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The Dinner Problem

We probably don’t need to waste much time explaining what we mean when we say “The Dinner Problem.”

Parents everywhere know it: the stress that goes hand-in-hand with deciding what to make; the time it takes to actually prepare and serve something at the table; the whining that inevitably reaches a high-volume, high-pitch level *right before mealtime; the incessant questions: Can’t I just have ONE snack? What are we having for dinner? Why can’t we have [anything else]? And then there’s the eating itself (complete with the anticipation: are they actually going to eat it??), and the clean up afterward… 

It’s hard to have a conversation about The Dinner Problem in isolation — because the reality is that it’s not really about dinner

Let me tell you what else it’s about: the second shift, work schedules, grocery shopping, mental fatigue, budgeting, PRESSURE, time — so much time — and… everyone else. 

There is “invisible labor that goes into planning, making, and coordinating family meals. Cooking is at times joyful, but it is also filled with time pressures, tradeoffs designed to save money, and the burden of pleasing others… Cooking isn’t just about the time it takes to prepare the meal.” 

~ Sarah Bowen, Sinikka Elliot, Joslyn Brenton, “The Joy of Cooking?” in Contexts

I’m guessing I’m preaching to the choir here… You know: when you have children to feed, the kitchen suddenly becomes a completely different place. I can’t tell you how many articles I’ve read over the years that start with some variation of “I used to love cooking — it was such a joy! Then I had kids…” 

At the risk of overgeneralizing, this is also a problem that hits women — and working mothers in particular — especially hard. There is the late-afternoon/early-evening time crunch; there is the fact that perhaps you haven’t seen your child all day; there is the fact that you still didn’t finish what you needed to at work; there is the fact that everyone is tired. (And more.)

As Daisy Howling explained in the Harvard Business Review: “what presents as a straightforward, practical problem — meal prep — is actually a psychological, emotional, and even physical one, too, and it hits working parents when we’re the most vulnerable.”  

These struggles are magnified for two-working-parent households, single-parent households, and families in which one or both parents have an irregular, unpredictable, or shift- work schedule, because every day may look different. 

“The message that good parents — and in particular, good mothers — cook for their families dovetails with increasingly intensive and unrealistic standards of ‘good’ mothering.” 

~ Sarah Bowen, Sinikka Elliot, Joslyn Brenton, “The Joy of Cooking?” in Contexts

While foodie influencers post idealistic, stylized shots of family mealtime, this imagery is a far cry from the reality most of us know. And the gap can be hard to stomach, for so many reasons. 

We’re not going to sugarcoat anything here, friends — if you want pretty pictures, head on over to your favorite social media platform [snort] — and we won’t pretend we have anything close to a one-size-fits-all solution to The Dinner Problem.

Instead, we’re here to say that it’s not just you, and to share some general tips and strategies for revamping your approach to feeding and dinner. In this series, we cover everything from reframing dinnertime (see below); to feeding toddlers (it’s an art, really); meal planning made easy (because as cumbersome as it can be at first, meal planning has the potential to really streamline things for you); food media for kids; and our favorite kitchen gadgets and storage containers.  

Rethinking Dinner Time

We have three main pieces of advice when it comes to reframing dinner, two of which are more philosophical and the third of which leans practical:

1. Reset Your Expectations

As mentioned, there is a wide gulf that separates the ideal family dinner from real family dinners. The former tends to be highly romanticized, which easily leads to disappointment. (This may be all the more true with young children, who can be notoriously fickle dinner companions.)

dinnertime in Leave It To Beaver

We see the ideal family dinner on social media and food blogs, in cookbooks and Netflix series; we may hear about it from our neighbors down the street who share a four-course meal with their toddlers (who also helped prepare each dish) every night, or our well-meaning parents-in-law who are prone to wax nostalgic about the bygone days. We can even see it in academic journals and our favorite books. Together, all of these depictions imply not only that it really isn’t that hard but also that falling short is a moral failure. 

This feels like… a lot. 

I spent some time dwelling on all this, and even more time talking with my mom friends and family members, and in doing so I realized I needed to completely retool my mental approach to feeding my kids dinner. 

