By JiJi Russell
Try this little experiment: Close your eyes, and ask yourself, “What’s for dinner?” See what kind of response the question elicits for you. If you experience anything akin to stress: a racing mind, body tension, anxiety, agitation, or difficulty breathing, this article’s for you.
Creating nourishing meals every day, at the end of the day, can challenging. After all, most of us have been working all day, many of us outside the home. Our modern schedules and demands can deplete our energy and enthusiasm for this important time of the day called “dinner” or “supper,” when many families come back together with great hopes and perhaps expectations of relaxation.
I have been working outside my home for almost a year now, having transitioned from at-home mom to professional mom. When I gather my youngsters and head home after work, I have the most noble desire for a truly enjoyable dinner, from prep to table.
As a nutrition coach who has worked with people struggling with food-related complications, I know the importance of eating well. I also have been a yoga practitioner for 16 years, and an instructor for 11. In the Ayurvedic tradition, yoga’s sister science from India, it is taken for granted that one’s health is absolutely bound to one’s digestion. And even with all that immersion in healthy lifestyle learning and living, the question of “What’s for dinner” too often confounds me.
Julie Harden, a mother of four girls between 20 and 12, grew up in a family that ate dinner together every night. “That’s my ideal,” Harden said. “but that has not happened.” Between the work schedules that she and her husband maintain, the girls’ various sports and activities, and visits to her mother who lives in Winchester, evening time compresses.
Recently, Harden saw an opportunity. Her 14-year-old daughter Grace loves to cook and bake, and is reportedly quite good at it. At the same time, the teen Harden girls are health-conscious—leaning toward whole foods and healthy eating habits. So the Harden parents asked Grace if she might like to take the task of cooking dinner as one of her family chores.
Grace took the job.
“We live on a farm, with chickens, alpacas, dogs, and cats, so some of the other chores might not be as attractive,” Harden said. One recent day Grace asked her mom to bring home some good French bread. She had made homemade chicken salad with nuts, grapes, and celery to put on the baguette—and a fresh fruit side salad. Sometimes simplicity tastes so good.
Maryam Tabatabai, a healthy eater and great cook, is a wife and mother of two boys (ages five and seven). Here’s her principle when it comes to dinner: “There’s no magic. You have to put away the pressure, and replace it with preparation.”
Indeed, her workday as a doctor of pharmacy puts the squeeze on Tabatabai’s schedule, and she has taken it upon herself to become a better planner. She not only plans the family’s meals—sometimes up to a monthof menus at a time—but also plans takeout or eating out into the schedule to eliminate last-minute stress on busy days.
Another more subtle tack Tabatabai takes is to discover foods with her children. They love olive oil, she says, so she will incorporate it as a dip or into a dip. Her children, and many others I’ve heard about over the years, like to dip. Why not blend up something nutritious, and let them go at it?
Ultimately, the pragmatic Tabatabai follows the wisdom of a pediatrician, who said that if children have opportunities to understand how hunger feels, they’ll eat. If you have children of your own, and can discover where that “sweet spot” lies between a healthy appetite and a meltdown, use that information wisely.
In my family, I’ve started a regular practice of laying out small dishes and bowls, containing chopped vegetables and nuts about 30 minutes before dinnertime. Those “crudités” are there for grazing during dinner preparation, so that my children (ages 4 and 6) are not sugaring up the bloodstream with quick-absorbing foods like crackers and fruits. If they munch down so much chopped fennel and pistachios, that they don’t eat as much dinner, so be it. At least they’ve gotten good fiber, protein, and fats.
Onlookers to dinner at the Shinabery home might find something surprising: dancing. Marci Shinabery, a wife and mother of a five-year-old boy and twin seven-year-old girls, recalls with enthusiasm the meals she ate with her host family when she studied abroad in France. During these long, multi-course meals, lasting up to two hours, the only reason one got up from the table would be to dance or use the restroom. Back in Berryville, the Shinabery family does eat together “pretty much every night,” while the music rolls. They have experimented with the multi-course style of eating, and enjoyed it, but found it impractical for every day. Sometimes they dance, though.
Like Tabatabai, Shinabery puts a lot of stock in planning. She does the shopping for the week every Monday, and prior to that, sits down to make a meal plan. She tries to pull in one new meal every one to two weeks for variety, and she involves her children in the process of making and setting up dinner.
Involving children in the kitchen has been cited in numerous books and articles as a way to encourage healthy eating habits that stick. In my family, I always invite the kids to help during dinner prep time. The rule is, they can either help me out or move out of the kitchen and keep themselves busy. It’s actually working. Usually one child will take me up on the offer, and then I determine which of the five or so tasks I have to do (washing, slicing, squeezing, mixing, etc.) would be the best fit. I don’t mind the mess at all, as long as we’re having fun.
Recently, we were expecting a babysitter to arrive. She was going to eat with the kids while my husband and I went out. Suddenly, my son got very busy in the kitchen. About five minutes later, he had prepared a beautiful vegetable appetizer for our guest. It was such a thoughtful expression, featuring a lovely combination of chopped and shredded carrots, with some nuts, all arranged in a flower-like pattern on the plate.
Shinabery, who is a stay-at-home mom, consults her activities for the week in order to take note of busy evenings—a PTO meeting, for example. For those nights, she plans ahead for a slow-cooker recipe or plans one of her “go-to meals,” which take little more than pulling a few ingredients out of the freezer and pantry, and tossing them together.
Shinabery designates one of her children a “helper” for each day. This child sets the table and does various preparation tasks like spinning the salad or turning on the blender. The helper gets to determine where everyone sits that evening, a role accepted with much satisfaction, says Shinabery.
“I think when the kids are involved, it holds you more accountable to getting something on the table,” Shinabery said.
So, take comfort that others find something as simple as preparing one daily meal a challenge that deserves much attention and consideration. We all want to do what’s best for our families. May we find our own special formula for success . . . and stress reduction at the dinner hour.
JiJi Russell, a writer, yoga instructor, and Integrative Nutrition practitioner, currently serves as the wellness coordinator for American Public University in Charles Town, W.Va. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Combined Wisdom from Cooking Moms, JiJi Russell and her Aunt Jane Turner
Make up a weekly menu. Make your grocery list from there.
Plan “momentum meals” that can easily roll from one day to the next, like chicken on Monday and rice and bean burritos with shredded chicken on Tuesday.
Double or triple recipes when you can, and freeze leftovers.
Use carry out and/or prepared foods as “add ins” for busy days so you don’t end up relying on them.
Create a short list of quick-prep meals that you can crank out in a pinch.
Plan the days’ meal in the morning.
Cook on weekends.
Involve children in making food. Mushrooms can be cut with a butter knife!
Re-think your idea of sides and main courses. Simply put out a bunch of bowls and plates with single, healthy options that don’t involve a lot of preparation. For example, carrot “matchsticks”; brown rice with a sauce or seasoning; celery spread with peanut or almond butter.