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How to Make Family Dinner Easy when School Starts

This post was created in partnership with Simple Mills. All opinions are my own.

One thing I’ve learned from sending four kids back to school year after year is this: the time crunch at family dinner is real.

Whether you’re a working parent like me, a volunteer in your community, or simply juggling the responsibilities of a family, getting dinner on the table when your kids go back to school can be hard.

In this article, I’m sharing 5 tips to help you get weeknight dinner on the table night after night, especially when time gets tight.

Family eating together -- How to Make Family Dinner Time Easy

Why is Family Dinner a Struggle When School Starts?

Back to school means back to homework, sports, after-school clubs, and more. The daily schedule gets tighter with deadlines, obligations, and, well, chaos.

If you’re a parent, you know the pace increases. While your day may be freer with kids in school, it gets more chaotic when they return home.

In under three or four hours, you make snacks, clean up, assist with homework, provide transportation to extra-curricular activities, and prepare dinner.

And, let’s hope you’ve got a cooperative kid throughout all of this.

Getting a weeknight dinner on the table at the end of the day is like crossing the finish line at the end of a race. You’re exhausted, losing focus, and just hoping to get over the line.

In other words, you just want to make quick and healthy family dinners your kids will eat.

The barriers to getting dinner on the table as the school year begins are real. I dive into them with more detail on my podcast so be sure to tune in.  But the bottom line is: Family meals are important and worth it.

Tips for Making Dinner Easy When the Kids Start Back to School

I’m sharing my favorite tips to make your family dinner preparation go smoothly. I’ve used these myself as a working mom with a busy family, so I hope they’ll help you, too.

Meal Planning: Get Ahead with Your Weekly Menu

I think it’s a good idea to plan out your dinners for the week. To do meal planning successfully, take a look ahead at your family’s weekly schedule. Do you have after-school meetings or other obligations? Are you driving kids to activities? Are you busy during the day with work?

Your schedule will dictate the time you have available to prepare meals. For example, if you have back to school teacher night during the dinner hour, you may want to plan a sheet pan dinner night, or a breakfast for dinner (Brinner) theme.

If you have few or no obligations, you can plan for a more involved dinner menu.

You can also use theme nights to spark meal planning creativity. For example, try a pasta night, stir fry night, pizza night, or a kid’s choice night.

Meal plans can be saved and recycled. Mix and match meals or simply re-use a previous weekly meal plan.

Hot tip:

Use the slow cooker or Instant Pot to speed up dinner. Just add a side dish like noodles and a veggie and you have dinner ready.

Try my Slow Cooker Beef – it’s always a hit with my crew.

Another Hot Tip:

Use a White Board or chalkboard to announce the meal plan for the day or the entire week. This will minimize questions about dinner, and be a visible documentation of a balanced meal so your kids can learn about food balance.

Family eating together -- How to make family dinner time easy.

Shop, Chop & Store

Once you’ve set your meal plan for the week, you can put your grocery shopping list together.

If you want to be uber-organized, categorize your grocery list by store sections. I always list my produce first because it’s the first section when I enter my store.

If you take an organized approach with your shopping list, you’ll speed up the shopping.

Once you’ve done your shopping, there are a few things you can do to save even more time and make food prep easier during the week.

  • Wash and tear greens for salads. Store them in a plastic bag with a few damp paper towels to keep them fresh and crisp.
  • Wash veggies such as tomatoes and cucumbers ahead of time and relieve yourself of that step during dinner prep.
  • Cut up fruit like melons and pineapple and store in containers.
  • Peel and slice onions, chop celery, peel garlic and chop other veggies that you’ll use to cook with during the week.

When you wash and prep fruits and veggies, you save time later.

I chat with the queen of meal prep, Jessica Levinson, in this podcast episode. She has even more ideas so be sure to tune in.

a pan of almond flour brownies from Simple Mills
Simple Mills Almond Flour Brownies

Batch Cook & Cook in Bulk Ahead of Time

On busy nights during the school year, you may want to take a weekend day and batch prepare or cook in bulk some of your dinner items for the week. For example, if you have a rice dish or casserole planned, you can prepare that a few days in advance.

You can grill meats, cook ground beef, or roast a chicken. Batch cooking several dinner items over the weekend means you’ll have items to re-heat or re-purpose during the busy week.

What is Batch Cooking?

Batch cooking is when you devote a few hours of your time to chop, cook, and prepare meal items for the week.  You could be prepping meats, cooking grains like rice, chopping fruit, making desserts, or making salads.

Generally, you portion the food in serving containers that you would use for the meal. So, you might put salads in individual containers to pack for lunches, or chop salad items and store in bags to make a variety of salads during the week.

Alternatively, you can cook in bulk. For instance, triple a recipe for a hearty soup, pasta sauce, or casserole. Serve the equivalent of one family-size entrée and freeze the remaining two entrees for use later on in the month.

Batch cooking and cooking in bulk can be a lifesaver when family dinner is hurried.

Hot Tip:

If you freeze an entree, be sure to label what it is and when you made it so you avoid any mysterious items that you’ll be less likely to eat.

Enlist Input and Help from Your Child

As your kids age, you will find greater cooperation at meal time if you involve them in meal planning and preparation.

Many families find that getting their child’s input on meal components or meal themes is generally quite helpful in reducing complaints and increasing the willingness to eat.

Would you like green beans or broccoli?

Should we do a Mexican theme or an Italian theme on Wednesday?

As a child growing up, my mom assigned me the salad-making task quite often.

She would often announce at the dinner table, “Jill makes such a good salad…thank you, sweetie!” (I would then roll my eyes because it wasn’t my favorite chore to do…)

While I don’t assign a routine task with my own kids, I do have them set the table, make the salad, cut up fruit, prep side dishes, clean up after the meal, and whatever else seems helpful.

When everyone helps, everyone is invested.

Hot Tip:

Be super-duper organized and outline meal time chores for each meal of the week on your white board or chalkboard.

almond flour brownies from Simple Mills
Brownies and Milk…Yum!

Use Semi-Homemade and other Healthy Shortcuts for Weeknight Dinners

To make the dinner meal faster, I recommend using semi-homemade items in your meal plan. For example, pre-cooked chicken breast, frozen cooked shrimp, or jarred pasta sauce will cut your dinner prep time significantly.

I often get a roasted chicken from the grocery store and stretch it for two meals.

Don’t want to make salad dressing but want a healthy salad dressing option? Drizzle olive oil and squeeze a lemon over your salad and toss. Substitute lemon with red wine vinegar, balsamic vinegar or other acidic alternative if you don’t like lemon.

On the weekends, I make cookies or brownies. I package them up in individual serving sizes and freeze them in a larger freezer bag. I’ll add them to the lunch box during the week.

Hot Tip:

Some products make you feel like you’re making food from scratch. They’re so delicious and efficient. Simple Mills has an Artisan Bread, Pizza Dough and Brownie product that makes a terrific, healthy addition to your meal, or base for your pizza.

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