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Solutions to the 6 Biggest Family Dinner Obstacles

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While many of us would love to be enjoying calm and idyllic family dinners each night, the reality is often far from that ideal. Busy schedules and tired and cranky kids (not to mention tired and cranky adults), can all lead to stressful evenings that leave us feeling drained and defeated. But, while I can’t promise perfection, I do have some potential solutions to 6 of the biggest family dinner obstacles.

muslim family having dinner

Different Ages, Different Stages

First, I think it’s important to note that depending where you are in your parenting journey, the challenges and pitfalls may be a bit different. Back when my kids were toddlers and preschoolers, sitting down for family dinner had different challenges than it does today.

When my kids were little, they were squirmy, pickier eaters, and their appetites kicked in well before our usual dinnertime of 7:00 (when my husband could join us).

Today we have different hurdles. The kids’ sports practices and performance rehearsals often don’t get them home until 7:30 or 8, and sometimes they have hours of homework to complete before bed.

And then, in addition to the kids’ busy evening schedules, my own cooking schedule is often disrupted by driving the kids to activities (although we carpool as much as possible to save time and reduce traffic). Given all of these obstacles, I found I needed to devise a cooking strategy that gets family dinner on the table even if I’m not home from 5:30 to 7:30.

I know that these challenges are not mine alone. Over the years, Scramblers have shared their challenges to getting dinner on the table with me, so I decided to compile a list of the six biggest family dinner obstacles and offer some solutions.

Solutions to the 6 Biggest Family Dinner Obstacles (According to Scramblers)

kids eating vegetables

Challenge 1: Kids get too hungry before dinnertime

I bet you’ve been there. You’re rushing, trying to get dinner on the table when a meltdown happens. It could be a fight between siblings, a rage over homework, or just a whining puddle of a child pulling at your leg. Why? Because they’re hungry before dinner is ready.

This could be due to the fact that dinner just isn’t done yet or because your partner isn’t home yet and you’re aiming for a full family dinner. Either way, I’ve got some solutions:

  1. Put out a platter of cut fruits and vegetables before dinner to placate hunger
  2. If dinner is ready, let the kids snack on part of dinner (I usually like to offer up the vegetables so that they maximize their produce intake) while you wait for everyone to be ready for dinner
rock climbing a kid activity that can get in the way of family dinner

Challenge 2: Kids need to eat early so they have energy for late activities

As kids get older, the activities not only run later, but start later as well. This can mean that if you want to eat dinner all together, you’re either going to be eating super early or super late. Not ideal.

In these situations, I like to have the kids eat a healthy and hearty snack before late practices or, if dinner is already made, I’ll give them a small portion of dinner to tide them over. Then, even if they don’t eat much when we all sit down to dinner after their activities (although sometimes they are famished again), we still get to share that family time.

busy schedules are an obstacle to family dinners

Challenge 3: Family cook is also family chauffeur

Because I work from home and my husband doesn’t, I’m usually the one who drives our kids to their activities during the week. Now that they are older, getting them to these activities often overlaps with the time when I should be making dinner.

There are four different things that I do to make these times easier:

  1. Cook and/or prep (and certainly plan and shop!) as much as I can ahead of time
  2. Plan easy/quick meals for the days when I won’t be home for much meal prep
  3. Double recipes and stock the freezer
  4. Use the slow cooker
kid doing homework/needing attention can make dinner prep challenging

Challenge 4: Kids need attention/need to be supervised during prime dinner prep time

Whether it is cranky/tired kids who need soothing attention, bickering siblings driving each other crazy, or older kids needing help with their homework, trying to help while simultaneously cooking dinner can be really challenging. Here are some things that I have found help:

  1. Recruit the kids as sous chefs to help you make dinner (this will also make them more likely to eat the food you serve)
  2. Have a drawer of fun cooking tools and stickers, etc., that they can play with while you cook. Or, if they are older, have a homework station near the kitchen so that you can swing by to provide support, while also keeping an eye on the stove
  3. Play music and turn dinner prep into a dance party – this will distract needy kiddos, get their energy out, and keep things upbeat
whole family around the dinner table

Challenge 5: One parent can’t get home in time for dinner

This is a common one for many families. Whether it is due to shift work, commute times, or long hours at the office, getting home for dinner every night can be really challenging.

I actually have a full post what to do when your husband/wife gets home too late for family dinner, but here are some quick and easy ideas to try:

  1. Use different meals of the day (breakfast) or week (weekends) as your family meal time
  2. Still sit down with just your kids for part of dinner and then finish your meal with your partner later

Challenge 6: Kids won’t eat what’s served for dinner

Of all of the challenges, this is the one that puts many parents over the edge, especially if they’ve had to face some of the other challenges before dinner is even served. Plus, knowing what you prepared will likely be rejected can destroy the will to cook entirely!

I have an entire section of the website devoted specifically to this issue that I recommend you check out, but until then here are some ideas to try tonight:

  • Serve your meals with lots of condiments. Kids love to make their meals their own and condiments are an easy way to make that happen. Check out this post for more details, but some of our favorite condiments include: Parmesan, ketchup, salsa, dried herbs, and ranch dressing.
  • Offer meals in a build-your-own format. This allows kids to pick and choose their meal and decreases tension. Great options include: bean and rice bowls, sandwich nights, grilled cheese bars, and breakfast for dinner.
  • Allow them to get themselves a healthy no-cook option instead of what is served. This could include fruit, yogurt, cheese sticks, or a low-sugar cereal.

No matter the challenge, we are determined to sit down to dinner together nearly every night. It is usually the only stress-free time the four of us can share during the busy weekdays.

I’m always looking for new ideas to help families reduce their dinnertime stress and remove obstacles that get in the way of family dinners. Do you have other challenges or solutions to share? Please share them by commenting below or on our Facebook page. I look forward to conquering them together!

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