Getting a nutritious, warm meal on the table each night for dinner can be stressful. Even though I plan our meals each week, I still look for ways to make the process easier and run more smoothly. For advice on how to reduce the stress, I decided to interview large families to see how they manage the chaos and keep their families full.
The families: I interviewed 10 families with three or more children. Four of the families have three children, three of the families have four children, two have six children, and one has eight children. Ages range from two weeks old to seniors in high school, but all the families have at least one or more children in elementary school. In half the families, both parents work or are in school full time. In the other half, the father has a full-time job outside the home and the mother manages the business of the house. These families live all across the U.S. and they are all two-parent families.
The interviews were surprising in many ways, but what caught me off guard was how often I heard similar responses. I was not expecting there to be as many trends in the answers as there were. There seems to be an art to feeding large families, and all of the families I interviewed are accomplished artists. The biggest trend I found is that mealtime is a focus of the day for these families and dinner is not something these families just want to get through. Dinner is a valued destination and is the one time each day when these families come together as a unit.
- Eat together. In 8 of the 10 responses, the entire family eats together at the dining table at least six nights a week. In one family, dinner is at 4:00 p.m. so the family can eat together before the kids go off to practices and lessons. The father of this family goes to work at 6:00 in the morning so he can be home by 4:00 for the family meal. Another family gives kids high-protein snacks after school to keep them from attacking each other before dinnertime at 7:00 p.m., when everyone is finally home from work and after-school activities. Irrespective of when they eat, these families place a high priority on dinners together. Most sit down to dinner around 5:00 p.m. Six of the families reported sharing breakfast together, too.
- Eat at home. The children eat at home, and they eat food made at home. One family said they do pizza delivery six times a year for their kids, but that was the only mention of restaurants in the entire survey.
- Weekly meal planning. All families reported doing some type of meal planning. Whether it means they plan meals based on what the local butcher and stores have on sale (almost all subscribe to the weekend paper to get coupons and sale announcements), build meals on what the CSA delivers or what is in ample supply at the farmers market, scribble meal ideas on the back of grocery lists, or use a formal meal-planning chart — they rarely fly blind. None of the families do monthly meal planning.
- Prepare ahead. The majority of respondents said that some meal preparation is completed earlier in the day. Vegetables might be chopped or casseroles are assembled or items are put in the slow cooker or meat is defrosted hours before dinnertime (usually while preparing breakfast). In three families, fathers make their lunches and their children’s lunches for the next day while the rest of the family cleans up after dinner.
- Shopping at more than one location. Not only did families report wanting to get the best deals, but they also want to get the best food for their dollars. Almost all families reported to buying only hormone-and-antibiotic-free meat (when they eat meat), relying on farmers markets for produce during the summer, and eating as little commercially packaged food as possible. This meant that grocery shopping didn’t happen in one weekly trip to one store, but to many locations to get exactly what they want. All families reported that the majority of shopping is done on the same day each week, but that one or two “quick trips” are made to pick up additional items later in the week.
- Very little meat. More than half of the families said they only eat meat a couple times a week. Although cost might be part of the reasoning for this decision, health concerns and freezer space were the reported motivations. None of the families interviewed is strictly vegetarian.
- Everyone eats the same meal. None of the families make entirely separate meals for picky eaters. A few families said they make extra portions of favorite foods for picky eaters that they freeze so if one food at a meal is refused, there is an alternative on hand. However, the child is responsible for heating up this side dish on her own and can only do so if the leftover is available. In families with children with food allergies or intolerances, the whole family follows the special diet. One responder said she tries to incorporate two new main dishes into the meal plan each week. She does this to introduce her children to new foods and new flavors, but pairs the entrees with favorite side dishes in case the meal isn’t a hit.
- Teaching opportunity. Seven of the families responded that mealtime is also a great time to teach life skills, like organizing. Their children are involved in cooking, planning, cleaning, and even creating a food budget and shopping. One mother occasionally changes the serving sizes on recipes to have her kids work the math problems.
- Divide responsibilities. Again, 8 of the 10 families reported that all family members help in the mealtime process. A young child sets the table, an older one slices vegetables, a third child grates cheese, one sweeps the floor after dinner, one rinses the dishes, dad loads the dishwasher, etc. In only one family do children sit and do their homework while mom and dad prepare the meal. In this family, the children are responsible for cleaning up, however.
- The head chef. Mom is usually in the role of head chef, but sometimes it is dad and sometimes it is an older child. Irrespective of who it is, the head chef is responsible for coordinating what responsibilities each person in the family has for that night’s dinner. This coordinator doesn’t do all the work, but rather makes sure all the work surrounding mealtime is completed. One family explained the head chef’s role as being similar to a conductor’s role in an orchestra. Who will be head chef for a night is determined during the meal planning stage.
- One family doesn’t use formal serving dishes, just puts the pots and pans right on the table, to save on dishwashing later.
- Once a week, one family eats off china dishes and pretends to be dining in a fine restaurant, complete with dress code. This isn’t really organizing related, but I found it interesting nonetheless.
- In a family with six children, favorite meals are rotated into the plan at one a week, so it takes eight weeks but each family member gets their favorite meal six times a year. Favorite meals are tracked on the central family calendar.
- One family makes double portions and freezes half for a meal they’ll eat in a week or two.
- Surprisingly, the only two families that relied on make-ahead services like Dream Dinners were the two families that eat in shifts and not together. Both of these families also only have three children. My guess is that price is a factor in using these services, and that they are too expensive for very large families to use on a regular basis.
- One mother writes what the family had for dinner on a family calendar and then reviews the calendar when meal planning to make sure one food doesn’t get into heavy rotation.
- One family has a no complaining rule and anyone who complains about the meal has to wash all the dishes by hand even though they have a dishwasher. Again, this isn’t really organizing related, but I thought it was a fun rule.
- Only one responder mentioned making dessert each night. Dessert doesn’t seem to be a regular part of large family meals, at least for the families I interviewed.
- I didn’t ask this question, but six families reported mom and dad go out on a date night on the same night each week. On these nights, the children still typically eat a meal prepared at home, but they eat together with a sitter or grandparent.
The responder with eight children (her oldest is only 12) summed up her mealtime perspective with a nice catch phrase: “Keep the majors major and the minors minor.” For her, the major is sitting down to a meal with her family each night. The minors are missed ingredients and foods that didn’t turn out exactly right. I believe this perspective and the insights listed above can help all of us, regardless of family size, to reduce the stress surrounding mealtime.