How to Feed the Family 1,000 Times a Day and Not Lose Your Mind

feed family feed family

First off, congratulations. By now you’ve made one zillion consecutive meals at home. I don’t know about you, but these people I’m living with (my family) never stop eating. And, like everybody, I’m longing for the day when these hungry hippos will once again have some meals outside the home — at a friend’s house, school, or a birthday party. But for now we’re still enclosed, and meals are a lot of work on top of all ~*gestures expansively*~ this. So, breaking down a typical day, here are some pointers to help make it easier to feed the (constantly eating) family during quarantine.

Meal Planning – Clear the deck for action

Whether you’re ordering groceries online or running out to the grocery store, they’re recommending that you shop for two weeks of meals at a time. And that requires serious organization. Even though I write DinnerIn20, a newsletter all about meal-planning, I’m finding it difficult to find the mental space to plan well right now. Plus, it’s not always possible; in quarantine you might not have access to every ingredient you need. So, I’ve found it helpful to do loose meal-planning, leaving lots of space for improvisation and recipe-revising. Google will help you out when you need to make recipe substitutions.

If your creative juices need a jumpstart, dive into a new cookbook. I recently picked up the especially timely Dimes Times Emotional Eating and was immediately inspired by a whole world of new ingredients and wellness-focused foods. If nothing else, it’ll keep me from growing bored of my own cooking.

Some ideas for stretching your ingredients:

  1. Choose items that are delicious no matter what you do to them. Lean on frozen vegetables and fruits, and pantry items, like diced tomatoes, chickpeas and pasta.
  2. I’m a big fan of “everything but the kitchen sink” dinners, when you can throw together whatever random ingredients you have on hand into one meal. This works well for soups, salads, pasta bakes, quiches… basically, any meal that’s bound together by cheese. Delicious cheese.
  3. Don’t innovate. Unless you have a lot of time on your hands or enjoy taking on lofty cooking projects (who are you people??), this isn’t the time to experiment in radical ways. Go easy on the picky eaters and yourself by doing what you need to keep things simple. Stick with the basics—pasta, butter, peas, boom—and remember that pretty much everyone loves breakfast for dinner or a baked potato with a knob of butter. And hot dogs.

Cleaning – Everybody pitch in

If the quar doesn’t do me in, loading and unloading the dishwasher multiple times a day will. My husband—bless his heart—seems to use up every dish in the kitchen just making a piece of toast. One way to reduce the amount of pots and pans you use is to make big-batch dishes, like chili or a pasta tossed with chicken or another protein, which can last for multiple meals. There are also plenty of recipes out there for one-pan meals. And the sheet-pan dinner will be your new go-to because, again, you can make an entire meal on one tray.

Also, it’s time to make your kids pitch in with the housework. No more freeloaders! A 4-year-old can set the table. A 6-year-old can clear the table. A 2-year-old can… provide background ambience. Of course, all these tasks will take twice as long as if you did it yourself. But you know what we’ve got now? Time.

Breakfast: Top of the morning to you

In our house, the parent who’s clocking the most work-from-home hours for the day covers breakfast because even a monkey can pour a bowl of cereal while holding a laptop in one arm. Bonus points if that monkey can clean up afterwards, since this meal generally has the fewest dishes.

And unless you’ve always been a fancy breakfast family, there’s no need to go all out for this meal. Those of us with small children know it can be far from simple. One kid wants cereal with milk, one kid wants no milk at all and the other kid wants a light dusting. The fewer variables that enter the equation, the easier. That said, the only thing that differentiates our weekends from our weekdays is that on Saturdays we have pancakes. And I think it’s kinda important to find one way to take it up a notch on the weekends, if only to separate one humdrum day from the next.

Lunch: No substitutions

Ah, lunch, the middle child of meals. During the first week of sheltering-in-place, lunchtime was me running around like a short order cook working at a café full of demanding little people who share my DNA. No thank you.

Remember not that long ago when we’d send our kids off to school with lunch boxes containing whatever we wanted them to eat? And since you weren’t with them at lunch time, you couldn’t see them complain or roll their eyes? Well, I’m trying to recreate that right now in the spirit of my favorite preschool saying: You get what you get and you don’t get upset.

Here’s quarantine lunch in our house: I sit them down at the table, put Grandma on FaceTime, and try to make myself as scarce as possible. If they don’t like what’s on their plate, that’s OK, but I don’t offer substitutions. Just like with breakfast, simplicity is key. And, if you want to offer them choices (can be nice to give them a sense of autonomy in these totally constricting times), I try to narrow it down to two: tuna or turkey or grilled cheese or PB & J.

Dinner: The grand finale

Even though all of us are spending lots of time together—like, so, so much time—dinner is still the focal point of my family’s day, and the one meal we can count on sharing as a group of five. It’ll always be the ritual that gives us a sense of normalcy.

A few ideas to help everyone look forward to dinner:

  • A favorite meal in our house is the Snack Dinner, where I clean out the fridge and put out whatever I want to get rid of. As long as I throw some crackers and salami stacks into the mix, the kids are happy.
  • We recently started having Pizza Fridays because everyone loves pizza. Duh.
  • I’ve never been one of those moms who could relax enough to enjoy cooking with my children, but I have loved taking on light baking projects with them lately. So we started Dessert Wednesdays as something everybody can participate in—yet another way to break up the week and differentiate one meal — and one day — from another.

Finally, before you dig in, remember to breathe, smile at your loved ones, and enjoy the meal. You did it!

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Toby Lowenfels is a writer and mom of three in Nashville. Follow her daily musings at @tobyfels.