By Debi Lewis
When we all panic-shopped last spring, many families were approaching the stay-at-home orders like a cross between living in a fallout shelter and living with Laura Ingalls Wilder on the prairie. While there was excitement and invention layered on top of the uncertainty, most of us were not imagining still being at home full time with our kids in 2021. That’s a lot of dusty powdered milk—and even more empty potato chip bags.
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Many of us have long abandoned our mason jars full of sourdough starter, myself included. The novelty of all this time at home has worn off. After months of work and family time bleeding into each other, I don’t know a single family that hasn’t needed to make some changes to reflect the reality of our situation. Here are some tips for making dinner more manageable, regardless of the ages of your kids.
Creative Dinner Ideas for Parents Tired of Cooking
1. Take turns doing the cooking
While I didn’t mind cooking almost every single night at the beginning, it got old quickly. Having my husband or one of my daughters pitch in every so often was nice, but the emotional labor involved in helping them inventory the fridge, find a recipe, locate the proper spices, dig up the appropriate sauté pan, etc., left it feeling like not much of a break. One thing that helped was instituting a sign-up chart for meals and dish-washing so that I didn’t have to wonder and they would have time to prepare.
Think your teens can’t possibly learn how to make a whole meal? Even if they haven’t ever cooked before, starting them out on learning to saute greens or smash avocados and squeeze lemons for guacamole is a great start. Other easy recipes are pancakes, grilled cheese, and quesadillas. Once you’ve taught them the basics, most teens can learn to follow simple soup or pasta recipes. Eventually, they can plan and execute a whole meal without your help. My oldest just surprised me by making bread from scratch!
2. Go for takeout
But sometimes no one wants to cook, so we now have a weekly “Takeout Tuesday.” Restaurants all over the country are hurting badly from the changes in local regulations for in-person dining, and this is our way of helping out while also giving us all a break from the cooking responsibilities. If we can’t all agree on a restaurant, we’ll even order from more than one place to satisfy everyone’s tastes. And at least once every week or so, we look in the fridge to find a variety of leftovers and announce that it’s “Scrounge Night,” a night for eating whatever leftovers we find there and supplementing with cold cereal or nachos. These aren’t always the most nutritiously sound meals, but no one is stressed or racing around the kitchen, and whoever is assigned to do dishes that night has a very easy job.
3. Rethink where you eat dinner
Pre-pandemic, our family meals were always at the dining room table. With busy weeks full of activities, it was important to me that we ate together at the table to catch up with each other. But now? We’re together all the time. There is no need to catch up. I know what everyone did today and vice versa. By dinner time, we have already experienced plenty of togetherness.
Instead of sitting around the dining room table, we moved 90 percent of our dinners to the living room coffee table, where we watch TV over dinner almost every night. We choose shows as a family and pause them often to discuss what just happened. It’s exciting to plan what we’ll watch next. For instance, one month we each picked a TED Talk to watch.
It can be hard to eat messy dinners in the living room, but that doesn’t mean the dining room can’t be transformed, too. Instead of watching TV shows on the couch, dinner in the dining room can mean putting grandparents on a video call in the middle of the table or even letting everyone bring their phones to play Among Us or another smartphone-based group game. The point is to create some novelty—and to give parents and teens a break from nagging for an hour.
4. Get creative with the menu
More than ever before, meal planning in my house has become an intentional undertaking. We decided as a family that avoidable visits to crowded places weren’t worth the risk, so I have mastered the art of ordering our groceries online twice a month. That means really thinking about what lasts and what’s versatile.
To make this work, I needed a list of meals we liked to eat often and a list of recipes I wanted to try. Collaborating with my family over one of our living room meals helped all of us hone this list. Eventually, I had a clear sense of my staples and how quickly we go through them.
You might be surprised to learn that one of your kids would like to try a dish they once had at a friend’s house or that they saw on a TV show. It’s a great exercise to ask them to do the research to determine what ingredients or tools you’ll need, how long it takes to make, and how many servings it yields. When they make the effort to cook it themselves, or stay in the kitchen to help you make it, it’s a recipe they can take with them to their own kitchen one day.
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All these months later and my family is still eating together almost all the time. Dinnertime remains a time outside of the rest of the day’s drudgery—online school, Zoom meetings, email—and a pleasant (and consistent) activity in a world that feels simultaneously tedious and overstimulating. At the end of another stay-at-home day, we fill our plates at the stove, bring them to the living room, and dig the remote out from between the couch cushions. We’re together and having a great time at the dinner—well, coffee—table.