We’ve all been there: You’re rushing from work, school pickup, soccer practice or ballet lessons and walk through the door with a finite amount of time to prepare dinner before your kids totally melt down and/or you lose your mind.
In our house, we have exactly 32 minutes — the run time of our sons’ favorite “PAW Patrol” — to get dinner prepped and on the table before someone tries to raid the pantry. That leaves little time for an epic culinary creation that is both edible for finicky little palates and checks off the “feeding your children nutritious food” box in the Parenting 101 handbook.
In our house, we partially prepare meals ahead of time to speed up the dinner process. My husband, Ethan, has been known to cook a dozen chicken thighs at a time for his own lunches, which usually leaves me with a protein that I can toss with a quick-cooking grain or pasta.
We also make sure to keep our fridge and pantry stocked with vegetables and spices that we know our kids enjoy. Curried cauliflower guarantees that both my boys will eat all of their veggies. (The nice thing about cauliflower is you can roast it ahead of time and quickly reheat it, which means a meal in 20 minutes and still time for a glass of wine!)
Because it takes a village, here are more tips from professional chefs, restaurateurs and parents about nailing it at mealtime:
“Join your local CSA. They provide you with local, organically grown fruits and veggies and introduce kids to new foods they may not have tried otherwise. My kids now love Swiss chard, which is great since it can be cooked into super-easy recipes that only takes 30 minutes and five ingredients.” — Sara Fleischman, senior technical recruiter at Microsoft
“Once a week I make homemade ranch dip with full-fat sour cream, and slice a bunch of carrots, celery and cucumber sticks. My son, who’s almost 4, never turns down an opportunity to eat some ranch, and plows through lots of veggies in the process.” — Rachel Marshall, owner of Rachel’s Ginger Beer
“Quinoa bowls! My kids love them. I have celiac’s, so we use a lot of quinoa. We will make a batch in the morning and use it for several meals. For breakfast, the kids put cashews and yogurt on top with peanut butter or fruit. For lunch or dinner: avocado, cheese sprinkles and tomato. They love it when I put little sides out and they pick the toppings.” — Kate Bayley, producer at Seattle-based video company Exit 54 Films
“Buy healthy prepackaged food when necessary. Precut veggies, salads and fruit can be a lifesaver for prepping lunches when time is limited.” — Bella Sangar, chef and owner of Village Kitchen
“I love to take my kids grocery shopping. We spend a lot of time in the produce aisle talking about what everything is, smelling things, etc. When kids pick what they get to eat and are involved in cooking it, they’re way more inclined to try it!” — Jill Gregson Zawatski, manager of That Good Hammock
“We ask our boys that they try everything each time we make it, even if they tried it before. (Sometimes it takes a few tries to develop a palate for some foods.) We also give them lots of praise for trying new things. Letting the kids help with the cooking also helps with them wanting to eat what we make. It’s not always an efficient use of time though … ” — Katlyn Stevens, mom to Tyson, Calvin and Owen
“We got our now teenage daughter involved in farming when she was little. We used to take her volunteering every Sunday at local farms doing whatever they needed: pick berries, harvest fruit, plant seeds. We did it because we thought it would be a fun activity for her. What we didn’t realize is that she would grow up to appreciate where all the produce came from. She eats simpler and healthier at home and doesn’t mind fixing herself simple meals.” — Dionne Himmelfarb, pastry chef for Ethan Stowell Restaurants
“For end-of-day pickup or carpool, I have a bag of mandarin oranges or apples to give to the kids to stave off the hangries. It buys a little time for dinner prep when you get home; plus, it’s healthy and easy.” — Anne Theisen, owner of Form Marketing & Design in Seattle
“We have a little garden, and my kids love to eat what they grow. We also do a lot of meal planning and repurpose dinner a couple of nights in a row. For example, we roast a whole chicken on a Monday and make a pot of rice, and then we can make tacos one night and maybe chicken over rice and veggies the next. Super quick!” — Gwen Wist, server at Ray’s Boathouse
“I never prepare a separate kids’ meal when cooking for the family and company. Instead, I slightly alter any meal we are preparing to be easier and more simple for our son’s palate. Less spice, more butter always seems to work.” — Jonathan Violand, manager of Red Cow