You have to cook dinner.
Can you believe this happens EVERY DAY?
The dinner fairy hasn't arrived yet so you pull yourself off the grass and head inside. All of the sudden, the blissful play has vanished. Everyone needs to pee. Simultaneously. And they all need help with their pants, their hands, and the half a roll of toilet paper they are attempting to flush down the toilet. Elbows are being thrown, tears are being shed, the baby has disappeared upstairs and is digging in the cat's litterbox, and everyone is tugging on your apron and hanging on the oven handle like it's the monkey bars. And have I mentioned your husband hasn't even insinuated that he might be leaving work yet? Oh, man. Deep breath.
Here are some ideas, in no particular order, to keep you from pulling your hair out or simply throwing in the towel. I didn't reinvent the wheel here- this is some pretty standard stuff that I have put together. Everyone's family is different and every child is different, but these are some lessons I have learned to help me survive and thrive until 6:20 when my knight in shining armor comes through the front door. Now you have 15 weeknights worth of evening sanity ideas. . .you can just pick/choose/rotate them as you see fit!
1. Crock pot it up.
Now, I can't eat from the crock pot every single day. But when I do, it makes me soooooo happy. Because dinner is just IN THERE. I can just scoop a spoon in and dish it on plates at a moment's notice, meaning that during the roughest part of the day, I don't have to leave the kids unattended at all. We can even go to the park or for a walk and get home right as daddy is arriving! I love you, slow cooker! And I love you, Pinterest. . .so full of crock pot recipe goodness!
2. Play doh.
There is no better time of day to pull out the play doh than when you are getting ready to make dinner. Play doh is a little messy and crumbly, and so is dinner. . .so you can handle all the sweep up at the same time. I like to plop the kids at the kitchen table while I cook with a few accessories to spur their imaginations like cookie cutters, kid size knives and plastic dinosaurs.
Once again- a messy thing that you can combine cleanup with your dinner cleanup.
4. Give up on the toy cleanup.
I had this major vision of my kids cleaning up the playroom so that my husband would come home to a lovely and organized home. I used to kill myself trying to make it happen and end up totally discouraged if he didn't notice or we just flat out didn't succeed. In reality, right before dinner is the worst time to clean up! I mean, you need them to PLAY with those toys so you can cook their food! If they have no toys out, you have all the additional stress of trying to keep the house tidy while the kids are hanging on you AND you cook. Plus, they are the least compliant when they are tired and grouchy. We started saving cleanup until after dinner, and it's way better. My husband has graciously accepted that a messy house means happy kids, and that eventually it will get clean.
6. Casserole time!
I love to make a casserole during the morning or naptime and save it in the fridge until dinner. We still have to be home, so it is less ideal than crock pot, but it is so much better than, say, a skillet meal, because you can leave it unattended and attend to your kids who neeeeeeeeeeed you so much. Any time you can rid yourself of prep work at mealtime, it helps. My skillet recipes have disappeared from the rotation until further notice.
7. Leave the cooking to someone else.
Eating at restaurants is not really a part of our budget, so we would rarely just plan on having a whole meal out. But if you want to leave the cooking to someone else without the expense, grab a refrigerated pizza at Aldi. . .they are only about 5-6 dollars and serve the whole family. Plus, they are really good! Another favorite meal of mine (that I learned from my own mom and dad) is to grab sandwiches from a restaurant's dollar menu and bring them home or to the park for a picnic with all of your own drinks and sides. You'll look forward to this kind of night all day! Low prep, low cleanup, low cost!
8. Pull out your big tricks.
This is a good time to get out the things you don't normally get out on a regular basis. Let them make a mountain out of the couch cushions or a tent under the table. Bring a toy back into rotation that they haven't seen in a while. Turn on the wii. Get out musical instruments and turn on the stereo. Distraction is powerful!
9. Involve them in the set-up.
Kids love to "help". If you have the time, let them! They think they are such big stuff, then you can brag to Daddy about their hard work and make them feel even better! You don't have to do it every night, just whenever it works with what you are making. Tell them they are your kitchen team. Make them little chef hats out of paper. They'll eat it up.
10. Team up for a witching-hour playdate.
Usually, playdates are in the morning, right? Well, why not plan a playdate with a close friend AFTER naps? Kids are less likely to be fussy at the witching hour when they have the excitement of being with their friends. And if your friend is anything like you, she will understand if your kids ARE fussy. It requires a little planning on both of your parts to make sure you can both feed your families when dinnertime rolls around, but its a fun change of pace.
11. Feed the kids early
If your hubs gets home after 6 like mine does, it might just be a good idea to set a dinnertime and eat at it. Sometimes, I feed the kids their entire meal before he even sets foot in the door. Or I will start them about 5-10 minutes before he gets home. At any rate, they are less grouchy and we can enjoy a more peaceful meal together.
12. Turn on the TV without guilt.
Most of us like to limit screen time for our kids, and that totally makes sense. However, if you think of television like a diet, you can just save some of their "portion" for the most difficult hour of the day. Whatever your personal limit is, if you know you have a meal coming up with more prep work, just budget some of your screen time for then. And don't feel bad about it, OK?
13. Enlist a helper
If there is a young person on your street in need of service hours, or a little neighbor who might not be old enough to sit on their own but wants some babysitting practice, this might be a great time to offer them a guaranteed service hour every week!
14. Have some "room time"
When my oldest two were particularly small (maybe about 2 and 1) one of the best ways for me to survive cooking dinner where it was too dangerous for them to be underfoot was to put them in the crib together with a stack of books and a stack of pacifiers. Remember, I didn't say I was a perfect parent!! Their bedroom was literally only a few feet from the kitchen so I didn't worry about them, and they were tired anyways so it wasn't too hard to convince them to just contain themselves in that crib until Daddy got home. I'll do a similar thing now and send them all up to their room for a dance party while I cook dinner. The chandelier may be shaking, but I just imagine no one is getting hurt.
15. Tune it out.
The other option is to just let the kids whine and cry. Close the gate and barricade them out of the kitchen, and just cook the things you need to cook. As they hang on the gate, you can just cheerily say, "Dinner will be ready soon!" Sometimes they even give up and go entertain themselves! And sometimes they are just going to cry. And you know what- that's OK. My grandma told me kids can't be happy 100% of the time. Don't take it personally. Everyone else's kids are doing the saaaaammme thing. It's just that time of day.
What other ideas do you use to get dinner on the table while maintaining your sanity?