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Family Dinners and Busy Kids

Dad is ready to pitch to the kids

We have always made family dinner a priority. This has been tested more in the last couple of months than at any time in the decade I’ve been cooking. Our kids are getting busy, and it feels like it’s just getting started.

In the past, we’ve had dinner conflicts one night a week, sometimes two. The kids would have religion classes, Ben would have one weeknight sports game (soccer or baseball). I would have to hurry a meal onto the table one or two nights a week. This was workable. This spring, both Ben and Natalie were in sports. This was resulting in three nights a week, maybe four, of trying to get a meal cooked, eaten, and cleaned up in the hour between work and game time.
Now, in spite of what you see on this blog, I don’t make elaborate meals on weeknights. I cook for 30 to 45 minutes, and sometimes an hour when it’s a really hands-off dish. I have dinner on the table by 6:30PM. If I go past that, Diane gets a little peckish. With our game schedules, we have to be out the door by 5:30. That doesn’t leave me much time.

Now, don’t get me wrong; I want our kids playing sports. Ben loves it. Being part of the team, running around outside, playing games…he just lives for it. I enjoy it too; I have been helping out with coaching for a few years now, and it is a lot of fun to work with the kids.
This is in spite of my complete lack of coaching knowledge. I’m a sports fan, but everything I know about coaching is what I’ve picked up from the kids and other coaches. For example…I’ve been coaching soccer for the last two years, in spite of never watching a game until Ben started playing. Luckily, at this age, coaching is more about pointing them towards the right goal, yelling “spread out, everyone!” a lot, telling them they did a great job, and making sure there are snacks after the game.

But…I feel like I’m robbing Peter to pay Paul. And I think it’s only going to get worse. Tim’s already kicking a soccer ball around on the sidelines while watching his big brother play, and he will be old enough to start in the Fall. Natalie is doing well with her violin lessons. When all three are going in different directions…well, I get nervous just thinking about it.
*I can’t imagine what it would be like if Ben was on a travelling team. Those schedules sound like a real grind.
**It doesn’t help that, on top of all this, Diane is taking evening classes, and I’m trying to find the time to blog about home cooking…

Here are Dad Cooks Dinner strategies for busy weeknights:

1. Have a collection of ultra-quick meals. One hour before game time is not when I want to be fussing with dinner. This is when the basic techniques I’ve learned really come into play. Forget thirty minute meals – if it takes more than twenty minutes for everything, it is taking too long. I slap together a quick grilled or sauteed protein, a steam-sauteed vegetable, a salad with a basic vinaigrette, and a quick starch. If it’s going to take any real time or attention, it’s going to have to cook another night.

2. Cook with leftovers in mind. When I have time earlier in the week, chilis, soups, and stews give me leftovers that I like to eat – they taste better after a rest in the refrigerator. Reheat, whip up a salad, serve with some bread, and dinner is ready. Also, side dishes are good to have as leftovers. Make a double batch of vegetables or starch, store in microwave-safe two quart containers, and you can just nuke and eat.

3. Cheat shamelessly. Hey, kids! How about Peanut Butter and Jelly sandwiches for dinner? Hot dogs and baked beans? I know…let’s have breakfast for dinner – who wants eggs? Or, my personal favorite, Dad’s Super Sub Sandwich – slice a loaf of french bread in half, and pile things on. Add lunch meat, pickled peppers, bag salad, mustard, oil and vinegar…whatever you want.

In other words – I’ll do whatever it takes. Family dinner is that important to me. Of course, I’m not perfect; every now and again we’d wind up at our local Thai restaurant. But that only happened a couple of times over the spring and summer, so I think I did a pretty good job of taking care of my family’s competing needs.

What are your experiences? How do you balance family dinner and kids activities? Any go-to techniques or recipes to share? Leave them in the comments, below.

Related Posts:
Weekly Dinner Plans
Basic Technique: Saute with Pan Sauce
Much Depends on Dinner: Michael Ruhlman at TEDxCLE

Suggested Reading:
Pam Anderson How to Cook Without a Book

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Filed under: Ramblings


Hi! I’m Mike Vrobel. I’m a dad and an enthusiastic home cook; an indie cookbook author and food blogger with a day job, a patient spouse, and three kids who would rather have hamburgers for dinner.


  1. I agree with your strategies – and would add: grill a bunch of extra chicken and/or veggies on the weekend that can liven up cold sesame noodles, or go with those extra veggies with a sauce. Add burritos into the fast-multi-ingredient-everything-ready-already style of eating (nothing shameful in refried black beans from a can with frozen corn and leftover rice). Cold salads with lentils and herbs are fast and make good leftovers, potato salads with chopped veggies and/or tofu in them, and using rice as a base, any veggies steamed with peanut sauce or soy/ginger sauce or chili sauce etc., or with melted blue cheese… depending on your kids’ tastes. You are right, though, the schedule only gets more disjoint, especially when the kids start to have a social life on their own for the weekends when they don’t have games and there actually is time for family dinner. We managed to keep them coming mostly by making favorite foods and inviting their friends to drop in for dinner… love the blog! Just found you thanks to eatdinner.org

  2. John K. says

    Oh how I can relate! And we only have one seven year old princess with activities to keep us busy. I don’t know how you folks with two and three kids do it! But then again, I know that is what gives us the most joy in life — our families.

    I follow some of the same strategies as you. On weekends I cook with leftovers in mind. Lately it’s been big batches of meat on the smoker. Brisket, pulled pork, a rib roast. Delicious the day they are prepared, and a very welcomed leftover on a busy weekday. The brisket and pork freeze well — so I’m prepared. I also like to roast or smoke extra chicken or turkey….wonderful chicken/turkey salad during the week.

  3. I would agree with the ideas that have been shared. But I also love to utilize our Crockpot on days like that. Baked potatoes and ears of corn in the crock mean I only have to handle protein at crunch time. Or marinara with homemade meatballs simmering all day in the crock, tossed over pasta at dinnertime and frozen for use in meatball subs another night. Good luck with the crazy schedules – I’m dreading those years already!

  4. @John:

    You’re right! Pulled pork makes great leftovers – I need to make some soon.


    I can’t believe I forgot about a crock pot…thanks for reminding me!

  5. Anonymous says

    These are really great ideas – so many of them I already do! Just a few tips of my own, whenever making meat, beans, or soup, I always make double and freeze half so that when I’m in a hurry (as a usually am), I just warm some up and throw a salad together and voila – dinner! Also, I like to have a bunch of ready-made meals on hand as back up, just in case Plan A fails. I love meals from Tasty Bite, Kashi, and Amy’s – all of which are super-healthy as well. Lately my kids can’t get enough of Tasty Bite’s Madras Lentils – and they only take 90 seconds to heat up too. They’ve saved me so much time and energy and money – I definitely recommend them! Thanks for the great tips!

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