Monday, February 14, 2011

Meal-Planning: Cooking It, Eating It and Cleaning It All Up

And now from my least favorite step (shopping) to my most favorite step, cooking!  For me, my love of cooking is all about the process.  In all honesty, I really don't care too much about the end product.  I love chopping, sauteing, and assembling.  I feel at peace when I'm in the kitchen, putting together some love for my loves.  Here are my top five tips to make the dinner routine work for you:

1.  Set aside enough time.  I think this is probably this biggest reason most people end up ordering in or going out to a restaurant.  You look at the clock.  It says 5:30.  You look at your recipe.  It says 45 minutes.  Your kids are hitting a wall and you know there's no way you're going to be able to hold them off that long.

Instead, try to look at your options for meal plans at the beginning of the week and give yourself a rough schedule.  Pick your quickest and easiest recipes for your most hectic days.  Pick your most involved recipes for your least-hectic days. The flow of a day can turn on a dime so don't feel guilty about having to put in a pinch-hitter meal when need be.

Remember not to underestimate the time it takes to put together a meal.  The cook time on the recipe might say 30 minutes but that doesn't include the time it takes wash, chop, stir, preheat, etc.  Many times, if I have a recipe that contains a lot of "pre-cooking" steps, I will complete these during naptime so I'm ready to rock and roll come 5 o'clock.  As a start, begin making your meal at 4:45 for dinner to be served between 5:30 and 6:00.

2.  Cooking is your sacred time and the kitchen is your sacred space. 
My kids know, albeit with many reminders, that they are not allowed in the kitchen while I'm making dinner.  (Sidenote: We do not have an open floor plan so this line is easier for me to draw.)  While there is definitely a time and a place to cook with your children, it isn't a good idea to do this every night.  You'll be more stressed out and frustrated with little cooks on your heels every step of the way.

On good days, my kids will play by themselves in their toy room or up in their bedrooms.  Sometimes I turn on the stereo and let them burn out all their energy in the form of dance.  On more challenging days I turn to the television.  I have no guilt about this because it's a very small means to very large and very good end.  When my babies were newborns, I would put their bouncy seats on top of the counter while I cooked.  They liked that they could see me as I was moving about and rarely complained.  For babies at that in-between age, put them in their highchair and move the chair close to your workspace.  Throw a few Cheerios on their tray and they should be good to go.

Allow yourself this time.  Pour yourself a glass of wine and know that you are doing something very, very good for your family.

3.  Dinnertime is family time.  For us, it's time for dinner as soon as Daddy steps foot inside the door.  Sometimes this is 5:30, sometimes this is 6:15.  Rarely do we ever eat dinner without him.  (Sidenote: If you or your spouse are consistently unable to be home in time for dinner, try picking another meal for your family meal. Maybe breakfast works better with your schedule.  Or maybe weekends work better than weekdays.)

No matter your children's ages, try very purposefully to all sit down at the table together at one time.  There are many studies correlating family meal time to loads of positive results.  Before anyone is allowed to touch their food we all pray together. Sometimes this is the only time the four of us will pray together all day.  Then we dig in and fill in each other on our day's activities.

If your kids get antsy during the meal and want to get up, try to focus less on the eating part of dinner and more about the together-ness aspect.  (i.e. "William, can you tell me what your favorite part of the day was?" or "Lucy, do you know how to sing the ABCs?")  Within reason, we never let our kids be excused from the table until everyone is finished eating.  We also don't hand out treats until every one is finished eating their main dish otherwise jealousy will erupt.

We do incentivize eating dinner with a small treat but I'm not happy with this.  So far we haven't figured out a better plan.  We don't advocate for a clean plate but we do say things like, "You have to try three bites."

4.  It's OK if you don't like it.
  If you, your spouse or your kids don't like what was cooked for dinner, this is OK.  You cooked something new and you tried something new.  That's the biggest hurdle of them all.  In the end, declare this recipe banished from your box or limit when you might make it next.

If William eats his food and declares he doesn't like it, I smile and happily say, "That's OK."  (I may, however, remind him how to make his point in a polite way.)  And then I'll continue on with our conversation.  He is a person like anyone else with likes and dislikes and this should be respected.  Again, focus less on the eating part and more about the experience of it all.

On the flip side, if every one seems to gobbling the meal down at record pace, it looks like you may have found a new recipe to put in your regular rotation!

5.  Cleaning up is fun to do.  I think it was my sister who declared that she would cook more if only she didn't have do the dishes in the end.  Even as an admitted clean freak, I can totally understand this.  Who wants to be hunched over the sink scrubbing off bits of baked-on food off a casserole dish at the end of a long day?

Here's what we do:  When the meal has come to an end, we immediately shuffle both kids upstairs and into the bath.  Sometimes one of us will bathe the kids while the other cleans up the kitchen or, and this is a better option in my opinion, we'll both help bathe the kids, get them in bed and then clean up the kitchen together.  I've found that Brian and I have our best conversations while we're cleaning up the post-dinner mess together.  Two birds at once: kitchen clean and marriage renewed.

In the summer we try to take full advantage of every last drop of daylight.  On those hot summer nights we will eat dinner and leave the mess to go outside for about an hour.  We'll then resume our normal evening routine when we get back inside.

If you have a dishwasher, make it do all the work.  If my dishwasher is full and I still have dirty dishes, I will let them rest in the sink until the dishwasher is available again.  But you might be more of a dish-washer aficionado than I am.

Whatever you do, go to any lengths possible to not go to bed without having cleaned up the mess.  There's nothing worse than waking up to a chaotic kitchen.  The mess will defeat you and make you less likely to be excited about cooking another meal again that night.

What other tips would add about cooking, eating and cleaning?

Up next I'll have some final thoughts on meal-planning plus I'll share some of my favorite recipes.  Also, be prepared to share some of your own favorite tried and true meals!

Previous Meal-Planning Posts

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