Whether you're a working parent or you're working that full-time-parenting life, simply getting dinner on the table during the week can feel like a feat. After a long day, the idea of preparing a balanced meal, setting the table, and corralling your crew into the dining room is intimidating enough to make anyone settle for PB&J with a side of "Paw Patrol."
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There's nothing wrong with the occasional shortcut, but it's easier than you may think to make weeknight dinners more meaningful. And by taking the time to make things just a little bit special, you can create a nightly routine that you and your family will look forward to all day.
Stacie Billis and Meghan Splawn, hosts of the podcast Didn't I Just Feed You, say it can be as basic as setting some general expectations for behavior: "We think anytime a parent makes the time to cook and sit at the dinner table with their kids is special! Connecting over dinner can be as simple as keeping the table screen-free and the conversation positive."
Ready to take your weeknight dinners to the next level? Here are five more easy tips to make it happen.
1. Make dinner a team sport. When one person is responsible for preparing the meal, setting the table, and cleaning up, burnout is inevitable. Instead, rally the troops to get things done faster and teach some valuable lessons in the process. If you feel that food prep is easier on your own, recruit reinforcements for other kitchen duties. "Make clean-up with the kids fun," Billis and Splawn say. "Turn up the music, sing, and 'get your ya-ya's out' while the family cook relaxes."
2. Head outside. When the weather is decent, a simple change of scenery can make even takeout pizza feel special. Dust off your patio table, or spread a big quilt out in the backyard, and dine in the open air.
3. Wait a while. Emily Farris, a food and lifestyle writer based in Kansas City, Missouri, likes to "play restaurant" at home with her 3-year-old son. "We light a candle, present my son with a menu—which is just whatever random piece of paper is close by because he's 3 and he can't read—then tell him the dinner special for the evening, which is his only choice," she says. "After he orders, we bring him water in his 'fancy' glass, put a cloth napkin on his lap, and check in on him from the kitchen until his fish sticks or oven pizza or whatever is ready. If we have the energy, we deliver it on a tray, but he doesn't notice when we don't. And at the end of the meal, we hand over the check and let him sign it."
4. Play some music. A well-chosen tune can set a cheerful tone around the dinner table, and it's the perfect opportunity to get the kids involved. Ask them to help you pick out a favorite record or create a dinnertime playlist.
5. Don't forget the drinks. Mixing up your beverage routine is a simple way to make a meal feel special. That can be as simple as adding a couple of cucumber slices and sprigs of mint to a pitcher of ice water, mixing up some special smoothies, or opening a bottle of wine for the grown-ups. Even switching out your glassware for something different can make for a fun change. After the meal, a cup of herbal tea (or decaf coffee for the adults) encourages conversation and lingering around the table.