Simplifying and Enjoying Mealtime
The Norman Rockwell fantasy is a happy, animated family sitting around a beautifully set and stocked dinner table. It’s a lovely image: there is something elementally nourishing about time spent sharing meals. But it’s impossible to live up to such a standard day to day, even though the lifestyle magazines and cooking shows would have you believe otherwise.
Minimalizing your mealtime expectations by simplifying the preparation and presentation puts the focus back where it feels right: on the conversation and connection that happens during meals. But what if sitting down to eat together every night just isn’t realistic? That’s fine, too. The point is for eating to be a source of pleasure and nourishment, not guilt.
In this chapter, we share ways to streamline your meal preparation and to make mealtimes more fun.
Meal Preparation Made Easy
The simpler your meals, the simpler the preparation involved. These tips will speed up your cooking considerably.
Separate Ingredient Prep from Cooking
During weekdays, the realities of work, school, homework, and after-school activities means that there’s less time to fuss over food prep. Depending on your menu plan, prep a few items over the weekend so it’s easy to knock together meals quickly during the week. Chop vegetables, prepare and/or brown cuts of meat, and measure and assemble seasonings. You can even freeze prepped menu items for use throughout the week.
Over the weekend, I like to prep one large container filled with a variety of chopped vegetables. Doing this makes it easier to snack well, and also to assemble salads and add veggies to pizzas, quesadillas, and other meals.
Make Your Most Involved Meal on the Weekend
If you’re making something that requires a little more prep or a longer cooking time, make it on the weekend, when you have fewer time constraints. If you can, make a meal that will yield leftovers or lunches for later in the week.
Get Feedback but Don’t Be a Short Order Cook
Much mealtime tension hinges on parents offering food and kids not wanting to eat it. You’ve already planned your meals; now stay firm about serving them. Your job is to provide a nutritious meal, not to force it down your child’s throat or get up and down repeatedly to accommodate culinary changes of heart. Also, avoiding the role of short order cook will inspire your kids to help themselves if they truly need another option.
Meals are more appealing when they’re colorful. Add quick color infusions with snap peas, carrot sticks, and cherry tomatoes. Include colorful fruit to brighten the plate, fill the belly, and satisfy the sweet tooth.
Find Ways to Boost the Nutrition in Family Favorites
Worry less about your family’s specific food choices by bumping up the nutrition level in dishes they’re already eating. We’re not suggesting that you “hide” vegetables in brownies, but that you use familiar foods as an easy way to increase healthy food intake overall. For example, Christine adds a half block of crushed tofu to the sauce for her lasagna to bump up the protein content (perfect, since Laurel is a vegetarian).
Michelle Stern of whatscookingwithkids.com: For pasta dishes, I beef up the nutrients by using Barilla Plus pasta, which is partially made from garbanzo bean flour and adds protein to the otherwise carbohydrate-rich noodles.
Clear Your Fridge
Menu planning and list making will help minimize food waste. But inevitably you get to a point in the week when your fridge is full of random odds and ends. Cue the soups, enchiladas, and stir-fries!
My friends Anne and Michael live in London and introduced me to the term “butler’s salad,” which apparently refers to a salad comprised of pantry (or refrigerator) odds and ends. I love making butler’s salad as a means to eat more greens and make use of random leftovers (e.g., remnants from the baby carrots bag, the last quarter of a cucumber, etc.). After starting with a base of lettuce and raw vegetables, I add nutrient-rich goodies such as nuts, leftover steak or chicken, hardboiled eggs, or (frozen then cooked) falafel. I top it with my favorite dressing or simply drizzle a little olive oil and balsamic vinegar, sprinkle coarse salt and pepper over the top, and I’m done. I’ve been known to eat these salads for lunch and dinner, sometimes several days in a row. I also use this method with a base of quinoa or brown rice.
Invest in Kitchen Gear to Simplify Cooking
There might be one or two purchases that would streamline your kitchen time enough to be worth the money and storage space. Busy weeknights might go more smoothly with a rice cooker or a slow cooker. Leftovers stay fresher and look more appetizing (and pantry chaos subsides) with a matching set of reusable containers. A good stock of sealable freezer bags and aluminum foil makes freezing ingredients and leftovers so much easier. Try to choose items that will simplify cooking and cleanup.
