while you chew.” I’m also guilty of tackling hot button issues with my husband or discussing the week’s schedule—both of which can wait until after dinner.
Trying your best to create a meaningful experience will make for stress-free family dinners.
If your kids tend to fight at the dinner table, try having them sit apart.
Or challenge each person to talk about the best or most surprising part of their day, something they love about another family member or what they’re grateful for that day.
Dinner time won’t always be perfect, but it can be a positive experience.