Undoubtedly it’s the toughest time of the day. (If that’s not true for you and you have multiple little kids close in age you are either lying or SuperMom, please unsubscribe immediately.) For all that modern science has done for us, it has yet to explain why little children go berserk in the late afternoon. They hit their most demanding state just as Mommy simultaneously reaches her busiest and most fatigued. There have been many times since I became a parent that I wanted to run from the house screaming, “I just can’t do this!” and most of them have happened between four and five-thirty p.m. Because of that, and because this question appears with increasingly frequency in my inbox, I decided to write this one. I am not good at dinner time. Seriously. I could develop this topic for at least a seven-part series, complete with real-life stories from the front that would make your hair curl. But I do make dinner every day and I am learning as I go, so here’s some things I’ve found to be helpful.
Plan ahead. It does help a lot if you know what you’re going to make. There’s less pressure during the day to figure it out or pick up food. Also, if you have a plan you can thaw your meat from the freezer or soak your beans or whatever so you’re all set when it’s time to cook.
Prep ahead. This is the big one. Check your menu early in the day and chip away at it as you get a minute. Whenever you can, use your slow cooker in winter and your grill (American grill, as in, out-of-doors) in summer. Often I make up a dish in the morning to be baked in evening, like lasagne or enchiladas. If a dish calls for cooked chicken, I’ll bake it in foil in the morning and then chop and refrigerate it to speed up prep later. While the kids are finishing lunch I’m often peeling or chopping vegetables or making pizza dough or prepping a salad or a soup. The more steps you can eliminate for yourself the better. Here’s an example: recently we had spaghetti and meatballs. While the girls played outside in the sandbox in the morning I made the sauce and left it on the stove (interrupted by Hugh toddling around and making trouble about 32 times). I also mixed up the meatballs and refrigerated. Around two-thirty during Hugh’s nap, I rolled the meatballs and cooked them and dropped them in the sauce. At five all I had to do was boil water for pasta and cook some peas, the sauce was warm on the back of the stove and we were ready.
Save something fun for crazy hour. Are they loving colored pencils right now? Did you get a new coloring book? Are jigsaw puzzles or Legos a guaranteed twenty minutes? Hold them back all day and pull them out at four-thirty.
Occasional videos don’t equal bad mommyhood. I know our ancestors did this without them and so can we. But on your worst or the snowiest days immobilize the children with educational television. “Curious George” has gotten me through many a dinner prep. (If you’re a purist, try books on disc at the kitchen table.) If I have to prep dinner all at once, I might put a Baby Einstein video (free on You Tube) on for Hugh, put him in his highchair, give the girls colored pencils at the kitchen table, and cook taco meat, chop the vegetables, and heat corn tortillas in the midst of the hubbub.
Tie down as many of the children as possible. Hugh is eighteen months and his hero right now is Christopher Columbus: he wants to discover America. If I want to get anything done, I have to confine him. Last year I had to buckle him in a baby chair AND strap Harriet into her booster seat if I wanted to do anything. (People wonder how Harriet got so good at jigsaw puzzles at two years old.)
Embrace interruptions. Prepare to bounce around between the stove and the children like a rubber ball. Some days you can get the laundry, the phone, and the doorbell involved too and you’ll feel like a hacky sack. If you’re expecting it to be like that every time, it’s less frustrating. It’s also okay to say “wait.” My kids are used to being told “Just a minute, I have raw chicken on my hands” or “Wait until I get this in the pan.” If your children won’t tolerate waiting a few minutes when you ask them to, work on that first.
Keep meals simple until you get the trick of it. If we’re having guests or I want to serve something extra-nice, I’ll prep some ahead and then do the intensive work once Alex is home to play with the troops.
Make yourself a cold drink and put some music on. Remind yourself why you love family dinner, why you love your children, and why you love your Lord enough to keep your temper and keep smiling. When your husband comes in, “I’m so glad you are home!” should not be shouted at his head nor delivered between sobs. (A word from Martin Luther: “Let the wife make the husband glad to come home and let him make her sorry to see him leave.”) Test it may be, but this is the stuff of daily life. Let’s live it and be glad.