And actually, these ideals are so deeply ingrained that they color many of our own memories. For example, I have so many fond recollections of loud, crowded, bantering family meals with my parents and siblings, and instead of reflecting back on those moments with joy, they’ve only made me feel guilty that I don’t eat dinner with my children.

I reasoned that I must be depriving my kids of that same experience — but then I spoke with my mom, who reminded me that she and my dad also did not eat with us until we were much older (as in, high school age) and that even then it was usually only on the weekends, since my three siblings and I had various practices, games, and engagements at alternating times on the weeknights. “Actually, you guys sometimes ate one at a time,” my mom told me. “It’s just how all your schedules lined up.” 

How did I forget this?

Instead of trying to conform to some elusive ideal, I needed to figure out what would be best for my family. In reality, there is no one “right way” to have dinner (or serve it). Some people eat with their children; others don’t. Some people eat early, others eat later. Some folks have elaborate dinners and some prefer little-to-no prep.

Dinnertime may “work” better when you let it be what it needs to be. And when you stop expecting perfection — from your family and from yourself — it’s akin to dialing down the volume on a too-loud stereo (which is to say, it’s a relief). 

This brings us to our next point: 

2. Let [All The Guilt] Go

It’s easy to succumb to guilt about feeding our kids. SO easy. 

May we suggest: throw that out the window. 

I know, I know — it’s easier said than done. But if you can remind yourself, daily, that dinner need not be an idyllic, unachievable fantasy, it may help you loosen your own aspirations to (try to) pull just such an orchestration together. It’s not an easy thing to do, nor a one-time consideration — it’s a process — but letting go of the *need for dinner to look or feel or happen a certain way can be so freeing. 

If you derive joy from preparing meals, we certainly don’t want to take that away from you — that’s wonderful! But if you don’t, that’s not something any of us should feel guilty about. We have enough on our (proverbial) plates already, don’t we? 

Researchers who studied mothers’ experiences cooking for their families noted: mothers especially “felt responsible for preparing healthy meals for their children and keenly experienced the gap between the romanticized version of cooking and the realities of their lives.”

In many ways, simply acknowledging the space between the ideal and reality goes a long way. 

3. Consider Timing

Lastly, before we dive into meal planning, one simple (and obvious) piece of advice I read made a surprisingly HUGE difference in my house: coordinate an afternoon snack time with dinner. (I’m embarrassed to say that I wasn’t really doing this…) 

The idea is this: if there’s generally a good amount of whining near and around the dinner hour in your home, consider whether you can’t adjust a snack to work to your advantage.

For some, this may entail having a regular, light “appetizer” available pre-dinner when it’s needed. It also may entail checking in with school/day care about when exactly your child last ate. In my case, I realized that my daughter was almost always either eating her afternoon snack so early that she was starving and HANGRY by 5pm, and we were all limping through till 6pm, or that I caved and fed her a snack so late that she barely ate her dinner. Simply by making sure she’s had a hearty, filling snack at the “right” time (for us this is ~2-3 hours prior to whenever meal time is), we are all so much better off. 

Alternatively, you might find that adjusting your meal timing (rather than a snack) would be ideal for you, and that’s great too. But having a hungry, hot-tempered toddler on hand (say that five times fast) while you are also trying to deal with *all things dinner is no fun… if there’s an easy enough way to reduce that one piece of background stress, it’s definitely worth a try. 

Another way to tame cranky kids: get them to help! We have a whole guide devoted to including your kids in the work of mealtime, and there’s something for every age group.

Stick with us for how to feed toddlers, how (and why) to meal prep, a culinary media for kids round-up, and the most practical kitchen gear for families.

Comments

  1. My kids are 7 and 9 and I hated having to hear them complain about dinner nightly. Now, on Saturday evenings I make out the meal plan for the week, along with the grocery list. The kids each get to choose 1 meal for the following week, I pick 2, my husband picks 2 (that he has to make) and then we usually eat out once a week. If my kids complain about any of the meals, they lose their choice for the next week. My son only picks between pizza, pasta and tacos, but I usually make an adult version of those meals so we don’t have to eat the same things over and over. This routine has really helped out with dinner time.

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