Involve Your Family in Meal Preparation
What if your partner or your kids were responsible for preparing one or more meals per week? Think of the life skills and the fun to be had! Okay, perhaps, in the beginning, the fun will mostly be yours, but it’s worth a conversation, especially if the meal is simple and popular (such as pasta, salad, and garlic bread). Here are some tips for getting your family involved in the kitchen:
Let Go of Perfection
A big part of engaging kids in the kitchen involves letting go of perfection. The chopped veggies do not need to be uniform. If your child wants to make crazy shapes with the cookie dough, why not? When you let your kid take charge (within reason) you’ll be amazed by how focused he’ll get on the project and the result.
Give Age-Appropriate Tasks
Obviously, age will determine how much your child can do, but when your toddler can follow simple instructions, she will love dumping premeasured ingredients in a bowl. Older kids can measure and mix, help assemble (e.g., pizza), and prep ingredients.
Be Clear About Safety
You will want to supervise kitchen work, particularly as your child gets old enough to wield a knife or turn on the stove. Offer her frequent reminders about safety to start, and she will get the hang of it.
As your kid grows more confident in the kitchen, encourage his autonomy. It may lead somewhere amazing.
I love cooking and baking so I brought Laurel into the kitchen with me early on. When she was a toddler she enjoyed dumping in and mixing ingredients. As a preschooler she started to measure and assemble. When she was five years old she started chopping soft foods with a Zyliss plastic knife. About a year later she became adept (with our repeated warnings and supervision with each use) with a paring knife. At seven years old she could bake a chocolate cake from scratch and pipe the frosting impressively.
I found that Laurel’s excitement and focus on cooking projects really took off when I let go and simply encouraged her to do it her way. I told her to not worry about cutting vegetables into perfectly uniform dice (though I did explain the concept that smaller items cook faster than larger ones). I let her sculpt dough scraps into whatever embellishments she wanted on top of the Thanksgiving apple pie. I encouraged her to decorate the pizza in whatever way she wanted, whether that involved random clusters of vegetables, stripes, or something else.
One afternoon Laurel (then five years old) stopped me as I was about to make dinner and said, “Mommy, just go and sit and relax on the couch while I make dinner.” I had been planning on making tofu and vegetable soup and she declared that she would make it. Plus sandwiches.
I cut a couple of harder to manage items (onion, potato) and she cut the tofu, mushrooms, and zucchini with her Zyliss. I set her up at the stove (at this point she was definitely heat element aware) and off she went . . . tossing in olive oil in “cute blobs” and adding in ingredients. I relaxed on the couch with a magazine and one ear out.
As she was finishing, Laurel and I set the table together and then she, Jon, and I sat down as a family. I am convinced that the soup and sandwiches tasted better by her hand.
Try Planting a Vegetable Garden
Whether you have space for a large assortment of veggies, have only a small area for planting, or confine your efforts to a pot of herbs or a bowl of lettuce growing on the kitchen table, working/playing in the garden with kids is fun and educational. And, as often happens when kids have input into the process, they are much more likely to try produce that they have planted and helped grow.
Bringing Joy Back to Mealtime
Time to eat! The planning work you’ve done to simplify shopping and cooking will hopefully leave you with more energy and spirit to enjoy your meal. You deserve more than basic sustenance when you sit down to the table: you deserve appreciation, time to connect with your family, and the satisfaction of a job well done.
Set an End to Snack Time
Nothing’s more frustrating than serving a meal to people who aren’t hungry. Close the snack train at least an hour before dinnertime.
Set the Table for Easy Cleanup
Now’s the time to let go of the magazine standard definition of what a weeknight dinner table should look like. Plates, napkins, cutlery, and glasses—that’s all you need. Save the fussy placemats and accessories for weekends and guests. That said, if you enjoy dressing up the table, simple touches like some flowers or greenery picked from the garden and perched in a glass jar can do wonders.
If your kids are old enough, table setting is an ideal task to delegate. Asha’s kids are responsible for setting the table after they’re done with homework, and before they head off for before-dinner free time.
