Dinnertime can be tricky. Between the limited resources of time and energy is always the question of what to make, who at my table is going to like which recipe, and whether or not I already have the ingredients stocked in my kitchen. And, of course, this always seems to unfold as my dear family buzzes around me.
My secret to calming the crazy is to channel the buzz into teamwork. I turn dinnertime into quality time by putting everyone to work in a purposeful way. Children of all ages are quite useful in the kitchen, in fact, and we all benefit from the time together.
I divvy up the work of supper into four areas: the prep, the tools, the meal and the clean up.
Start Them With Prep
This is where my little ones are the most helpful; I break down prep into many parts to give each of my kids a job. First, everyone has a say in the menu-planning. Ideally this happens once a week – for the rest of the week – with requests and dedications.
From there, then, I assign jobs based on schedules and interests. When it is time to grocery shop I bring with me whomever is available and take the opportunity to teach my kids about how to locate and select the freshest pieces of produce, cuts of meat and different types of cheeses.
Back home we all work together to unload the groceries and put them away in our kitchen (an age-appropriate job that also reminds the kiddos where things are when it’s time to cook with them).
When it is time to start preparing an actual dinner, I pair up my oldest and youngest and put them at the kitchen table. They work together to clear it of the homework and games and mail that seem to pile up there, spray and wipe it clean and then settle in to wash the fruits and vegetables. I set out a bowl of water and a colander. My oldest rinses each piece of produce and my little girl plays in the water.
A Tool for Every Kid
Often, it’s the tools that hook a child’s interest in cooking early on. So tool-focused jobs are strategic in several ways. And, there really is a tool that is appropriate for every child.
Start them off with the job of tasting the food as it’s prepared. This job feels very important and, better yet, it invests kids in the meal, leaving no room for complaining or negotiating at the table; give them a cup of spoons and let them taste each step of a recipe.
As the kids get older, hand them the whisk and spatula. Put whatever needs to be stirred in a very large bowl (the bigger the bowl, the fewer ingredients on your floor) and let the kids whisk everything together. Eventually they’ll graduate to the vegetable peeler and egg-cracking too – at which point you’ll need to surrender to rogue veggie skins and small bits of eggshell in some of the first few suppers.
Ultimately, older kids will be able to chop, which is especially helpful to you, but also exciting for the kids themselves who start to feel like professionals. Just remember that, with tools in particular, it is important to be patient and very available for guidance.
They Can Set The Table For The Meal
When the cooking is well under way, and dinner is close to being served, have your kids set the table, fill drinks, and maybe even choose the mood music. Teach your kids the proper placement of napkins, silverware and glassware.
When supper is ready, have them take turns portioning and delivering plates to the table. These details are as important for your kids as knowing to chew with their mouths closed; it will serve them throughout their lives.
One Last Job: The Clean Up
This is one of those jobs that is super important, and it is a great opportunity to teach your kids that your family works together as a team. Everyone clears his or her own plate and thanks the head chef; then, everyone cleans up.
Let your youngest be in charge of placing the silverware in the dish washer, your middle-aged kid be in charge of clearing the rest of the table and your oldest be in charge of rinsing the dishes before placing in the dishwasher. Together, the kids learn to appreciate what it takes to feed a family and to keep a home clean.
The glory of a family dinner is the opportunity it can provide us to slow down and really connect. What it takes to get to the dinner table, however, can be the greatest challenge of the whole day.
The key is prepping together, giving each member of your family a job they can own and take pride in performing. Save time, reinforce work ethic and manners and start to connect before anyone even sits down at the table.