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Expert Q and A

Each month, you'll be able to get answers directly from experts covering a wide range of parenting topics. You'll also have a chance to share your own expert tips with other parents. Join the conversation!

Current Expert

Reaping the Many Benefits of Family Dinners

by Anne Fishel, Ph.D.

Anne Fishel Ph.D. speaks, consults, and publishes widely on a range of issues to do with families and couples. Join her discussion on the importance of eating together as a family.  Read and Comment »

Home » Archives »

Getting Healthy, Homemade Dinners on the Table While Preserving Your Sanity

by Aviva Goldfarb

Aviva Goldfarb

Aviva Goldfarb is a mother of two, and the author and founder of The Six O'Clock Scramble, an online weekly menu planner and cookbook. Read more »

Have you ever found yourself staring into your refrigerator at 6:00 PM, wondering what to make for dinner, while the kids are fighting, the dogs are barking and the phone is ringing?  You probably never pictured yourself as the kind of mom or dad who would feed your family something out of a bag, a box or a can every night, or be on a first name basis with the pizza guy.  Yet you only have about half an hour until meltdowns begin. What's a busy parent to do?   

I have spent the last six years developing strategies to survive the "six o'clock scramble."  It involves cooking one simple meal that the whole family can enjoy, getting organized in advance about dinner menus and grocery shopping, and involving the kids in dinner preparation and clean-up.  Since sharing my recipes and meal planning system, hundreds of parents have told me that it has "changed their life."

Let's face it: hardly anyone cooks every night. But dinner is an important meal in many of our houses.  It's a time when we all sit together (at least for five minutes!) and talk about the day, tell jokes, solve silly codes, and just make that all-important eye contact with each other!  It's also a time for us to try to get some healthy food into our family's bodies.   

I have found four simple strategies to help busy parents like me cook four to six nights per week, and actually save time and money by doing so.  It may sound challenging (I know, because I used to think so too!), but with a little preparation and practice, making healthy and delicious homemade dinners can be easier, faster and cheaper than ordering take-out. 

Here are my tricks for surviving the "six o'clock scramble:"   

1.  Keep meals simple.
With our families' busy schedules, most of us can't afford to spend more than 30 minutes preparing a meal.  I have developed a great collection of simple, healthy, delicious recipes that don't take more than 30 minutes to prepare, and many only take 10 or 15 minutes. No matter what recipes you use, match a simple main dish with an easy and healthy side dish to balance out flavor and nutrition, and you've got yourself a great family dinner.   

2.  Get organized: Prepare a weekly menu. 
When I was a girl, I remember my mom sitting down each week with her recipe boxes and making a shopping list.  When I became a mom, I thought I could never be that organized.  At first, I would walk the grocery aisles, letting items on the shelves inspire ideas for the week's dinners.  The problem was, I would often get home and realize I was missing key ingredients, so I'd have to go shopping again or change my dinner plans.  And the amount of food I was throwing away because I didn't get around to using it was appalling.  I finally realized my mom had the right idea.  A weekly menu takes only ten minutes to prepare, but saves us loads of time and stress.  Having a weekly menu and keeping a grocery list tacked to the refrigerator allows us to shop only once each week for ingredients. And, it saves us from having to think too much at the hectic dinner hour about what to prepare. 

3.  Keep your kitchen well-stocked. 
With a well-stocked pantry, you can easily pull together an extra meal or two with any unused ingredients from the week's meals, or throw together a quick meal on those nights when your evening doesn't go as planned.  Some of my favorite healthy and inexpensive quick meal essentials are canned beans (for burritos or taco salads), tortillas (my husband's mantra is that everything's better inside a tortilla), eggs (for easy omelets, scrambles or frittatas), and frozen vegetables and other healthy side dishes to round out the meal.  What's more, your grocery trips each week should be even faster if you are well-stocked with staples.
4.  Involve kids in the kitchen.
If time allows, I like to let the kids help me in the kitchen.  When our children were babies, I hung their jumpers right in the kitchen doorway, where they could bounce like crazy to music while I cooked.  When they were toddlers, one of my best allies in the kitchen was a small step ladder.  From this perch, the kids could assist me at the counter while I was husking corn, or make bubble soup in the kitchen sink while I put dinner together.  Now that they're a little older, they can help do things like set the table, peel vegetables, unload the dishwasher or spin the salad dry.  Sure, sometimes they get in my way, but cooking is a great way for us to spend time together.  And here's a bonus for us parents of picky eaters:  kids are far more likely to eat something that they've helped prepare! 

If dinner has you feeling daunted or discouraged, don't despair.  Try to simplify your menus and recipes, plan ahead for a few meals before going to the grocery store and always shop armed with a grocery list.  Chances are you will enjoy the stress free dining so much, you'll want to plan your dinners before heading to the grocery store every week! 

