Family Dinner Is Overrated — Here’s What I Do Instead

published Jan 16, 2024
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Credit: Shelly Westerhausen

I have this fun personality trait where if I’m going to do something, I am really going to do something. Vacations are organized by spreadsheets and schedules, every purchase from a colander to a couch is preempted by days, weeks of research. Funnily enough, becoming a parent was, um, a bit of a surprise. After I had my first kid, I was fully in on parenting. Specifically, when I realized it was on me not just to feed my kid but raise a healthy eater, I went back to school and got a degree in nutrition.

This life choice is probably a little over the top for most, but made sense for me.  In hindsight, going through school for nutrition while my kids were literal babies was a bit of a mind game. It’s empowering to have science at your fingertips; it also provides a framework for you to set yourself up to adhere to some pretty lofty standards. And while I never really struggled with meeting Pinterest-worthy expectations as a young mom, I did have high standards for myself. I excused my internal motivation as admirable, what I was “supposed” to measure myself by. It wasn’t about external validation, it was for me! It was for my children! I was never not cooking. Pots of beans, homemade breads and crackers, steamed and roasted veggies for easy snacking, low sugar treats. Anything purchased in a box, jar, or bag was an ingredient to be turned into something else.

Let me tell you from experience, failing to meet my own impossible standards is just as anxiety-inducing as disappointing others. Years of therapy (ok, and also TikTok) helped me to recognize my overzealous millenial-eldest-daughter mentality. It’s not just because of my kids. I’ve been overthinking and planning and perfecting all the different aspects of my life well before either of them came around. It wasn’t just about serving a wholesome dinner (and breakfast and lunch) to my family every single night.

I know it’s not just me. With the popularity and relatability of the concept of “girl dinner,” I know there are so many of us whose most treasured indulgence is a dinner plate full of whims. A meal without the mental load. The thing is, dinner is not a performance, a moral test, or a report card. It’s just getting your family fed to satisfy bellies. (That doesn’t always mean everyone’s palates!) And the good (bad?) news is, if you didn’t do great today, you get a do-over tomorrow.

Now that I am 16 years into parenting, the number of family dinners that I’ve made rivals the arguments I’ve had over screen time. And yes, a ton of those homemade meals have been eaten around the dinner table. I still very much enjoy cooking, and love good food. But a big chunk of those meals happened en route to piano lessons, on the baseball field, in front of a movie, or by myself in the car while no one bothered me. I don’t need peer reviewed research to know the benefits of concession stand nachos, the emotional balm that comes from the combo of carbs and cheese and Pixar, the joy of spontaneous drive through fries and soft serve after a day of Zoom and geometry.

As we extend empathy to our toddlers for their inability to verbally communicate their needs, to our teens and their absolute certainty that we have no idea what they’re going through, don’t forget about yourself. We are all the oldest and tiredest we have ever been, whether we’re 16 or 36.

None of this is easy, but sometimes dinner can be. After sixteen years of cooking family dinners, here’s what I do now:

Credit: Joe Lingeman

1. Outsource the easy stuff.

This is likely an obvious one for those who share meal planning and cooking with a partner. But cooking is a big part of my actual job, and not just in the “second shift” sense of the word. It didn’t make a ton of sense to me to hand off the job to an amateur when I’m right here. Turns out, my sanity is a pretty good reason for it! 

My husband has a few basics down really well at this point, and my kids are getting better at more than just boiling noodles or air frying whatever’s in the freezer. I’ve found the most success handing off recipes written for the Instant Pot, oven, or a stovetop braise. Not needing to actively monitor food to judge whether or not it’s done greatly reduces both the margin of error as well as user anxiety. These sorts of meals also tend to hold well, making it easy to feed one kid at 5PM and another a couple of hours later.

2. Eat on the go.

Thermoses aren’t just for lunch boxes. They’re equally great for dinner in the car while getting from point A to B (and then C to D). Sure, you can fill it with soup, but it works just as well for things like Sloppy Joe filling and BBQ chicken. I like to opt for something protein heavy and keep the carbs on the side—it keeps things from getting soggy. Just spoon the filling onto buns while en route in the car, or during that awkward bit of time between dropping your kid off and the actual start of their game.

Alternatively, wrap it up. Beans and rice are great, but really any sort of stir fry is perfect rolled up into a tortilla. A slab of frittata and a handful of greens works great in a wrap, or just some air fried nuggets and a bag of slaw. Buckle up, dinner is served!

Credit: Photo: Alex Lepe; Food Styling: James Park

3. Embrace after-school snack time.

After-school snack time is one of my favorite dinner alternatives. After a full day of self regulating, kids tend to unleash a torrent of info if you’re just a quiet ear across the kitchen counter. And you know who else needs a snack break at 3:30pm? Me. I do.

Being intentional with after school snacks can also take a lot of pressure off of dinner. When kids aren’t starving at 5:30, there’s extra wiggle room on time. It can even be a stand-in for dinner on busy evenings. Eat dinner at 4, and fill in with snacks (or leftovers!) later in the evening.