Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Dinnertime with Kids

6/26/10 Dinnertime With Kids
Originally at

By Mike Shinn

One of the hardest things to do as a parent is to keep it together at all times. Consistently maintaining a level head is nearly impossible to do, more so if both parent and child are hungry. With both my wife and me working during the day, and with a relatively early bedtime for our daughter, we found that we were spending all of our time purchasing or preparing food and no time enjoying each other's company. It wasn't until after a rant about Rachel Ray's unrealistic 30-minute meal program that a friend argued that while Rachel may not be a particularly special cook, the trick was entirely in the food preparation. It was at this time that my wife and I developed our food preparation system that has led us to more quality time with our kids without as much hassle or hurry.

Like the shows on the food network, we discovered that in order to beat the clock, we had to do as much in advance as possible. Even the Iron Chefs get pots of boiling water before the clock starts!

Typically this means chopping up bulk fresh items such as meats or vegetables, separating into groups, bagging, labeling and freezing. This might take up an entire evening after the kids' bedtimes one night per month, but the reward pays off again and again. This also means a larger variety of foods for the week and better inventory of food at hand. Before setting out to make any dish, I know how much of any given item I have - good, cut, and ready to be defrosted. This is also key for my herbs, which do well seasonally in the garden, but do well year-round chopped up into labeled bags in the freezer.

Shopping to collect our food can be an ordeal - especially now that we have two kids. To make this somewhat easier, we do our best to get most of the shopping done in one evening. This may sound difficult, but it's made easier by choosing the right day to go shopping. Ask your grocer which days are the busiest. If you shop the same places that I do, they will tell you that the weekends and Mondays are the worst for shopping. If you prefer less traffic to the store, fewer carts in the lot, quicker lines and less frustration - consider shopping on Wednesdays and Thursdays. When possible, use grocery shopping as an educational opportunity for both child and parent. Can't remember how to properly thump a cantaloupe? It's easier to ask the produce manager to show your kids - everyone wins! What's more, kids can enjoy trying new things like the samples at the booth at Trader Joes - or even using one of the new kid carts that they now provide.

Shopping is also easier with a complete list of all items needed to prepare for the food in a given week. To do so, my wife and I have developed a food chart [Excel attachment]. Each week before we go shopping, we review the items at hand and name off five meals that we will potentially eat for the coming week. Since it's easy to forget what meals are even options, we consult the left-hand column of the food chart. This lists all of the meals that we might be interested in making, narrowed down to our top 30 based on likelihood of actually making them. This list changes for us every few months as we add new favorites or remove foods that we no longer are interested in. Each week we select five meals, using ideas from the left column and put them on the right column. Now I know what meals to get ingredients for to add to my shopping list. During the week we never spend time asking "what do you want for dinner tonight?" but instead, "do you want lemon chicken or spaghetti tonight?" We have found that preparing for five meals also allows us the flexibility to occasionally eat out or eat leftovers.

My food preparation system may seem like a lot of work, but like any routine, it gets easier once it becomes a habit. Spending a few minutes of prep per week saves cumulative hours of ambiguity and missing ingredients. Having any system at all allows you to spend more time with your family. Now that you have figured out what to get, you can next figure out how to get your kids to eat it!


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