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Productive Parenting and Food: Managing Meals, Groceries, and Dinnertime Drama

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Family eating together

In my pre-child days, I imagined that parents worried mostly about things like their children’s education, friendships, emotional development, and future stability.

Now I know that’s not true.

We worry about those things, of course. But my main worry, every single day, is all about the food.

“Mommy? Mommy? Mommy? Is it lunch time yet?”
No, it’s not. It’s 9am. I just finished cleaning up breakfast.

“Mommy? Can I have a snack?”
No, you can’t. I’m making lunch right now, even though it’s only 10:52am. You better eat it.

“Eeeeeewwww I don’t like this. I don’t want it. I’m full.”
I made you lunch at 11am after you begged me for food every five minutes and now you’re full? I DON’T THINK SO.

From insatiable appetites to endless snacks to picky palates to outright refusal to eat anything but two bites of a cheese stick to the inevitable “What’s for dinner?” question that haunts us around 5pm, food and family gets stressful.

It’s a lot to handle. It’s multiple times a day. It’s endless decision-making followed by high-stress negotiations with unreasonable small humans who don’t understand why five packs of fruit gummies aren’t an acceptable meal.

Our approach to handling all this food-related stress is often to make big, radical changes. The problem is that those changes require a lot of willpower, and they create even more drama because no one is more resistant to unprecedented change than a grumpy toddler. We end up failing at our plans for improvement and then feeling even worse about it all.

So let’s take a different approach.

A Better Approach to Better Meals

In any productive parenting endeavor, a good first step is to let go of the guilt. Guilt is produced by fear: we’re afraid that by not doing better, we will hurt our children, usually in some vague, eventual, undefined way. The fear is vague but real, and the resulting guilt wears us down. Let’s agree that fear improves nothing. Changes motivated by guilt tend to be reactive, at best, and extreme, at worst. Instead, notice that you’ve kept your child(ren) alive and well, to this point. You’re doing fine.

Instead of letting fear, guilt, comparison, and uncertainty drive us from one extreme to failure and back again, let’s take these two steps for meals, groceries, and dinnertime drama:

  1. Make things easier. Let’s simplify our options, build in convenience, and quit asking ourselves to perform superhuman feats of willpower after a long day with a cranky child.
  2. Raise our defaults. By gradually leveling up in our meal habits, our food options, our grocery buying, and our drama handling, we can raise the quality of our food-life with hardly any effort.

Managing Meals

Happy kid with utensilsMeals include, of course, the three standards: breakfast, lunch, and dinner. But that’s not all: snacks are every child’s favorite meal. As such, snacktime is an entity deserving of its own planning and preparation.

Make Meals and Snacks Easier

Use a meal plan.
Meal planning is the one thing that every parent can do to make dinnertime, especially, a vastly easier experience. You can, of course, create your own meal plan. Browse Pinterest for recipes, and use your calendar, a spreadsheet, or an app to create a weekly plan.

You can make it even easier on yourself by using a meal-planning service. I recently signed up for PrepDish after listening to founder Allison Stevens discuss batch cooking on the Productivity Show. I’m loving it, especially how the preparation is laid out (more on that below).

For a small investment, you can save yourself a few hours of work and have someone else come up with meal ideas and a grocery list for you. There are plenty of other menu planning services (such as Plan to Eat and The Fresh 20), so if one doesn’t fit your preferences, shop around for another.

Prepare in bulk.
Preparing food in bulk is, by far, the best way to make meal times much easier and more efficient. Batch processing may not work for everything, but when it comes to food, it does work.

The feature I love most about PrepDish is the way it’s broken down into a Prep Day and then separate “Dish Days.” You do your shopping, then spend a couple of hours preparing food in advance. When it comes time to eat the meal, you need minimal effort to get the food on the table.

Include and equip everyone.
When you plan a menu, you can print it out, along with the instructions, and leave it in the kitchen. This way other capable folks, such as your spouse or older kids, can help with meal preparation even when you’re not around.

Feeding a family is not a one-person gig. The more people in your family contributing to the process, the better. As your children are ready, teach them some basic food preparation and cooking skills. It’s worth the effort in training.

Repeat your favorites.
Not every meal has to be a novel experience. We humans are comfortable with repetition. Younger humans, especially, like to see familiar foods on their plates. When you find a family favorite, don’t be afraid to put it in the meal rotation every week. It’s okay to eat the same thing for breakfast every day. It’s fine to have a couple of great snacks and lunches that you rotate every couple of days.

Let go of “perfect meal” requirements.
I grew up in the South, so my mental picture of the perfect meal is a big hunk of meat (with gravy) accompanied by a big pile of carbs and about five different vegetables, along with biscuits or cornbread. That’s a great meal every now and then, but on a daily basis it’s way too much.

