“Some people have the skill set but can’t get out of their jobs in time to cook,” said Jenny Rosenstrach, author of “Dinner: A Love Story” (Harper Collins, $27.99) and the blog of the same name. “Other people have no idea how to cook and rely on store-bought things regularly, and feel bad about it. Other people feel so much pressure from the conversation about food that’s going on right now: It can’t just be dinner, everything has to be sourced and sustainable and local and organic. And some people have all three issues.
“It’s this perfect storm of problems and insecurities that shouldn’t be there.”
Exactly how do you get food on the table in a timely fashion? How do kids become adventurous, not picky, eaters? How can conversation be easy, and table manners and chores seem routine? What are the rules governing dessert? Here are suggestions to make dinner a meal you want to come home to.
1. Hatch a plan
The first obstacle is planning a meal and getting it on the table before your children turn into hunger-crazed monsters.
For Rosenstrach, the answer is to have a menu for the day or the week and prepare as much as possible ahead of time. She also suggests pushing dinner back until 7 p.m. or later in the evening (after fortifying the kids with a healthful snack, such as chips and salsa) so everyone can sit down together.
“Think about dinner in the morning, even if it’s just a couple of seconds to decide what you’re going to make, or chop an onion, or set a pot of water on the stove,” Rosenstrach said. “Just get the momentum going. Get all the ingredients out and put them on the counter. Somehow all those little things take five times as long at night, or at least it feels that way.”
Two years ago, Jennifer Folsom of Alexandria came up with a way to make the planning and preparation easier. She recruited three neighborhood moms, Carrie Van Brocklin, Gina Almeida and Ofa McGinley, to join her in what they call the “Bus Stop Meal Swap.”
Each mom takes one day a week and cooks for the four families (20 people in all). Then, when the four moms pick up their children at the bus stop in the afternoon, the day’s assigned cook distributes the food in reusable bags and containers.
“I only go to the store once a week and only cook once a week,” McGinley said. “It saves a lot of money, time and gas, and it’s less cleaning.”
2. Conquering picky eaters
Before Janice Newell Bissex and Liz Weiss, owners of the Web site Meal Makeover Moms, wrote “No Whine With Dinner” (M3 Press, $24.95), they did an informal survey to find out what parents thought was the top obstacle to having a pleasant family dinner. “Picky eaters” was the answer from 61 percent of the more than 600 responses.
It can be hard for parents to relax about food left on a plate, but forcing children to eat can turn dinnertime into a battle for control, several experts said.
“Often with a food they have rejected once or twice, after repeated exposure, they might be willing to try it if it’s not pushed on them, but modeled by a parent,” said Anne Fishel, an associate clinical professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School and co-founder of the Family Dinner Project.
Parents also need to give children time to learn how to appreciate different foods, just as they would with any other developmental milestone, says Weiss.
“It takes time to learn to ride a bike, to potty train, to learn how to read,” Weiss said. “Teaching your kid to appreciate new flavors takes a long time, too. You just have to go with it and look at it as a skill that kids need to acquire.”
To avoid conflict over food, Rosenstrach uses what she calls the Venn diagram approach. Everyone eats some combination or variation of what is being offered: Maybe one child eats his pasta plain but devours the salad, and the other has sauce on her pasta but passes on the greens.
“It’s [the kids’] job to decide what to eat and how much to eat,” Bissex said.
3. Make it an orderly affair
Practice good table manners, but in moderation, Fishel says, so that it doesn’t take away from the positive aspects of sitting down together for a family meal. Fishel suggests focusing on one or two manners at a time, and picking something that is really important to your family.
“If the dinner table is too much about criticizing and evaluating and educating and critiquing, it can really take the fun out of the whole experience, and that kind of mood tends to shut things down,” Fishel said. “To the extent that parents can model good manners and can critique around those manners that are getting in the way of respectful listening and talking, those would be the manners I would highlight, rather than ‘get your elbows off the table.’ ”
For a younger child, putting her napkin on her lap and using silverware instead of hands is a good starting point. As children age, parents can focus on other skills, such as chewing with your mouth closed.
Dinner should be an electronics-free time: No television, but also no BlackBerrys, phones or iPods, for children and grown-ups alike. “It detracts from bonding, talking about your day and sharing,” Bissex said.
“Music is a good exception” to the no-electronics rule, said Folsom of Alexandria. Her family listens to pop music, public radio or alternative music on their satellite radio. “It’s particularly a nice non-monetary, non-food reward, so we say, ‘You were really good today; let’s listen to some music at the table.’ ”
4. Sustain conversation
Under the best of circumstances, kids can be stingy with the give-and-take of information about their day. Throw fatigue and low blood-sugar levels into the mix, and attempts at polite dinner conversation can be disastrous.
Rosenstrach offers her two girls, Phoebe, 10, and Abby, 8, a tortilla chip with salsa in exchange for a tidbit about their day while she is making dinner. The little snack during that witching hour can ease some of the crankiness, while the parent gains valuable intelligence about the goings-on at school.
Several moms who wrote to The Post on the On Parenting blog said they use games to engage their children at the table.
Jodi Broschart of Arbutus, Md., said her family does Mad Libs during dinner. They also take turns humming a few notes of a song while other family members try to guess what it is.
Andrea Clay of Stafford said it was important to her and her husband that their daughters Mollie, 16, and Caroline, 14, be able to sit at a table and talk to adults, so they have always talked about everything from their days to current events. One night last month, each girl had to give a presentation at dinner about the presidential candidates’ strengths and weaknesses.
5. Enlist them in the effort
Simple chores such as setting and clearing the table and helping with the dishes get children involved in the dinner process and send a message that mealtime is the entire family’s responsibility. This also takes some of the burden off the parent who is in charge of putting dinner on the table.
“It’s not just about making dinner, it’s about making dinner happen,” Rosenstrach said. “If you’re the one who is solely responsible for dinner, that’s the quickest way for it to become a burden. It’s the whole family’s job — kids, too. They can set the table and come up with ideas of what to eat. Then it becomes a family event that everyone gets into.”
Parents, including Clay, also say that when they have let their children plan, shop for and help prepare the meal, they are more invested and more likely to eat the food.
Even preschool-age children can help with menu-planning, putting things in the cart at the store and making simple meals such as canned soup.
Clay said her daughters plan, shop for and cook a few meals a month, and have been participating in meal prep of some form since they were 6 and 4 years old.
“We started this when they were younger, and it was a good lesson for them in fractions and budgeting.” Clay said. She added, “It helps them eat healthier, and understand what it takes to put a healthy meal on the table.”
The goal, Rosenstrach says, is for dinner to seem more like a reward than an obligation.
“You’re saving money, hopefully working more efficiently, you have built-in time to talk to your kids every day, which is the Holy Grail of parenting, and you have a natural environment to talk about food and health and nutrition.”
Readers weigh in on dinner challenges
How much dessert is too much?
Chat Jenny Rosenstrach, author of “Dinner: A Love Story” and the blog of the same name, hosts an online chat Thursday at noon. washingtonpost.com/live.
On Parenting Read about Mari-Jane Williams’s inspiration for the story and take a poll about your biggest dinner frustrations: washingtonpost.com/onparenting.
Find more than 60 kid-friendly, healthful main-course recipes from The Post’s Recipe Finder
Going Out Guide Find kid-friendly events in your area at goingoutguide.com/kids.8
Family Almanac archive Read columns on the Advice page, where you can also find columns by Carolyn Hax, Ask Amy and Miss Manners. washingtonpost.com/advice.