As a family nutrition expert, I've learned a few things about making meals as stress-free as possible. After all, if eating with your family is not enjoyable and rewarding, then what's the point?
1. Find a meal-planning method that works for you
Planning meals is key to making mealtime run smoothly, but there are many ways to go about it. I like to plan meals a week at a time and shop for everything on Sunday. Other moms might prefer to batch-cook and freeze meals so that preparing them during the week is easy. More experienced cooks like to stock their kitchen and decide which meal to prepare based on how they feel that day.
Each person needs to find a system that works for him or her. Keep trying until you get into a good groove and be sure to make changes when it's no longer working.
2. Utilize your slow cooker
The slow cooker is a great appliance to use on busy days. If you find that your afternoons are filled with activities, put something in the slow cooker after lunch or maybe in the morning if it's a workday. Fall is the perfect time of year to make warm dishes like stews and soups, so simply round out the meal with a quick salad and you're done!
Need some ideas? Check out our slow cooker recipes >>
3. Don't take responsibility for your child's eating
Sometimes, the most stressful part of a family meal is a child's rejection of his or her food. This makes parents feel like they need to "get" their child to eat, using all sorts of negative feeding practices including bite mandates and rewarding the child with dessert.
Instead of using these stressful tactics, try following international feeding expert Ellyn Satter's advice to split the responsibility with your child. Do the job of getting the meal on the table, but then let your child decide what and how much to eat. Not only does this make meals pleasant, but it also leads to kids eating a greater variety of foods over time with better food regulation. The secret is to always have something at the table that your child is likely to eat, thus giving him or her time to warm up to new dishes.
4. Put those kids to work
Having an open-kitchen policy that allows little ones to help with meal preparation can do wonders. When kids are young, give them a specific job like washing vegetables or setting the table. As they get older, add on tasks, and soon they may be able to make part of the meal. By the time they are teenagers, they can test-drive making dinner every so often (and even help with dishes).
For recipes older kids can make, see my book, Fearless Feeding >>
5. Let go of the "shoulds" and embrace your inner cook
When I first started cooking, I made lots of meals I thought I should make, and I was pretty miserable. Now I focus on what I like to cook, and the whole process has become much more enjoyable.
So build on recipes and ingredients you and your family enjoy, and soon you will have a good list of meals to choose from.