I don’t know about you, but I have a love-hate relationship with back-to-school time. It is always a relief to have a regular schedule again—bedtimes return to a reasonable hour, the constant “I’m bored” refrain disappears, and, as someone who works from home, I finally get my full days back. And yet, each year I find that I am taken by surprise by the busy-ness that fills our afternoons and evenings with soccer practices, music lessons, back to school nights, PTA meetings, and other school year activities.
With all of the back to school craziness, it feels even more vital that we protect our family dinners as important time to have together—time to reconnect, to catch up, and to share the events of our days. So each fall I make it a priority to focus on getting our dinner routine back on track. Here are the four things that I do to get our family dinner routine ready to go for the fall:
1. Plan out the meals for the week. I have found that if I put together a plan for the week, not only does getting dinner on the table become an easier, faster task, but it also takes some of the stress out of my day because I don’t have that 3:30 or 4 p.m. what-are-we-going-to-have-for-dinner panic.
One key piece of my meal planning is to take five minutes to look at the schedule for the upcoming week and assign meals to specific days. On soccer practice days, for instance, I know we won’t get home before 7, which means I need dinner to be ready to go or take only a few minutes to throw together. So for us, those are slow cooker nights. On the other hand, Thursdays are blissfully unplanned, so that is the evening when I can select a recipe that takes a little longer to make. If you want help with the planning of meals (or someone to do it for you), check out The Scramble, an online meal planning service that specializes in family-tested, easy-to-prepare meals.
2. Set a guaranteed minimum. The reality is that given our busy schedules, every member of my family is not going to be able to sit down to dinner together every night of the week. So we decided to commit to a minimum number of nights a week that we have dinner together. For us, that is five nights, including weekends. For some families it might be three, for others, all seven is achievable. When the kids were smaller, my husband got home too late to have dinner together, so we made it a priority to do weekend meals as a family. Pick what works for your family, and then try to stick with it!
3. One meal a week is leftovers. Every family feels differently about leftovers, but my family LOVES “leftovers night,” and it’s a great way to save money and avoid food waste. For my kids, it is their chance to have extras of their favorite meals of the week. For my husband, it means fewer dishes. For me, it is less work. If your family isn’t a fan of leftovers, then try turning them into something that is still faster and easier—leftover proteins and/or vegetables can become fillings for sandwiches or burritos. Extra veggies and grains can be mixed together and tossed with a dressing to become a hearty salad.
4. Sandwiches, Salads, and Cereals. Yes, eating healthy, delicious, well-rounded meals is important, but that doesn’t mean it has to be complicated. As busy families, especially as we get back into the swing of things in the fall, simplicity is key and time is of the essence. So I never rule out sandwiches, salads, and cereals. Grilled cheese sandwiches and a simple salad is a great option, as is a big salad with some crusty bread, or even (low-sugar) breakfast cereal with fruit and scrambled eggs. The point is: on those crazy nights eating together is the key, even more so than what goes in your mouth.
As we get back into the rhythm of the school year, let’s be kind to ourselves and make it possible to establish a solid routine. With a little planning, some flexibility, and simple meal options, a less stressful back to school season is possible.