Chances are, one of your least favorite times of the day is the evening rush hour -- and we know it has nothing to do with traffic. The minute you get home from work or carpool duty, your hungry kids start begging for your attention. Meanwhile, you're exhausted and wondering if you can get away with ordering pizza (again). No wonder research shows that working mothers tend to experience spikes in heart rate and stress during workday evenings. Stay-at-home moms feel slammed by this second shift too.
But with a little planning and streamlining, you can cut out the chaos and focus on what really matters -- reconnecting with your husband and kids. After all, eating together can strengthen family bonds and help your kids develop healthy eating habits. Use these tips to create a routine you'll love.
Go ahead, get silly: It sets the tone for the whole evening. "When you drop everything and play with your kids, you give them the love and attention they crave when they haven't seen you for a few hours," says Parents advisor and psychologist Alice Domar, PhD, executive director of the Domar Center for Complementary Healthcare, in Waltham, Massachusetts. "They'll feel calmer and will be less resentful when you have to make dinner." Go for a 10-minute walk, toss a ball outside, or put on music and dance around the house. "Focus on what they want to talk about so they feel like they're your top priority," Dr. Domar says. You'll feel better too -- you need a transition between the afternoon's responsibilities and dinner prep.
Cut down on shopping trips. No one feels like trekking to the supermarket at the end of a long day. Instead, go to allrecipes.com, click on "Ingredient Search," and type in the foods you have in your kitchen. The site will generate recipe suggestions from a database of 40,000 dishes created and tested by real people.
Check out a dinner-prep store. They're popping up all over the country. Here's the deal: The store provides the ingredients and recipes, and you cook up to 12 entrees in about two hours. You freeze them, then put them in the fridge when you're ready to eat them. You get the benefits of home-cooked meals but without the shopping, chopping, and cleanup. For a list of locations, visit easymealprep.com.
Have your groceries delivered. If you're super-organized, get a jump on tomorrow's dinner. While your kids are watching TV, sneak off to the computer and order what you'll need from a delivery service like Peapod or Safeway.
Meal prep goes much faster when you use these tricks.
Pretend you're on the Food Network. If you have a baby or toddler, let her watch you make dinner -- narrate as you go! She may not understand the finer points of your Chicken Parmesan recipe, but the sound of your voice is entertaining.
Let your kids decorate. Kim Amsbaugh's three children make place mats and tablecloths by drawing on construction paper or butcher paper with their markers, crayons, and colored pencils. "Sometimes they come up with a theme like sports or flowers," says the Palo Alto, California, mom.
Offer an appetizer tray. Serve cut-up fruits or veggies on a platter with dips (try flavored yogurt for the fruit and low-fat ranch dressing or guacamole for the veggies), and let your kids nibble and play a quiet game at the table. They'll think it's fancy, and you'll sneak in some nutrients. "If you give kids fruit and vegetables when they're really hungry, they're more likely to eat them," says Roberta Anding, RD, of Texas Children's Hospital, in Houston.
Let your child be your assistant. Preschoolers can tear lettuce leaves and stir batter; school-age kids can scrub potatoes and toss a salad. "My 3-year-old often sits on the counter and helps me measure out ingredients while I'm cooking," says Joelle Mertzel, a mother of two in Tarzana, California. "He's really proud that he's contributing."
Stop catering to your child's food whims, says Elizabeth M. Ward, RD, author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Feeding Your Baby and Toddler. You'll get dinner on the table faster and help him develop better eating habits if you serve one meal for the family. Forget chicken nuggets and other kids' foods -- just cut up meat and veggies into bite-size pieces or fun shapes. To make veggies more appealing, let your child choose which kind you make. Tired of food fights? Always cook up at least one dish that you know your picky eater likes.
Why tackle setup and cleanup by yourself? There are plenty of safe ways kids of all ages can help, says child psychologist Lawrence Balter, PhD, of New York University.