Written by Emily McClements, Contributing Writer

It’s been a long day.  You’re tired, the kids are cranky, or needy, or fighting, or all three at once, the house looks like a tornado just passed through, and you look at the clock and it’s 5:00 pm and you think, “Oh NO! What are we going to have for dinner?”

What usually happens then, is something gets thrown together haphazardly, while the kids whine and cling to your leg. The stuff that’s covering the dinner table gets pushed out of the way so there is actually somewhere to sit and eat.  After dinner, the dishes remain on the table because you jumped up and moved on to other things, and when you finally get the kids to bed, you walk out and look around your house and feel overwhelmed and exhausted.

Maybe none of you can relate to this story, because dinner time at your house runs smoothly every evening, but I know this is a more regular occurrence in my home than I would like to admit.

Stress-Free Dinner Times?

Dinner time is a hard time of day sometimes, at least for us.  The kids may be getting tired after a long day, mama is definitely tired after a long day, everyone’s waiting for daddy to arrive home, and if you spend a lot of time at home, you may all be getting just a little stir crazy by the end of the day.

I do believe that dinner is a really important time for families to spend together.  Sitting around the table eating dinner every night as a family is one thing that I remember most vividly about my growing up years.  Studies have shown that families who sit and eat dinner together at night are more likely to eat healthy foods and less likely to be overweight, the children are also more likely to do well in school and less likely to try alcohol and other drugs. Dinner time is also a great time to teach kids about manners, social graces, and just spend time in conversation together, catching up on everyone’s day.

So, how do we create peaceful and stress free dinner times for our families?

Well you know that I am a big believer in routines, and I’ll be honest that while I maintained a fairly smooth routine for myself and the kids during the day, when dinner time rolled around and my husband came home from work, all routine flew out the window and I would be left looking around my home after putting the kids to bed and wondering what had happened to my evening.  I knew we needed to put some kind of dinner routine into place.

Creating a Dinner Time Routine

1. Meal Plan

Of course the first step to a peaceful dinner time routine is to know what you’re having for dinner every night. Creating a weekly or monthly menu plan helps you to make sure that you have all the ingredients you need on hand, and avoid the dinner time scramble of what to eat each night.

Here are some great resources for helping you meal plan:

Organization in the Real Food Kitchen: Menu Planning

Back to the Basics: Menu Planning at Simple Mom

How To Menu Plan @ I’m An Organizing Junkie

Photo by Muffet

2. Prepare Food Ahead

Once you have your meal plan in place, then it’s easy to plan and prepare some food ahead of time.  Starting dinner in the morning, or even the day or night before, means there is less to do during the dinner time crunch. This step is especially important when cooking from scratch, and using real food and traditional techniques, such as soaking.

Preparing ahead of time helps us to make sure that we are feeding our family the healthiest food possible.  But, it also doesn’t have to be too involved.  Even simple things like taking meat out of the freezer to defrost the night before, or browning ground beef  in the morning to throw it in pasta sauce or a casserole later saves time and an extra step when you’re ready to make dinner. So, take a look at your menu plan and determine if there are are food prep tasks that you can take care of ahead of time.

3. Prepare The House

Simple things like having a clean counter and having the table cleared off ahead of time can go along way to making the dinner hour easier. We’ve talked before about doing daily chores that help our days to run more smoothly and also doing small tasks throughout the day to keep cleaning to a minimum.  If you are maintaining your home throughout the day, you won’t have to scramble to clean off the table so you have somewhere to eat, or empty the dishwasher after all the dirty dishes are already piled in sink.

This doesn’t mean your house needs to be perfectly clean before you can start making dinner, if that was the case we’d often be eating super late at night!  It’s just that some things, like having clean work space in your kitchen, an empty dishwasher to load dinner dishes into, and a cleared off table that is ready to eat on, really help things to run much more smoothly at dinner time. Along with making sure the table is cleared off, I’ve also started trying to set the table, or at least set the dishes out on the table, ahead of time, so I’m not try to do that while also making sure that our dinner isn’t burning.

4. Prepare The Kids

Dinner prep time can be a hard time for kiddos because they’re usually hungry and ready for dinner, and they often don’t like that mama can’t give them 100% of her attention. Making the effort to spend some good quality time with your kids before starting dinner can go a long way toward them allowing you to step away to make dinner without too many interruptions.

Also, be sure your kids have a healthy snack in the afternoon which includes protein.  This will help carry them through until dinner time and may ward off some of the “I’m hungry” meltdowns (although I’ve found that sometimes no matter how much I feed my kids snacks, when they know I’m making dinner, they’re still clinging to me and whining about being hungry).

Let kids help if they can or get them set up with an activity, or toy, that will keep them entertained while you work. I love homemade play dough because my kids will sit for an extended amount of time while playing with it, they are close to me and I can supervise what they’re doing, and it keeps them for getting into other stuff around the house while I’m stuck in the kitchen.

Photo by aaronharmon

5. Clean As You Cook

Cleaning up as you go is the mantra of many efficient home cooks. Put dirty utensils in the dishwasher, recycle or throw away containers, wipe up spills, and even wash a dish or two as as you can.  The more you do while you’re cooking, the less you have to clean up when you’re finished eating.

6. Clean up when you’re finished

Maybe this is an obvious one to many of you, but for me it’s not, so that’s why I think it’s so important to add it here.  Too often my family has gotten up from the table, leaving the dishes and food on the table to be taken care of later, and anything I didn’t clean up as I was cooking sits on the counter waiting to be taken care of.

The problem is that after dinner I’m tired.  I also hate doing dishes, so the last thing I really want to do is jump up and start taking care of the after dinner mess. But, I’m telling you, if you don’t at least get started on taking care of it right away, it turns into a monster that is so much harder to tackle later in the evening when you’re even more tired and just want to relax, or spend time with your hubby, after a long day.

Our routine now includes the kids and daddy helping to clear off the table while I load dishes into the dishwasher and put away any leftovers.  Even if that’s all we get done at that point, it makes finishing the clean up job much easier later on.  But often, once we get started we just keep on going and clean up everything, wash dishes, wipe of the table, sweep the floor, and everything is done fairly quickly and then we can really relax because everything is cleaned up and we don’t have it hanging over our heads.

Creating a dinner time routine is important to help things run smoothly for your family in the evenings.  You will feel better knowing that you’ve planned ahead to prepare healthy meals for your family, and to create a relaxing time for your family to spend time together.

How do you manage dinner time for your family?  What tips do you use to make dinner a fun and relaxing family time?

Top photo by Beverly & Pack