Start with a Moment of Gratitude
When everyone’s tired and famished and still likely mentally transitioning from a busy day of work and school, there’s a tendency to strap on the feedbag and go, as it were. But it’s worth slowing down and starting each meal with an expression of gratitude—whether it’s for one another, the food, the cook, or something else. In general, treating mealtime less like a refueling break and more like a ritual can effectively transform the mood and pace of dinner.
Limit the Up and Down
One thing that can contribute to a frenetic-feeling meal is constant getting up from the table. Make a family rule about not getting up unless it’s truly necessary and try doing without whatever you forgot to bring to the table. Or wait until you’ve thought of more than one thing you’ve forgotten so you make fewer trips. As with the moment of gratitude, this is a small but meaningful tweak that will calm the mealtime atmosphere.
Do a Round of Updates
Encourage everyone to share something from his or her day, whether it was something fun, exciting, or frustrating. Getting in the habit of open sharing will help establish mealtimes as safe opportunities for family communication.
Up the Fun Quotient
There are so many ways to inject a little levity into family mealtime. Have everyone tell a joke. Spread out a blanket and have a picnic on the floor. Even changing seating positions can change the mood.
Insist on Respect for the Cook
You’re bound to bring a meal to the table that your family’s not clamoring to eat. That’s fine—there’s no way you can please every palate every time. But you can make a rule that groans, eye rolls, and complaints are not allowed. A simple “no, thank you” will suffice.
You’d be surprised by what a little attention to manners can do. When you’re not busy asking people to stop burping, slurping, and interrupting, you can relax and enjoy the good food and conversation. This gets easier as kids get older, of course, so think of it as a gradual process.
Everyone Cleans Up
Asha discovered that her major mealtime downer was the post-meal scatter. After she’d spent time cooking, having to also clear the table and clean up the kitchen was a source of major resentment . . . which usually came out later in the evening. Agree on family-wide cleanup so that your kids learn that everyone shares in the joy and the work of mealtime.
Easy Breakfasts and Lunches
We’ve focused on dinner in this chapter because it’s the meal that benefits most from planning and forethought. But there are two other meals per day people are eating . . . plus snacks. The good news is that these meals are much easier to simplify.
Eating at home should be easy and nourishing. It’s where you can best encourage your child’s autonomy, and keep things simple with routines, leftovers, and a well-stocked freezer.
Limit Breakfast and Lunch Options
Breakfast and lunch are two meals that lend themselves to repetition. Asha has oatmeal and coffee for breakfast every morning, and her kids have cold cereal. No need to hold yourself to the same expectations of variety you do for dinner.
Encourage Kids to Prepare Their Own Meals
Place breakfast and lunch utensils at kid-height so they can serve themselves. Same with the milk and other ingredients in the pantry and refrigerator. Show kids how to make sandwiches. Wash fruit and keep it in a bowl on the table so they can grab and go.
Take Advantage of Leftovers
Leftovers inspire strong feelings: either you love them (Asha regularly raids her friends’ refrigerators for their leftovers) or you don’t. If you’re not a fan of leftovers, open your mind to using them as an already prepared component of a new meal. Chili can be wrapped in a tortilla. Leftover stir-fries can be tossed with dressing as a salad or folded into an omelet. Random odds and ends can go into a butler’s salad (see Christine’s description earlier in the chapter).
Take Advantage of Your Freezer
Pancakes, waffles, bread, shredded cheese, and other healthy prepared foods can live in the freezer. All they need is a quick toast or thaw and they’re ready to eat.
Many parents dread packing lunch. And sometimes there’s just no respite (for example, if your daughter is like Laurel and doesn’t want to wait on the cafeteria line because the lunch period is already so rushed). Here are some ways to streamline the process:
Lower Your Expectations
Again, no need for huge variety here. A meal balanced with protein, a fruit, a vegetable, and a grain, plus water to drink is fine, but if you don’t cover all the nutritional bases every single day, that’s okay too. Do your best to balance out your child’s food choices at home throughout the week.
