If you’ve gotten to know me at all, you know that I love kids – even my kids – and I adore being a parent.
Most of the time.
The one time of day I have the most trouble with keeping calm and mommy-ing on is dinner time.
To be more specific, the hour that encompasses whining, dinner prep, whining, dinner eating, whining, and dinner clean up on any given weekday.
All this ends now!
Not because my children have miraculously started liking more than 2 varieties of food at time, or because I’ve wised up and started drinking my 1st glass of wine at 5 instead of 9.
No, it’s because of summertime.
(Cue clouds breaking, sunbeams dancing gently down, angel chorus.)
The dynamics of summer meals are so much more relaxed and enjoyable. Here’s how things shake down at my house.
1. Cook at a kid’s pace
Since our time is our own – no homework, ballet practice, piano lessons, or Girl Scout meetings to rush to, we can prep dinner at a kid’s pace instead of in a rush. Any seasoned parent will tell you that having kids help you with a task means it takes more time – not less. But it’s so good for them to learn household skills and to be a part of making their own meals! With them involved in and enjoying prep work, they don’t get antsy and whiny in that critical 1/2 hour before dinner. And though there are more messes on the counter top and floors, I have the reassurance that someday these kids will know how to make me all my favorite foods!
Tonight my 4-year old put the raspberries and blackberries in a colander and rinsed them, then arranged them on a plate for serving. She loves making patterns – so she had fun setting them in concentric circles. And it looked adorable.
My 6-year-old is a cheese maniac, so she helped me make quesadillas. I put a tortilla in the frying pan, she sprinkled (OK, DUMPED) the shredded cheese on top and added the top tortilla. She also set the timer for 1 minute so we knew when to flip them. (And counted down backwards from 60 with it over and over again!)
My 8-yr-old daughter loves guacamole, so once I quartered the avocado she used a spoon to remove the pit and then scoop the flesh into a plastic bowl. She mashed it with a fork (while sitting on a swing in our backyard) and then added 2 big squirts of lime juice, a few shakes of sea salt and garlic powder, and some “Fruit Fresh” – which keeps it from browning quickly.
2. Relax the Rules
Especially when we’re eating outdoors, I like to let the kids have more leeway with respect to table manners in the summer. After all, it’s hard for an active, excited kid to sit still for 15-20 minutes with nothing to do but eat and talk. Especially if there’s a swing set nearby. For meals outdoors, I allow more eating with hands and spend a lot less time worrying if everyone is “holding over” – our go-to phrase for keeping the food over the plate so we aren’t sweeping a pound of rice off the floor later.
I will tell the kids they have to take as many bites as their age of each item on their plate – and then they can get up from the table and play. They will generally (like tonight) spend the next 45 minutes bouncing back and forth between playing and eating a few bites at a time. Hands may not always be as clean as I’d like – but I get to eat at a leisurely pace. Heck, if my husband is home I might even get to have a conversation with him!
3. Nibbles and dips
It’s hard to feel like making – or eating- a big, heavy meal on a hot day. And that suits kids just fine. To keep meals balanced and bodies hydrated in the summer, I will usually bring out a plate of fruit or veggies and cups of ice water before the rest of dinner. The help-yourself set-up and the fact that they really are hungry and thirsty (whether they’ll admit it or not) usually ends with everything on the tray devoured. They eat their fruits and veggies better as an appetizer than if they were served with the main meal.
Dips are also perfect for summer meals -and for sneaking in nutrients! Plain yogurt with some honey makes a fabulous fruit dip and feels fancy if you sprinkle cinnamon on top. My kids have recently started digging into garlicky hummus, fresh salsa, and guacamole. Bean dips have lots of excellent protein those hard-working muscles need after slipping-and-sliding all afternoon.
Kids like anything on a stick – don’t ask me why. Make fruit skewers, grill some pineapple skewers, or put chunks of cheese and meat on the ends of pretzel sticks. Food disappears as if by magic.
4. Something old, something new, something frozen…
So much food is fresh and ripe and beautiful in summer, it’s the perfect time to introduce new foods. Putting out new twists on old favorites or produce the kids haven’t had before is fun – especially if they helped pick it out at a farmer’s market (or better still – picked it themselves at the farm!) Kids may need to see a new food near familiar ones as many as 20 times before they decide to try (and like!) it – but summer is long enough to introduce a few!
And of course, don’t ever underestimate the charm of freezing foods! Everything is better cold in the summer – and we already established that kids like anything on a stick. Make popsicles every chance you get!
We tried making watermelon smoothies last summer. They were an epic fail. Just awful! But we had fun tasting them and making terrible faces until we laughed ourselves silly. We’ve had more success with the simple ideas – like freezing vanilla yogurt and orange juice to make “Dreamsicles,” dropping fresh berries into partially frozen apple juice so that they stay suspended throughout the “pop”, and making ice cubes with a piece of fruit in each to add to lemonade.
I hope my tactics and tricks help you and your family have more enjoyable, less stressful dinner times this summer! Please share your favorite tips in the comments. I look forward to hearing from you all!