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Each day during the week, I pick up my 1.5-year-old daughter at daycare on my way home from work, and we are home between around 5:30 or 5:45. By then, she is quite hungry, since they eat at 2 pm at daycare.

  • The routine we have now is that I hand her some milk and prepare her dinner -something quick consisting of a veg, protein, and carb either frozen and microwaved or prepared simply (steamed veggies or fried egg), or leftovers from our dinner the night before

  • At the same time, my husband preps food & cooks for himself and me. So we all hang out in the kitchen together while our daughter eats and he cooks.

  • When our daughter finishes eating, we move to the livingroom and play together until her bedtime at 7:30ish.

  • Hubby and I eat together at around 8 pm.

This system seems to be working ok, but undoubtedly her bedtime will get pushed back as she gets older, and more importantly, we think it's important to have dinner all together as a family.

I should mention that we both like to cook and try new recipes, we usually cook once and have the meal two nights in a row, which could help...

When I was a kid, my mom worked part time and cooked in the late afternoon ~5pm, to have dinner on the table at 6. But for now I plan to continue working full time.

How can we best arrange it, in the short time we have together in the evenings, that we can eat tasty food together as a family each night?

  • Mine is 2.5 years old, but timing and situation are similar to yours. With her going to school from september, it won't get any simpler I guess. I would be pleased to read suggestions about this matter, although I guess it's just how things go nowadays... Always running after time. – Laurent S. Jul 2 '15 at 11:44
  • Where are you from? I ask because dinner at 6pm seems extremely early to me (more like snack time for me). In Italy the "right time" is at 7pm - 9pm depending on the family. If you have a toddler you would probably have dinner at 7pm. – Bakuriu Jul 2 '15 at 17:23
  • I am American but live in Belgium. 6 pm seems normal to most Americans (for family dinner at home, not necessarily for eating out). Europe has definitely influenced me... I prefer to eat at 7 or 8 pm. – Brusselssprout Jul 3 '15 at 9:46
12

We've got two working adults and three kids — we're very familiar with the scheduling challenges this causes. (Once your daughter starts having extracurricular activities, things will only get more hectic!)

First off, if you want the whole family to be eating the same meal at the same time, a snack on the way home for your daughter is pretty critical to tide her over. Granola bars, fruit, carrot sticks, trail mix: something light enough that she will be hungry and eat her meal later, but substantial enough she won't be complaining for the next couple hours.

The key thing that worked for us was planning menus in advance. This provided a number of improvements:

  • Much less worry about "what are we going to have for dinner" or rooting around in the fridge seeing what we can throw together.
  • We buy most of the week's groceries based on the shopping list generated at the same time as the week's menus. (Vegetables and meat we won't necessarily buy very far ahead, but we can create sticky note reminders [e.g., "Buy chicken breasts and tomatoes on way home Thursday"].)
  • I can incorporate bargain hunting in a sensible way. If chicken is 50% off this week, that's great, we'll have a lot more chicken than usual. However, there's still going to be a reasonable limit to how much we can eat (and/or freeze) — just because it's an amazing deal doesn't mean I should buy so much we get sick of it and/or end up throwing some away.

Recipes are chosen based on how much time we've got, not just how much we like them. Everybody's home by 5 on a weeknight for us, and we've usually eaten by 6. That's key because the kids need to have food before they go to whatever soccer, ballet, karate, or guitar lesson is coming up for the evening. Tuesdays and Thursdays are our busiest nights, so those are spaghetti, sandwich, or beans and rice nights.* On evenings we have a little more time to prepare dinner, there are number of favorites that take longer to cook, but we still know the cook time and know the kids will eat it. Friday through Sunday, when there are very few commitments, we get to try new recipes, cook complicated dishes, or fire up the grill.

* Another possibility is to take advantage of pre-cooked meals (fast food, things from the grocery store, etc.) but that is typically more expensive and less healthy, not to mention requiring an extra trip out of the house. For us it is only very rarely worth it and it sounds like you also prefer to cook your own meals, but I mention it for the sake of completeness: some families use that convenience to ensure they can eat together.

Try to prepare as much in advance as possible so the cooking process takes less time. For a couple favorite bread recipes, I've got the dry ingredients pre-measured into bags so I don't have to measure. Many meats can be trimmed, chopped, or cut to size days in advance (and even frozen that way to store longer). We're currently trying to pre-cook more dishes to be able to eat more interesting, complex dishes on very busy nights. There are dozens of good cookbooks and food websites that have slow cooker or freeze-ahead casserole recipes. (This level of pre-cooking does require a much bigger time investment on the weekends, which is one of the main reasons I haven't been able to do as much as I might like. I can always commit us to a couple of hours for planning and shopping, but finding an entire day to cook fourteen days of food at once is harder for me.)

  • 1
    Knowing what you're going to have well in advance, so that you known you have all the ingredients on hand, etc., turns out to be a huge help. Thanks, Erica. ;) – Buzz Jul 2 '15 at 17:53
4

How about giving her a small amount of food that doesn't need preperation as soon as she gets home? Enough food for her to be less hungry, but not that much that she's really full? That way you or your husband can prepare the main dish as soon as you're home, and she can eat with you?

Or ask the daycare if it is possible to give her some fruit between 4:00-5:00, so that she's less hungry when you get home, making it possible for her to wait for dinner?

3

In addition to Erica's detailed and excellent answer, a few notes for how we handle this (in a similar situation).

Most of our meals are planned around our schedules. We have nights that one of us is home a bit earlier, and nights one of us will be home later (or both). On nights that we can be home a bit earlier, we plan dinners that might take a bit of time to cook. On nights no-one can come home earlier, we plan meals that are either primarily prepared ahead of time, or meals that take little preparation.

There are a lot of meals that qualify for one or both of these. Not only can you do things like crock-pot meals (that cook during the day and are then eaten at night), such as beef stroganoff, sloppy joe's, beef brisket, stews and soups, etc.; but you can also do meals where you prepare the ingredients ahead and then cook them in the moment. We have a pressure cooker, for example, so we can pre-chop vegetables and meats, and then put them together for a 15-20 minute cooking cycle (while we then do other things, like play, change diapers, or prepare the table). Chicken tacos can have the chicken prepared ahead (perhaps in a crock pot, or even frozen from a larger preparation), and the tomatoes and cheese and whatnot can be prepared either that morning or even on the week-end.

We also usually provide a vegetable separate from the meal (unless it's a very veggie-heavy entree). Usually this is a frozen vegetable which is simply steamed (in the microwave or on the stove as you prefer). We often prepare that first, maybe twenty minutes before the main course, and provide it to our children first. This also includes salads, fresh veggies like red bell peppers or cucumbers. All of this means that our children a) like vegetables, b) eat more vegetables, and c) aren't cranky due to lack of food when dinner takes a while. They're more likely to eat things like vegetables if they're the only food available when they're hungry!

Finally, we prepare our entire meal schedule ahead of time, so shopping and all prep work can be done as early as possible. My wife usually builds a menu on the weekend so she can shop on Monday (her day off) and get what preparation done that can be done, then we cook during the week as needed.

I also suggest a list of go-to meals that you can quickly make if something goes wrong - you don't have the time available you think you will, for example. Hot dogs or hamburgers are quick to cook and can be kept in the freezer. Mac and cheese for a treat for the kids. Even something like a quick bell pepper and onion stir fry then added to quesadillas can be very easy to make (if you're a proficient chopper and/or have a food processor).

  • Hmm, I really like the serve the vegetables first tip! – Acire Jul 2 '15 at 17:02
  • yes very creative on the veggies first! – Brusselssprout Jul 3 '15 at 9:51

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