13 tips for putting dinner on the table, without losing your mind!

by | Sep 8, 2014

A few weeks ago I wrote about the dangers of underrating home cooking and choosing the easy, often unhealthy, takeaway option.

But valuing home cooking doesn’t immediately make it less of a pain in the butt.

I know many, many Mums and Dads who just hate dinner-time. The whining, fussing, food waste and mess are the top complaints.

So here are some tips for making it a little easier.

1. Cook one meal for all.

Your home is not a restaurant. There is not a menu and different sitting times. Dinner is served when the person cooking it says it is ready, and you eat what has been cooked, or you eat nothing. The rule in my house is this; You don’t have to eat it, but you do have to sit at the table and be polite. You do have to taste it, and there is nothing else. 9 times out of 10, after the “I don’t like it” ‘chorus’ has yielded nothing but the usual “you don’t have to eat it but you have to sit here and be polite” response, a least a few bites are taken. Healthy kids will make up for a small, or no, dinner by eating more the next day.

2. Give the kids some decision making power.

For many families, one of the most exhausting and frustrating things about home cooking is the whinging and complaining from the kids. Giving the kids some decision-making power is a proven way to reduce this. There are a few different ways you can do this:

  1. Try giving them a choice between two options before starting cooking.  When they respond “I don’t want either of those” just reply, “Those are the choices for today, and if you don’t choose one, I will choose for you”. This usually gets a pretty quick decision, but you have to stick to your guns.
  2. Involve them in the planning stage (See Tip 3).

3. The power of planning.

I usually plan the week’s meals on a Sunday afternoon. I’ll sit with the kids and ask them for a suggestion or two to go on the list. I’ll read through the list so they know what to expect that week. Any whinging or talk of disliking the meal options is allowed at this stage. We make changes and come to a consensus, they learn that sometime they get to choose, and sometimes other people get to choose. This is a good life lesson to learn.

Having these conversations in the planning stage rather than when the food is already on the table goes a long way to reducing the stress and frustration on both sides. Reminding them that they were involved in the decision about what you have cooked tends to get a good response.

4. Get out of the rut.

I have to be honest, this is the area I often find the hardest. I get stuck in a rut cooking the same handful of meals over and over, and over…and over. It can be a good thing, easy meals you can make while doing other things, crowd pleasers that the kids will eat with no complaints. But it can be pretty uninspiring. Some great ways to get out of the rut include trying a recipe swap with a friend, crowdsourcing on facebook for some inspiration or trying an ‘ingredient and recipe delivery service’ like myfoodbag or gofresh.

5. Invest in a slow cooker.

I love my slow cooker. I was given it as a gift about 8 years ago and use it all the time. Slow cooking is a very forgiving and a novice cook can make some of the most delicious meals. Soft meat is easier for the kids and it can be cooking away all day while you are at work. I’ve played around with browning versus not browning and I honestly can’t tell the difference. I throw everything in the slow cooker bowl the night before, pop it in the fridge then simply place it in the slow cooker before I walk out the door in the morning. Where a recipe calls for chicken breast or thigh, I’ll simple tear the skin off a whole chicken, put the skinned chicken in and cook it away all day.

6. Teach your kids to cook.

Teaching your kids to cook has a double benefit. Firstly, a child who in interested and involved in food preparation and cooking is more likely to try new foods and eat without fussing. Secondly, soon enough, they can cook and you get a night off! It can start very small with just tastes and talking about what you are doing, then move onto actual helping as they get older.

7-13. Minimise the mess. Yep, mess needs 7 tips all of it’s own.

Cooking and eating for and with kids creates mess, lots of mess.  I hate mess.  Here are 7 ways to minimise the mess;

  1. One dish dinners.  There are thousands of ‘one dish dinner’ recipes on the internet. Have a search and save yourself some washing up.
  1. Baking paper.  Line dishes and avoid the need for soaking and scrubbing. Whether roasting a whole chicken, vegetables, crumbed fish, lasagna, this works for pretty much anything that goes in the oven.
  1. Use your BBQ. Not just for meat, you can cook your veges on the BBQ too. It adds a beautiful flavour to any vegetable. Use the plate side and just make sure to keep the temperature from getting too hot so they don’t burn.
  1. Get a dog.  Or borrow your neighbours dog for ten minutes after dinner.  Everytime I look at the floor under where my kids have eaten I wish we had a dog.
  1. Plate up. Place salad veges directly on to plates and dress individually rather than in a big bowl that you then have to wash up.
  1. Go communal.  One large platter of food in the middle, everyone armed with a fork. A common way of eating in various cultures around the world this is a really fun way to eat with your family (and friends) with fewer dishes at the end of the night.
  1. Double up. Rather than dirtying another pan or bowl to cook your veges, if you are cooking pasta, just throw the veges in for the last 60 seconds or so, if you are cooking rice, pop them on the top of the rice for a couple of minutes to steam.

Of course, you could try to institute a ‘whoever cooks, doesn’t clean rule’. This would never work in my house so I invested in dishwasher safe pots and pans instead.

Those are my tips, what works at your place?

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