I don’t know about you, but I have a love-hate relationship with back-to-school time. It’s always a relief to have a regular schedule again and to have more time to get things done while the kids are in school. And yet, each year I find that I am taken by surprise by the busy-ness that fills our afternoons with soccer practices, music lessons, back-to-school nights, PTA meetings, and other school year activities.
And yet, amongst all the craziness, it feels even more vital that we protect our family dinners as important time together—time to reconnect, to catch up, to share the events of our days. This is, after all, a big transition time for our kids (and us), so those family connections are even more important.
So, each fall, during back-to-school time, I make it a priority to focus on getting our dinner routine back on track. Here are four tricks I use to establish a back-to-school dinner routine that works for my family.
4 Tricks to Establishing a Back-to-School Dinner Routine
1. Meal Plan
Plan out the meals for the week. While this may feel like yet another thing to add to your “to do” list, the reality is that meal planning saves you time, both by eliminating the last-minute scramble to figure out what to make and by reducing the number of last-minute trips to the store.
Whether you build your meal plan on your own or use The Scramble’s family-friendly meal plans, an important meal planning step I recommend, especially at this time of year, is to take 5 minutes to look at the schedule for the upcoming week and assign meals to certain days based on what sort of time you’ll have for cooking that evening.
On soccer practice days, for instance, I know we won’t get home before almost 7, which means I need dinner to be ready to go. So for us, those are slow cooker nights. On the other hand, Thursdays we don’t have anything planned, so that is the evening when I can set aside a recipe that takes a little longer to make.
2. Set a Guaranteed Minimum
The reality is that given our busy schedules, every member of my family is not going to be able to sit down to dinner together every night of the week. So a while ago, we committed to two things: 1) that whoever is home at dinner time still sits down to eat together, and 2) that we have a minimum number of meals a week that we all share together.
For our family, we make sure to come together for at least five meals a week, which often includes two weekend meals.
Over the years, I have noticed that while the need to share meals together never changes, the ways that we can make it work do. When the kids were smaller, for instance, my husband got home too late to have dinner together, so we made it a priority to do weekend meals as a family. Then, in early elementary, everyone managed to get home by dinnertime, so scheduling family dinners was easier. Now, with middle schoolers who are busy with extracurriculars and our own volunteer and work commitments running later, the juggle to find days of the week is real, but we are always still able to meet that minimum of 5 meals together a week.
How do you make this happen? I recommend sitting down with your family and the calendar and coming up with a minimum number of weekly family meals you can all count on. For some families it might be three, for others, seven is achievable. Pick what works for your family, and then try to stick with it!
3. One meal a week is leftovers
Every family feels differently about leftovers, but my family LOVES leftover night, and it’s a great way to save money and avoid food waste. For my kids, it is their chance to have extras of their favorite meals of the week. For my husband, it means fewer dishes. For me, it’s less work.
We usually do this meal on Fridays (when I’m too tired to cook). I’ll pull all the leftovers we’ve got out of the fridge and let everyone make a plate. If the pickings are thin, then I’ll also pull out sandwich making supplies, throw together a big salad to supplement everyone’s meals, or heat up some frozen appetizers that I like to keep stockpiled in the freezer. It’s a fun way to end the week and starts the weekend off on a more relaxed note.
If your family isn’t a fan of leftovers, then try turning them into something that is still faster and easier than preparing a meal from scratch. Leftover proteins, for instance, can become fillings for sandwiches or burritos. Extra veggies and grains can be mixed together and tossed with a dressing to become a hearty salad or heated up with some eggs and seasonings for a fried rice. Even this will save you time and effort and make getting dinners on the table easier.
4. Sandwiches, Salads, and Cereals
Yes, we at The Scramble want you to eat healthy, delicious, well-rounded meals. But we also know as parents ourselves that sometimes simplicity is key and time is of the essence. For nights like those, making grilled cheese sandwiches and a simple salad is a great option, as is a big salad with some crusty bread, or (low-sugar) breakfast cereal with fruit and scrambled eggs.
The point is: every meal does not (and, in my opinion, should not) need to be a big production. On those nights when cooking just feels like too much, eating together is more important than what goes in your mouth and there should be no shame in serving simple meals.
What is your favorite trick to getting back-to-school dinners back on track? Please share in the comments below!
Looking for more cooking inspiration, check out The Scramble’s family-friendly meal plans to see just how simple getting dinner on the table can be!