Quiz Your Kid for Ideas
Sometimes, the hardest thing about packing lunch is knowing what to pack. Ask your kid to do a little reconnaissance at lunchtime: What are other kids eating that looks good? This is how Asha found out that Mira wanted to try egg salad. She had tried her friend’s sandwich and loved it!
Prep Lunches Ahead of Time
Lunch making is less stressful in the mornings when some of the pieces are already in place. On Mondays and Wednesdays Christine packs Laurel’s fruit and vegetable containers and sets aside snack options (e.g., yogurt, granola bars) for two days. The main course (e.g., sandwich, macaroni and cheese, soup, etc.) gets made fresh the morning of school, depending on what Laurel is in the mood for.
Stefania Butler of citymama.typepad.com: I pack lunch at the dinner table the night before! Before I clean up dinner, I pack anything left over into bento boxes for lunch the next day.
Get in a Rhythm with Reusable Containers
Reusable containers are great to help you and your kids get in a rhythm with lunch prep and cleanup. Asha packs her kids’ lunch boxes with small, disposable plastic containers that her kids load in the dishwasher when they get home.
Michelle Stern of whatscookingwithkids.com: We always use reusable containers or lunchboxes with compartments for each food item—this way, I simply pack one of each of the following items into each compartment: a fruit, a veggie, a crunchy snack, and something with protein.
Let Your Kid Take Over the Job
If you truly hate packing your kid’s lunch, work toward handing over the job. Prep lunch items in the fridge over the weekend, and have your child assemble her lunch each morning before school. Laurel’s lunch-making skills have even inspired her to pack her parents a lunch every now and then!
Snacks are tricky. They’re an important part of a kid’s nutritional day, but they lend themselves to unhealthy habits such as eating for entertainment. Following are a few ideas for keeping snack time easy and healthy.
Lower the Intensity Around Forbidden Foods
We all want our kids to eat food that supports their health and growth. But surrounding food with an atmosphere of tension sabotages that goal in the long run. Offer the healthy stuff, and allow for treats in moderation as well. By lowering the intensity around “forbidden” foods, you lessen their attractiveness.
Growing up, we rarely had junk food in the house—not because my parents were morally opposed to it, but because it was considered a wasteful expense. As a result, my siblings and I went crazy over junk food whenever we had the chance. I often used my lunch money entirely on desserts from the school lunch line (come to think of it, the lunch ladies never gave me a hard time about this) or, I’d stop at the convenience store on the way to school and spend my lunch money entirely on candy (at one point my mom got wind of this and actually called the store and told them to stop selling to me . . . how embarrassing). I also will admit that being deprived of sweets led me to a phase of shoplifting Swedish fish from the local five and dime. To this day, my stomach (and conscience) feels sick when I think about Swedish fish.
We’ve taken a different approach with Laurel. Treats are around, and we encourage moderation and stopping once satisfied. Laurel enjoys sweets as much as the next kid, but she’s able to make decisions about sugar based on whether she actually wants it versus just eating it because it is there.
Make the Healthy Stuff Easy to Grab
If your kids are going to snack on healthy foods, they need to be as easy to grab as the bag of chips. Good candidates include single servings of precut vegetables and fruit, string cheese, yogurt, whole grain crackers, and nuts. Asha portions nuts, crackers, and pretzels into plastic cups so her kids can grab them and they get an education about portion sizes.
Use Snacks As a Way to Even Out the Day’s Nutrition
If your kids routinely avoid the fruits and vegetables in their meals, set out an attractive platter of fruits and vegetables during snack time. You’d be amazed by what kids are willing to eat when they’re grazing between activities as opposed to sitting at the dinner table.
On weekends when we eat brunch in the late morning and don’t quite have the appetite for a full lunch in advance of dinner, we go for a nice assembly of snacks in the afternoon. I recently set Laurel up with a great project that was fun for her to do and encouraged well-rounded snacking: I gave her a twelve-cup muffin tin and suggested she fill it with twelve snacks. She canvassed the fridge and cupboard and filled the cups with fruits and veggies she cut up (e.g., watermelon, strawberries, blueberries, carrots, cucumber, bell peppers) as well as pantry snacks (e.g., graham sticks, dried dates, small crackers, cereal). It was the perfect between-meal grazing platform and a fun activity as well.
