How to Make Dinner Happen

Let me see a show of hands: who, like me, has stood in grocery store aisles after work, completely overwhelmed, wishing a grocery list would land in your hand, lead you through the store, and deposit you back in the kitchen to cook up something healthy, quick, and frugal? The question of how to make the nightly meal happen--and how to keep it up day-in, day-out--is a doozy. So when a study of nearly three dozen middle-class families by UCLA's Center for Everyday Family Lives found that only 17% percent of of dinners were eaten together as a family, though all of them shared it as a goal, I totally got it.

[Related: Study Finds Clutter Dominates Average American Home]

But dinner together is also a worthy endeavor. Researchers at Rutgers reviewed 68 studies and found that kids who eat meals together with their families tend to eat more fruits, vegetables and fiber and less junk food, and were more likely to have a lower body mass index. Compared to their peers who ate at home less often, teenagers who regularly have family dinner are less likely to show signs of depression or to try drugs and alcohol. Eating at home saves money, and research shows that eating more meals at home is a common denominator for weight-loss. And while perhaps not as quantifiable by social science researchers, as anyone who knows the therapeutic power of chopping onions can attest, cooking dinner can bring a moment of peace to your day. That's a lot of pay-off for a seemingly simple tradition. So how do you make it happen?

Step 1: Take the Pressure Off Yourself
Guilt is not such a great motivator. Focus instead on what you're trying to create, and leave perfection to the (heavily-edited) pros. "You want to create a place at the dinner table that's therapeutic, that's something you look forward to," says Jenny Rosenstrach, creator of the blog Dinner: A Love Story and author of a cookbook by the same name. "It is really hard to get dinner on the table. There are two parents working in most homes. People might have to work two jobs. On the most basic level, family dinner is hard to organize." So give yourself a break. It might not be rocket science, but making family dinner happen is also not a cinch.

Step 2: If You Can Do It, Decide To Do It
"It does not happen by itself," says Rosenstrach. Books like Dinner: A Love Story and articles like this one are filled with practical make-it-happen tips and techniques. But we can't (unfortunately!) call the family to the table or set a pot to boil. "Just get in the mindset. Assume that it's going to happen unless something comes up."

Look At Your Calendar
"Choose the nights that work best for you," says Rosenstrach. Starting small might be the way to ease into a new family routine. Schedule dinner for the nights free of meetings and activities, and then honor it as an appointment the whole family has to keep. Chicken pot pie can be an enticing lure. "If it's not every night, that's fine too," says Rosenstrach. "That's what we aspire to. Just get in the mindset."

Use the Morning
"I'm not inspired at the end of the day." Walking through the door at 6:30 in the evening, "I was brain dead," says Rosenstrach. If this sounds familiar, try getting the dinner momentum going first thing in the day. "Start thinking about it in the morning before you go to work." Take chicken out of the freezer to thaw, or start marinating a pork loin in rice wine, soy sauce and ginger ("Just dump a bunch of stuff in a plastic bag and throw your pork loin in. It's the easiest thing in the world."). Why get going first thing? Because we're more likely to see it through. "The natural instinct is to finish what you start." Knowing that you've already got dinner started will make you that much less likely to pull through the drive-thru or pick up the takeout menu.

Cook Your Tried-and-Trues
Studies show successful dieters often rely on a roster of go-to meals they eat again and again. Why can't the same thing be true for successful family dinners? Not every night needs to be a demonstration of your culinary prowess, and there's no shame in cooking from a rotation of favorites. Feel free to tweak basic recipes (grilled pork chops / chicken cutlets / steaks + vegetable + grains) based on whatever's available, on sale, or at its freshest peak. Not only will this make cooking easier, it will simplify shopping, too. Make it happen: 12 quick grilled summer dinners

Cook Like a Chef
Peek inside a restaurant kitchen and you'll see bowls filled with ready-to-go vegetables, proteins, sauces, and vinaigrettes to be thrown into a dish. Chefs call this set-up mise en place meaning "everything in its place." You can get dinner halfway done on the weekend by creating your own mise. Roast chicken parts. Grill pork tenderloins. Cook a pot of your family's favorite grain. Wash veggies so they're ready to go. Mix up a batch of sauce that makes every vegetable a kid favorite. Like getting started in the morning, you'll already be that much closer to having dinner on the table by the time you walk in the door.

Use the Slow-Cooker
It's the closest we can get to someone else cooking dinner for us. Throw ingredients in a pot, set it to low, and then go about your day. The best part? At dinnertime, the hard part's all done. Make it happen: 5 healthy slow-cooker recipes

Double It
The next time you're whipping up a batch of your favorite bolognese or a pot of neighborhood-famous chili, consider doubling the recipe. You'll get two meals for the prep time of one. Casseroles, soups, stews, burritos, tomato sauce and homemade pizza all do well in the freezer. Make it happen: 20 freezer-friendly meals

Keep Your Eye on the Prize
Between shopping list and "dinner's served!" there's a lot of prep that goes into making dinner happen. But remember why you're going through all the trouble: you're carving out a time each day when the family can connect. "The danger in all this is to say there's only one way to connect with your family and that the dinner table is the place to do it," says Rosenstrach. "If it's too hard to make dinner happen, make breakfast 'family dinner.'" To a certain extent, the food doesn't even matter. The most important thing is having that time when the family can come together. "It's such a pleasant, wonderful, happy place to look forward to," says Rosenstrach. "I get such a primal satisfaction out of watching my kids eat food I made. Whether that will help them get into Harvard, I have no idea."

What helps dinner happen in your house? Any tricks and shortcuts you swear by?

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