Fun and Easy Back-in-School Meal Strategies

I always warn parents looking to get kids in the kitchen, "Don't worry about the time it will take to cook." But that's a reminder for once you've started a recipe. Meal planning for families always requires time considerations -- especially during the school year when there are homework and other activities to fit in before day's end.

I give my sons two nights each week to choose our meal, so the actual cooking time can vary a lot. Generally, we select recipes that can be assembled in 20 to 30 minutes, and depending upon the dish (lasagna, stews, soups, risotto, roast meats, etc.), there may be additional cooking time. When the boys ask for "pizza" at 6pm, I explain we don't have time for the dough to rise. (We can, however, make pizza dough in 10 minutes and leave it in the fridge until the next day for quick assembly with jarred sauce and pre-grated cheese -- and 15 minutes baking time!)

Involving my sons in this way teaches them an awareness of the time factor and the responsibility for organizing the meals they want to have. My sons think nothing of running to the corner store to get a key missing ingredient for the recipe they've chosen. If that ingredient can't be had conveniently, then they did not plan well and must choose something else. In suburban settings, school-aged kids can bike up to a convenience store to get simple ingredients; it's amazing how much more appreciation kids have for the meal process when they are included in the choosing, planning and preparation.

Of course, my sons are not my indentured servants! If they are preoccupied or not in the mood to cook, I'm the default selector and cook. This means I get to make what I want, and I usually choose something quick because, believe it or not, when you've gotten into a routine of the kids helping, it actually goes faster with them! There are more hands doing tasks simultaneously, you're all relaxed and talking which makes the prep time quick and enjoyable. When I'm alone in the kitchen, I just want to get it done!

Here are some pointers for keeping the time element under control:

1. Let them help
Welcome your kids' help, because their involvement in the process eliminates the "I'm starving, when will we eat?" syndrome -- they'll see very clearly each step of the process to the finished dish.

2. Create a family recipe folder or box
Develop a list of family recipes and categorize them according to preparation time. This way you can read off dinner choices that are appropriate for the time available when up against teacher conferences, sports practices and the zillion and one other dinner conflicts.

3. Involve them in planning
Involve your children in the dinner selection process the night before by asking them to choose from the list of family favorites that you've written down. Then involve them in the planning process, teaching them to share the responsibility for the time issue.

4. Make the kitchen home base
Invite homework and other school-related activities into the kitchen or nearby. Some kids lose interest in cooking after a few minutes; encouraging them to stick around and do homework makes it convenient for you to help them as necessary, allowing for a good meal while keeping other bases covered.

5. Keep snacking to a minimum
Allow snacking during dinner prep, but only on fruit and vegetables; they are primarily comprised of water and don't tend to ruin appetites like chips, etc. This helps keep kids satisfied when a dish needs extra cooking or baking time.

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