Feeding Babies and Toddlers
If you have very small people at home, it’ll be a while before they’re helping in the kitchen and enjoying your well-planned meals. Even so, many of the principles around minimalizing your mealtime apply. That said, here are our thoughts on feeding babies and toddlers.
The Milk Months
The choice to breastfeed or formula feed your baby is yours. This is a good moment to repeat a key of Minimalist Parenting: know yourself. Do what works for you and do not beat yourself up comparing yourself to others. Truly. Repeat that again and again if you’re doubting yourself, as many new mothers do when navigating this choice. Every mother’s situation is different and complex. However you ultimately feed your baby, you are nourishing your child. You have many, many years and meals ahead of you, all of which will contribute to your kid’s growth.
Jules Pieri of DailyGrommet.com, via PopDiscourse.com: I loved breastfeeding my three sons far more than I had ever imagined and did so for nine months at the shortest and thirteen months at the longest. Here is the funny thing . . . I can’t remember how long for which one. It mattered A LOT at the time. It does not matter one iota a couple years down the road . . . Family happiness is family happiness and that includes you being able to provide for your family and your own well-being.
The Solid Food Adventure
It can be both exciting and a little stressful when you introduce solid food to your baby. Here are a few thoughts to keep in mind:
Follow, but Try Not to Worry About, the Schedules
There are plenty of guides that tell you which foods to introduce when. In general, the party line is to introduce a new food for three days before trying another new one so you can monitor for allergic reactions. Getting into this three-day new food cycle can leave new parents fretting over checking off each item on the list. We say it’s fine to take it at your own pace—if you feed baby the same collection of solid foods for a week, no problem. There’s no time limit on introducing new foods.
Embrace the Mess
Feeding babies can be messy, especially when they start developing the dexterity to pick up food bits and mash them all over their faces. Instead of trying to control the mess (which is inevitable), let them explore. It’s sensory fun for them, and may occupy them for a bit of time so you can actually eat too. Besides, you’ll need to change their clothes and wipe them down anyway.
Healthy Food Is Healthy Food, Regardless of the Source
Some people (like Christine) actually enjoy making baby food, but if you find this a tiresome chore, buy prepared baby food and don’t look back. There are so many great options (including several major organic lines) to choose from.
As Soon As Your Child Is Interested, Feed Her from Your Plate
Rejoice when your toddler is ready to eat table food. Less preparation—yay! Early on Christine found that Violet was very excited about trying bits of whatever everyone else was eating—whether it was steel-cut oats at breakfast or bits of vegetarian chili or lasagna at dinner.
Encourage Mealtime Independence
We discussed embracing mess earlier, and this is a big part of encouraging mealtime independence. You want your kids to become explorers in all aspects of life—this is what will help them become independent and, equally important, frees up your hands. Let your baby use his hands to play with his food, and then put baby utensils on his tray and let him play with them and figure out how to use them.
We once visited friends who have four kids. The mom looked at Laurel—who was younger than my friend’s twin girls but was zipping her own coat (which the twins could not do)—and said, “Wow, we’re usually so focused on getting from point A to B that we help the kids get their shoes on and zip up their jackets. This is reminding me that I should teach the kids to zip their zippers and tie their shoes so I don’t have to do it!”
I felt the same way with Violet when she was a new solid food eater. I was so fixed on getting her to eat I forgot to let her just do it herself. I saw a friend (whose baby is about the same age) post Facebook pictures of her son using a fork and I thought, “Wow, I totally forgot about introducing utensils because I’ve been focused on getting the food in!” I started placing a spoon and fork on Violet’s tray and very quickly, she figured out how to use them to feed herself. Cue angels singing.
The wonderful thing about minimalizing meal preparation is that it gives you the space to actually enjoy what you’re eating (and with whom you’re eating). As you go about feeding your family, keep in mind that every meal does not need to be nutritionally perfect, or even good tasting (some of the best family stories come from meals gone awry). Instead, focus on a general healthy plan, allow treats in moderation, and ignore your harshest critic (you!).