To give you a head start on getting healthy homemade dinners on the table, here's a link to my menu and grocery list for this week.

So, tell me, how are you managing meals at dinnertime? 


Jeannine writes...

Aviva, these are great tips! Kids start school next week, our au pair is leaving this weekend and my husband and I will be on our own now (we all took turns preparing dinner) so I'm already getting very, VERY stressed over meals time, preparing lunches, new schools and full time jobs. Thanks for your great tips, recipes and amazing site!

Aviva? writes...

Jeannine, I know how stressful the first back to school days are. We faced that this week too and planning my weekly menu and shopping for food before the week started was essential in keeping things running smoothly. Every night at dinner time I breathe a sigh of relief that I already know what I'm making and have all the ingredients on hand. Good luck this week!

Pam writes...

Aviva, My daughter is a great eater and loves to help in the kitchen. My son, however, is an extremely picky eater. His favorite foods are chicken nuggets, hot dogs, pizza, and PB&J. I've tried making my own healthier versions, but he can tell the difference and won't even try them. I usually end up making a separate meal for him, but I'd love to get out of that habit. Any suggestions? -

Aviva? writes...

Pam, I had a very similar situation for years, but my 12 year old son who used to be very picky is now a very expansive eater, so I know there is hope for your family. I include lots of tips in my newsletter and cookbook, but I want to encourage you to keep gently but firmly introducing new foods into your family’s diet. Not every food will be accepted by every child at first, maybe not even for a year or two, but by the time they are 8 or older, they will probably be enjoying a wide variety of foods with steady encouragement and positive reinforcement. Also, eating dinner as a family, involving the kids in preparing meals, and cutting down on juice and snacks between meals can be a big help. Good luck!

Suzanne writes...

Were you reading my mind...did you write this article just for me?

It is good to know I'm not the only one.

I work in marketing and have an accessory design business and both leave little time to make nutritious meals for my toddler and husband (I'm OK w/ making the meals...he does lawn work).

I will try out your shopping list!

Aviva? writes...

That's great, Suzanne. Most people find that weekly menu planning is the key to getting healthy familyl dinners on the table, but if it doesn't work out for you we do have a 30 day money back guarantee. Let me know how it goes!

Dana writes...

Awesome suggestions! I've done the weekly meal plan and it cuts down on the stress and confusion a lot!

Thanks for the tips!

Cyndi writes...

I started meal-planning this year and it has totally changed my life. Sometimes it's still hard to do, and sometimes I'm still making chicken nuggets for the kids in addition to the grown-up food, but we're making huge progress and not wasting nearly as much food. Here's my first blog post about the new approach:

Cynthia writes...

One great benefit of having a week's worth of menus up on the fridge is my husband is less likely to sit down to dinner, sigh heavily and say, "I had for lunch." Well, he might say it but I have the moral high ground :-)

Aviva? writes...

Glad you pointed out that benefit! Here are a couple more benefits: Spouses or teens can shop or prepare meals for you when you have the recipes ready. Also, some people find it helps to include the family in the menu planning so everyone has a say.

Jeff writes...

I'm a dad of two and have taken over the role of chief cook and bottle washer. I have female friends that stress over food every day and complain that no one likes the food they cook at home. Truth be told they don't even like the food they have prepared themselves.

Like my friends when I first attempted to cook for the family I got carried away looking up recipes online and watching cooking shows. While some of these concoctions where quite good ingredients where expensive and often hard to find. Not to mention some of the recipes looked good on television but tasted just awful.

The idea of keeping it simple works well not only for kids but for the whole family. I've found my best meals have been the ones that were rushed a bit. Put away the fancy spices and cut prep time by cooking meats with nothing more than salt pepper and olive oil.

As far as picky eaters go. There only choice should be eat what the family eats or don' that is. I know its hard to do but they will get hungry and eat before they become malnourished. And it's not neglect if you have prepared a meal for them to eat and they choose not to eat it. A favorite at our house is bbq chicken potatoes and green beans for weeks my youngest would not touch it. Now this is a good meal but he wouldn't not even try it. It took months but just the other day he dove in and ate it all up.

Thanks for the sound advice.

Aviva? writes...

Jeff, I love your low key approach to meals and coping with picky eaters. If one of our kids truly doesn't like the meal after they taste a couple of bites (some people call this a "no thank you bite" or "one bite to be polite") then they are free to go get themselves non-sugary cereal for dinner instead, but I am totally with you on only making one meal for the family.

The other thing I've noticed, like you, is that the more time I spend on a meal and the more ingredients I use, the less likely my family typically is to enjoy it. Thus my emphasis on simple meals and sides.

Your family is very lucky to have you cooking them wholesome meals! (As are all of our families to have us cooking healthy homemade dinners for them).

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The Six O'Clock Scramble: Quick, Healthy, and Delicious Dinner Recipes for Busy Families Buy it from Amazon.

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