But neither boxed meals nor dining out is a practical every night solution for most families, and certainly not for those who are concerned with nutrition and budgets. One solution is to enlist children to help with nightly dinners. Sure, busy parents may not want to take the time to involve their children in dinner preparation. It can slow things down and require more thought than working parents can bring to this task. All they want, much of the time, is to get dinner on the table as quickly and easily as possible.
But, with a bit of planning, parents can involve children in this job, making it a time for family interaction, and getting real assistance while teaching children important skills.
Start on a weekend. Spend some time discussing what everyone likes to eat and what might be a healthy way to include that in family dinners. Have kids do a bit of a kitchen scavenger hunt, checking to see what ingredients are on hand. Work with them to make a shopping list for the week's menus. Planning makes everything easier and the skills involved in this part of the job are important ones for children to master. And have the menus for the week readily accessible.
- Involve children in shopping. Specific lists are a must. Not just "vegetables" but "two red peppers and three green peppers;" not just "chicken" but "one package of chicken drumsticks, about 10 drumsticks." If you have multiple children, old enough to be on their own in a supermarket, you may want to break the list into parts. If you shop in small neighborhood stores, you may want to have your child ask the counter person for a specific item. And once the shopping is completed, have the children help to unload and put the groceries in their proper place.
- Prep in advance. Lots of elements of recipes can be prepared in advance and stored for several days. Chop vegetables and portion and freeze packages of meat or fish.
- Assign tasks. This can be by the day - with one child helping on Tuesdays and Thursdays and another on Monday and Wednesday. Or by job, with even the youngest children able to set the table or put bread on a bread board. What about other days? Pizza night works well for many families, as does breakfast for dinner. It's not easy to cook, especially with children, every night and a couple of nights each week of something simpler can keep things doable.
- Older children can do real cooking, especially if they have been working up to it with simpler tasks. And everyone can pitch in with clean up!
- Don't forget the skills that cooking can build: reading directions, writing out lists, measuring, working on the sequential step-by-step tasks involved in cooking.
With some planning and patience, family dinner preparation can be helpful for everyone.