The Never-Ending Dinner: Surviving Meal Shifts

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The upcoming sports season has me feeling less like a mom and more like a hobbit: breakfast, second breakfast, elevenses, luncheon, afternoon tea, dinner, supper … I twitch just thinking about the rolling, multi-stage dinner charade our schedule dictates. The after-school dinner, before-practice early dinner, the normal dinnertime dinner, the post-early practice but still late dinner, the late-late night post-late practice dinner… We grab and go in shifts, counting ourselves lucky if we get a hot meal when it is fresh and fearing the rubbery reheats when our luck runs out. Family meals? Ha! They are but a distant memory.

Between the finicky eaters, the intermittent fasters, the health nuts, the carb loaders, and the carb counters, I cannot win. Fixing four separate dinners is expensive and impractical. My crockpot creativity has long been exhausted, and can I stomach buying another bag of dino-shaped processed chicken or pizza rolls? And, as blasphemous as it may be, this chic has actually had her fill of Chick-fil-A, too. What is a mom to do? I don’t have any solutions, but I do have strategies. If you are scrambling to prepare meals in shifts and your sanity is burned to a crisp like me, try serving up a few of these ideas.

Sunday night schedule reviews allow us to identify our absolute busiest night of the week as “on your own.” Everyone fends for themselves; it is a no-holds-barred approach to survival. Resourceful kids scrounge for coupons, gift cards, and change to pull together a meal, while others relish a night of ice cream, cereal, or leftovers. Sometimes, it looks like a drive-thru burger between carpools, but we try not to rely on fast food if we can help it. “On your own night” is a huge weight off my shoulders, and no one suffers from malnutrition from just one night of sketchy eating.

Build-Your-Own Buffets have been a clutch move on many busy nights. I usually make the main dish or entree in the crockpot, and then everyone completes their meal as they are ready. Our go-tos include build-your-own tacos, chef salads, sliders or wraps (Italian beef, sloppy joe, shredded chicken), deluxe lunch meat sandwiches, loaded baked potatoes, and soups. One crowd favorite is homemade pizza. I prepare the crust and toppings ahead of time, and the kids assemble and bake their pizzas when they’re ready.
Pizza Night… duh. No one complains about pizza.

Microwave pasta fills in the cracks for those kids who need to eat during non-traditional meal times. Sometimes, I just cannot manage the chaos of eating in shifts. I prepare a meal when most of us are available and let the others eat a mac-and-cheese cup while they wait. Most of us are good enough, especially if I am mindful of rotating the meal time to accommodate different family members’ schedules. No one wants to be the one who’s always left out.

Big weekend meals (when we don’t have seven soccer games within 36 hours) allow us to get in our favorite meals that don’t reheat or hold over well. I try to plan for those more elaborate or inflexible meals when I usually have more time. I also make turkey, ham, or roasts on the weekends to parcel out in recycled forms throughout the week.
Meal prepping once or twice a week really helps us cater to the needs of our more health-conscious eaters. It is prepared in a large batch and portioned into single-serve containers, so it makes for a healthier grab-and-go. I often bake breakfast goods on the weekends too, which allows for good snacking throughout the week.

The grab-and-go shelf in the pantry (also in the spare fridge) has been one of my crowning achievements as a parent. Through an intensive training process, my family now understands that the grab-and-go shelf is completely off-limits except for meals and snacks on the run. This is where I hoard the expensive protein bars, meal replacement shakes, etc.

Early is usually easier. I have been known to start prepping dinner early in the day and serve it as soon as 4:30. It helps keep the evening chaos at bay when I am not squeezing meals between events. We get a hearty jumpstart on the second half of the day and revisit leftovers later if needed. I like intermittent fasting, and early dinner allows me to stop eating sooner (mom gets priority, too). I try to strategize early dinner nights on days my husband has dinner meetings or is out of town so as not to exclude him intentionally.

Like sports, this meal chaos comes in seasons. You can do it. And remember, when all else fails, ketchup is a vegetable.