Think about your mental picture of the perfect meal so you can figure out if it’s a good one or not. Sometimes a perfect meal is a big bowl of salad. Sometimes it’s some cheese and crackers and fruit; sometimes it’s vegetables and hummus. Sometimes it’s a smoothie. The perfect meal depends on the day, the environment, the food available, and the meals involved in the rest of the day. Let yourself be flexible.

Set up a snack system.
Oh, the snacks.

My experience with toddlers and preschoolers and, well, most kids is that meals are endured while snacks are adored. They love snacks. And, OK, I do too. However, we don’t want 1) to prepare and clean up 13 snacks a day or 2) to let our kids fill up on not-so-healthy snacks and miss out on healthy meals.

My life, and my children’s nutritional intake, is better when I use a snack system. Mine is simple: we have a basket in the kitchen stocked with snack options (crackers, pretzels, cookies, fruit gummies). It’s next to our fruit bin. In the summer, I keep popsicles and frozen yogurt as well. The kids know that at snack time they get one snack item, one fruit, and one popsicle or yogurt tube. The key for me is limiting the options. By providing a designated array, they get the freedom to choose, but I still get oversight.

It’s also nice not to have to go through a list of snack options 27 times a day.

Your system could look totally different; build it to fit your family. Make a list of the snack options that you and the kids both approve, keep them stocked in a designated place, and (if you wish) decide on snack limits: how much and how often.

Raise Your Mealtime Defaults

Have an eating-out plan.
Instead of pretending you’re never going to eat out, come up with a plan ahead of time for what you’ll choose when you do need a quick meal on the go. My husband and I decided on three options: sub sandwiches, pizza, or the nearest grocery store deli. There is almost always one of those options around; when we don’t have time for a sit-down restaurant meal but we need to feed our offspring, we can do so without stressing about it and without resorting to fast-food burgers.

Get better at-home convenience food.
Have a plan for those nights when you’re at home but cooking seems impossible. For the same cost (or less) than a delivery pizza, you can buy a few healthy frozen meals. Or you can set your at-home convenient food default to something easy and fun, like popcorn and apple slices or yogurt and granola parfaits.

Getting Groceries

Girl feeding mom with strawberryThe shopping part of food management can be the most stressful; if you’re trying to feed a family in a healthy way on a set budget, it’s definitely stressful. And if you’re trying to shop with a kid or two along, well, “challenging” is an understatement.

Make Grocery Shopping Easier

Always use a list.
Don’t go to the store without a list. Ever. Just don’t do it. Even if you only need two things, you’ll forget one and buy five other things instead. The easiest way to blow your grocery budget is to shop without a list. When you’re planning your meals (or using a service), you’ll have a list for those meals. Use that list. Remember, too, that you can always go back if you run out of something, but once you’ve bought that five-pound block of mozzarella, it’s yours.

Set up subscriptions.
I use Amazon Prime and set up recurring orders for some of my basic supplies and dry goods. There are other online options, too: PeaPod and Netgrocer, for example. In the growing season, you can find local produce subscriptions and co-ops for fresh produce on a regular basis at a good price.

Find the least stressful shopping time.
The most stressful shopping time for me is sometime on a weekday morning when I’m alone with four kids and trying to manage a cart full of groceries before we hit the lunchtime crankies.

The least stressful shopping time for me is anytime I’m by myself or when my husband can go with me, so we can divide and conquer the list in half the time. Sunday night is usually a great time to shop; the stores are empty. Friday afternoon to early evening, on the other hand, is terrible. Shopping when you’re unhurried and focused makes it much easier to stick to your list.

Raise Your Grocery-Shopping Defaults

Improve one selection each week.
If you want to improve the quality of the food you buy, do so one item at a time instead of all at once. Each week, for example, I’ll pick one type of produce or food to purchase that’s organic; I try to maintain that standard and add a new organic selection in the next week. When I pair this concept with the one below, my budget slowly adjusts to purchasing higher-quality food.

Quit buying what you don’t want to eat.
The easiest way to not eat junk food is to not buy it. If I have a bag of chips, I want to eat them. If there’s soda in the house, the kids want to drink it. I don’t have an active ban on these items; I just don’t buy them. My budget approves, and eating them becomes less of a mindless habit and more of a once-in-a-while treat. I’ve noticed, too, that when we don’t keep junk foods or unhealthy options at home, we tend to want them less when we’re out and about. They just slowly move off the food radar.

Dinnertime Drama

Meal planning and preparation can be stressful.

Grocery shopping and staying on a budget can be a big challenge.

But they’re nothing compared to the mind-numbing, hair-pulling tenacity of a three-year-old who suddenly hates ravioli. And waffles. And bananas. And cheese. And any food that isn’t purple.

Make Dealing with Drama Easier

Be consistent with a few simple rules.
I’m definitely not going to tell you what your rules should be; that’s up to you. But having a couple of simple rules that you always follow will give you and your child a structure to follow. Rules can vary according to your family, your child, and your needs:

  • We sit at the table when we eat.
  • We try one bite of a new food.
  • We don’t have dessert unless we eat [fill in the blank] first.
  • We say “thank you.”
  • We drink water with meals.
  • We eat two things on our plate.

