These are long days for parents. Some are harder than others. Even on our best days, my husband and I both look forward to those precious few hours after the kids are in bed when we can catch up, unwind and enjoy a little quiet before going to bed, only to do it all over again the next day. We’ve been trying out different things to smooth over the predictably chaotic transitions we all find challenging each day: waking up, getting dinner on the table, and going to bed.
We are experimenting with simple “morning invitations” to keep the kids occupied during our pre-breakfast/ pre-coffee stumble. It doesn’t happen every morning and the activities are very simple. We’re just focusing on getting in a habit of setting something up the night before, as a gift to our next-morning selves. When Lyle gets home in the afternoon, he takes the kids outside to play or does a math/science activity with our kindergartener, while I take a walk alone. At 5, the kids get to watch a show while one of us makes dinner. Since I’m slowing down here at 29 weeks, it’s often Lyle who cooks while I lie down or do some stretching. So my contribution lately has been recommitting to a meal plan, making a list, and shopping for all the ingredients once a week.
I will be honest. I do not love meal-planning. I often find it overwhelming and repetitive, and it can be frustrating to spend time planning and preparing meals only to throw much of it in the compost when our kids eat around the vegetables and just eat the starchy, cheesy bits. The title for this post could easily be a McSweeney’s prompt, as the chasm between the plan and the reality is so very wide sometimes.
To reframe it as a sustainable practice for our family, I’m trying to embrace meal-planning as something we do in the service of bigger goals and values: cultivating a calm home and connecting together, however briefly, at the dinner table as a family. It’d be nice if the kids ate up all of what we served them, but that’s not the most important thing– though I wince at their uneaten food when so many go hungry.
After reading Ellyn Satter’s book a few years back, I’ve tried to remind myself that I’m in charge of putting healthy, balanced meals on the table for my kids, and they’re in charge of deciding how much of it to put in their bodies. That is a tall order some days. It’s really tough to resist cajoling them into one more bite, or taking it personally when they don’t like something I’ve worked hard on. But I don’t want the dinner table to be a battle field, and I want my kids to grow up knowing what feels good in their own bodies. I want to respect that knowing. Taking a page from Satter’s book, we don’t prepare separate or substitute meals for the kids, but we almost always serve bread or toast on the side, so even if they refuse to eat the main meal, I know they won’t go to bed hungry.
I thought I would share my progress here on the blog occasionally. This way I can make some notes on the kinds of things my kids like to eat, and get them into our weekly rotation more often. And maybe it can serve as a shortcut for another weary mom or dad out there, scouring the internet for ideas. I will list this week’s meals and link to some recipes below.
So far, I’ve observed a few things about what works for our family:
- Meals need to be simple and low-prep, no more than an hour from cutting board to table, unless they involve some fairly hands-off time in the oven.
- In this season of budgeting, small children, and third-trimester heartburn, light meals focused on vegetables and grains work best.
- When I feel stuck or uninspired, there are two family magazines with unfussy recipes that usually do the trick: Parents and Good Housekeeping.
- One-pot and sheet-pan meals often end up being crowd-pleasers.
- Not all time-saving appliances actually save *us* time. A basic rice cooker? Yes. An instant pot? “Good for her, not for me.”
Meals for October 11-17
Sunday– Roasted vegetables and rice. Kids ate: most. Notes: This was a non-recipe meal using up the veggies in the fridge before grocery day. Sweet potato, carrot, beets, potatoes, broccoli, and cherry tomatoes, chopped small and roasted with olive oil and herbs at 425 for about 25 min. Served with brown rice from the rice cooker.
Monday– Pumpkin Rice Casserole with Roasted Vegetables. Kids ate: most. Notes: This was a meal I just made up based on what I had left in the fridge. I was pleasantly surprised the kids liked this, and the leftovers made for good lunches the next day.
Tuesday*– Potato kale soup. Kids ate: less than half. Notes: Served with par-baked french bread from the supermarket and a green salad from our garden. I was disappointed the kids didn’t seem to like this very much, but kale does have a strong flavor. This was a hearty, blended soup that we doubled to help feed a friend going through a hard time. So even though my kids didn’t eat much of it, I celebrated it as a win for meal-planning: it helped me give a little extra during a time when I often feel like I don’t have enough time, energy, or kindness to share. *grocery day.
Wednesday– Rotisserie chicken with orzo, zucchini, and cherry tomatoes. Kids ate: most. Notes: Served with a green salad from our garden. This was really good, and relatively easy to prepare with pre-cooked chicken. I used to avoid prepared foods to save money but recently have been experimenting with buying a rotisserie chicken every so often. It has surprised me by being more budget-friendly than I might have thought. Served with bread and a veggie or salad, it can make for a complete meal during busy times when we might otherwise order expensive take-out. In this case, we had plenty left to use in another recipe later in the week, and by simmering the carcass overnight we also made a quart of nutritious bone broth.
Thursday– Sheet pan grilled cheese with apples. Kids ate: less than half. Notes: Served with cups of leftover soup and a green salad. This was a new technique for us, kind of a DIY panini press in the oven, and we ended up cooking them a little too long. A good way to cook grilled cheese for a crowd, this helps you spend less time over the stove, but you really have to watch so they don’t burn. The kids may have eaten more if they weren’t so well-done. 😉
Friday– Quinoa-stuffed acorn squash. Kids ate: Less than half. Notes: Served with toast and a green salad. I didn’t have high hopes that they’d eat this. For some reason, stuffed veggies aren’t a big hit with my two, but I keep exposing them to these dishes because they are affordable, nutritious, and some of my favorite things to eat during the cold months. We made carmelized cashews for the salad with sliced bosc pear, and that was a big hit at least.
Saturday– Chicken and butternut squash enchiladas. Kids ate: most. Notes: I used this recipe as a template in order to make a double batch. I needed to make one dairy and gluten free to freeze and deliver to my friend next week, and one with regular cheese for our kids, and both without beans because they tend to make me sick. I also made my own enchilada sauce because onions and garlic gross me out during pregnancy. So, lots of adaptations. You could definitely make this dish more quickly and affordably with store-bought shortcuts. A good weekend meal since it’s more involved to prepare.
What are your favorite meal-planning tricks, habits, or discoveries?