A Surprising Way to Cut Dinnertime Stress

There's a hilarious cartoon circulating on Pinterest with a woman hunched over in despair. The caption reads "Why do they want dinner every single night?" It's funny... because it's true.
08/06/2012 10:54 am ET Updated Oct 06, 2012

There's a hilarious someecard circulating on Pinterest with a woman hunched over the arm of a chair in despair. The caption reads "Why do they want dinner every single night?" It's funny... because it's true.

But it doesn't have to be so hard. I recently read about an idea that could change the anxiety level in our kitchen for good. In his book Simplicity Parenting, Kim John Payne suggests making a set menu every week: pasta on Mondays, chicken on Tuesdays, tacos on Wednesdays, and so on. The point is to alleviate arguments with the little guys about what's for dinner and make the whole thing easier for you to plan. At first this idea sounded restrictive to me, but it's actually more flexible than one might think. Just consider how many ways there are to make chicken: grilled lemon chicken, slow cooker Tex-Mex chicken and many, many more. The point is to easily put together dinner by narrowing the playing field.

If a whole week's worth of routine is too much, and it might be, the same thing can be done on a single day. For example, in her gorgeous food memoir Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, Barbara Kingsolver says her family eats homemade pizza every Friday. Then there's Karen Le Billon, author of French Kids Eat Everything, who's made a deal with her kids: They can have fast food for dinner on "days that begin with F." (Bonus: You can enter to win a copy of this incredibly charming book, full of inspiring tips and hilarious stories at Foodlets.com.)

There's also another way to take this idea. Cooking from scratch is usually healthier than preparing processed foods but it often takes longer and requires a little more energy. But because I want our kids to appreciate fresh food and eating meals as a family, it's something I'm committed to. There's also the health issue. (Seriously, 34% of Americans are obese and the U.S. has the highest obesity rate in the world.) So why not commit to cooking at least once a week? The kids can get involved; from cooking at the counter to simply setting the table, this sense of community is as tangible a reward as the increased nutrition. And eat together. Without a TV. At least one night a week. The recipes don't have to be complicated or time-consuming. Some of my family's favorite dishes can be on the table in 20 minutes. Actually, all of our dinner recipes are on the simple (but tasty) side. While I truly believe in cooking fresh food every night, I'm also a normal human with three children under the age of 4, making me a very tired human most of the time.

The important thing is that children love routines. Whether it's take-out or taco night, this gives them something to look forward to and a structure they understand. In Rome we have "Cornetto Friday," which means that when we go to the bar for a morning cappuccino, our 3-year-old gets to have a pastry. Not on Mondays, not on Tuesdays. She asks whether it's the blessed day all the time, but when we tell her no, she gets it. Usually. I can say that with this plan in place, the number of public meltdowns has decreased dramatically, and that's a routine I can live with. Now, about dinner...