Don’t back yourself into a corner.
The issue with dinnertime dramas is that we really, really want our kids to get adequate food. We want them to be healthy. But they don’t really care, and their palates are weird and sensitive, and everything gets really emotional.

Try not to engage in a battle over a meal. Instead, kindly and consistently stick with your one or two rules, and don’t worry about the rest. Getting into a conflict can easily result in you having to stand your arbitrary ground (“Eat all those peas!”) over something that’s simply not worth that kind of energy and stress. If you’re concerned about your child’s food intake, talk with your doctor, who can help you determine if they’re getting adequate nutrition or not.

Accept that their palates are different.
Kids are developing, and their taste buds are more sensitive.

Maybe you’re a foodie, and the fact that your child will eat nothing but overcooked broccoli and chicken nuggets makes you sad. I get it, but I also know that things change.

Right now, accept that foods taste different to your child than they do to you. Their sensitivities and preferences will develop as they grow. I clearly remember hating spaghetti, cinnamon rolls, and sausage as a child. Now I happily eat all three with gusto. (Not at the same time.) There is hope, and there’s no need to stress about it.

Raise Your Drama Defaults

Get educated together.
Learn with your kids more about how we prepare food, how our bodies function, how nutrients affect our health, and how the quality of food changes its flavor and nutritional value. There are plenty of shows, books, movies, and online resources to help you and your child learn about food and health.

I’ve seen a major influence on my two older children (eight and seven years old); they no longer ask for fast food since they’ve learned how fast food is made. They’re much better at limiting their own sugar intake since they’ve learned how too much sugar can harm their bodies.

Prepare food together.
A kid who helps slice a cucumber, peel a potato, or make a smoothie is much more interested in the end result. Familiarity with new food is a big part of being open to new food. And there’s no better way to get familiar with food than to help prepare it.

Make new things available as an option.
We do “tray lunch” probably twice a week: it’s the easiest lunch idea ever. I just set out whatever fruit and vegetables we have that look good, along with cheese, hummus, and crackers if we have any. And I’ll often add something that the kids don’t like, but I do: fresh radishes, olives, goat cheese, prosciutto.

I don’t require them to take any of that stuff (honestly, I don’t want to share), but many times they’ll ask to try it. Sometimes they make a face, and that’s the end of it. Sometimes they discover a new food to love. Having the option removes the fear and turns the experience into a voluntary adventure rather than a conflict.

In all areas of food management, as in all areas of life, simply thinking about how we do things can lead to a lot of improvement. Running on default when we’re tired and busy often leads to poor choices and emotional moments…and that’s just the adults! Help your kids and yourself make this daily eating thing easier and better by choosing a few of these ideas and putting them into practice.

Have your own ideas, tips, and methods? Share them with the rest of us. We all need each other’s wisdom.

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Posted by Rhonda  | April 27, 2016 at 2:05PM | Reply

I enjoyed this, too, especially the spot-on emotional issues you’ve framed as it relates to feeding all the people. Meal-making (and planning and prepping) is so…constant.

For my three boys, I have a pantry space for snacks, which they get after school. Generally, the rule is they have to finish their meal before getting anything else. I follow the advice of shopping at the least stressful time, which for me is an interim time in the morning between school drop offs: makes me get the shopping done quickly and the store isn’t crowded at 8:00 in the morning. I do usually plan for one takeout/eat out meal a week, and on days I don’t know what’s for supper or scrambled eggs and potatoes – easy and fairly fast.

And a big “yes!” to the advice about healthier convenience foods: rotisserie chicken and dried fruits are some favorites around our house.

Posted by Annie Mueller  | October 15, 2015 at 10:20AM | Reply

Hi Breshana!
Glad you enjoyed the article. I agree – batching with freezer meals is amazing. I did a big batch once and it was so nice to have a stack of prepped meals in the freezer; totally took the stress out of dinner time. Good thought to make those smaller meals to go along, in between, as well. I might have to schedule some time this weekend to do a big batch of freezer meals, because you’ve reminded me how nice it is!

Posted by Breshana  | October 13, 2015 at 11:57AM | Reply

I really enjoyed reading this article. I’m a mom of two toddlers and do they ever beg for snacks and claim they are full when it’s dinner time. These are great ideas especially since I am a full time working mother as well. I have used the batch method with preparing freezer prep meals ahead of time and it was the best thing I ever did when it came to planning my meals. There was no stress at all about dinner.
It did take a big bulk of my time on Saturday to do it but I saved countless hours during the work week as well.
One thing I learned was to make small simple meals as well to fill inbetween the real meal kind of stuff. So I made sliders and quesadillas. These are great individual meals to have so that we ‘re not eating big meals everyday.

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