Oh, time…that precious commodity that so few parents actually recognize anymore as a part of daily life.  For the past two days, I’ve been involved in a relatively lengthy comment thread on Facebook, wherein my best friend, C., kicked things off by asking the question: “What is the timing like in your house, between getting home with the kids and getting dinner on the table?”

Such a seemingly innocent question, but predictably, all of our answers indicated some serious floundering.  Nobody’s got a “magic bullet” for this tricky time of day, when the little ones are tired and hungry, clingy from a day spent away from Mom and Dad, and the only thing anybody can think about with any clarity is the deep desire for food and a second to take a deep breath.  I don’t know that we’ve got it down any more than anybody else, but C. asked if I’d talk about it, so I will.

While I’m at it, another comment on that thread — along with a second conversation on a different site, again about food and kids — opened up a slightly different, but related discussion about time management and feeding families that I think I’ll address, since the two go hand-in-hand in some ways.  Cooking dinner, feeding everybody, cleaning up, packing lunches, and doing all the other things that are demanded by normal life (as well as, oh, yeah, PARENTING, which I consider a consistently hands-on activity) can be sort of like being a member of a three-ring circus with a staff shortage.  On any given evening, the average parent may be called upon to ride a unicycle, feed the elephants, spin plates on sticks, and fill in on the high wire…all at once.

Like I said, I’m not sure I’ve got a good answer.  But here are my thoughts.

In our house, the evening comes with a pre-set list of Stuff That Has To Get Done and Stuff I Think Should Get Done.  The first list usually gets accomplished one way or another; the second list rarely gets a whole lot of attention, which is why there are still piles of outgrown baby clothes strewn randomly around various rooms of the house.  On the Stuff That Has To Get Done list are the following items: pick up kids from school; get everyone inside the house with all their various gear and paraphernalia and macaroni art projects (a job in and of itself, let me assure you); get kids divested of said paraphernalia and winter outer layers; get kids settled enough with something, even if it’s just 10 minutes of TV, for Mommy and Daddy to take off their coats and shoes and pick up the backpacks from where they were dropped — usually in front of the refrigerator.

After that, we’ve got about 30 minutes — 45 at the very most — to get dinner on the table before it’ll be too late for the kids to eat without a meltdown (P. in particular).  This is the part where the plate-spinning and tightrope walking begins; I suspect that’s true for pretty much everyone else, as well.  I tend to entrench myself in the kitchen during this time, while J. does the major tasks of caring for and occupying the boys, but invariably they also want Mommy time and want to be near me, so it’s a pretty loose arrangement.  Tips and tricks that tend to get things working pretty smoothly include:

1) If you have 5-10 minutes to take before making dinner, take them.  Spend that time with the kids.  Ask about their day, kiss and cuddle, proclaim amazement over any and all art projects, smooch boo-boos, and make a big fuss.
2) Occupy them, then walk away.  After said big fuss is made, choose a diversion tactic.  This is not a bad time to allow Yo Gabba Gabba, Kai-Lan, or some other TV friend do the work for you; even the “experts” will tell you that 15 minutes or so of TV, used strategically to allow you to get something done, is just fine.  (And I’ll say it now: we sometimes allow far more than 15 minutes of TV time after a long day at school.  Just turn it off before everyone comes to the table.  Their SAT scores won’t suffer, I promise.)
3) Invite them in.  Of course they want time with us.  They haven’t seen us all day.  We pull chairs up to the counter and let the boys clamber up and “supervise” or “help” with simple meal prep jobs (even fabricated ones, like counting out the apple slices…a little creativity is very helpful here).  Ask them to put spoons or napkins on the table.  Involve them.  Stop what you’re doing periodically to give many hugs and kisses and bits of praise.  Even P. is capable of running back and forth with napkins and unbreakables, and he gets excited when he feels included.
4) Refreshments.  And herein lies my segue to the OTHER important time-management thing that I wanted to talk about: the post-dinner lunch-packing thing.

Kids come home from a long day at school or day care about as ravenous as a bear coming out of hibernation, by my primitive calculations.  And technically, for many young children, they are probably getting home at what should be their ideal dinner time — if we all had the luxury of staying home and scheduling a family dinner at an hour that was optimal for our toddlers and preschoolers.  We don’t.  Most people we know don’t.  So we end up having to stave off their hunger and crankiness as best we can, without ruining their dinners or compromising the whole effort for everybody.

C. wrote, “I try to distract them (her twins) with milk, but that doesn’t always work.”  Been there, done that.  Here’s what I’ve got to offer on the subject of refreshments.

HELP YOURSELVES OUT, PARENTS.  I’m just figuring this out and trying to make it work, but when it does work, it’s brilliant.  Before dinner, you’re going to be stressed about the snack issue; after dinner, you’re going to be stressed about packing tomorrow’s lunches.  We all know it.  And filling the kids up with milk, which is what I always figured would work best with the little guys, generally either doesn’t fill them enough, or sabotages their ability and desire to eat real food entirely, so dinner goes down the tubes.  It’s not ideal.  What does work is having a list of “go to” foods that are always in the house, always available, and can do triple duty: as pre-dinner snacks, as with-dinner add-ons, and as in-lunch items.  For example:

Sliced fruit
Applesauce cups
Dried or freeze-dried fruits
Frozen fruit
Cut-up vegetables (raw, lightly steamed, or roasted ahead of time)
Baked vegetable chips or dehydrated vegetable snacks (like the Veggie Beans from Whole Foods)
Cheese sticks or chunks
Hummus, nut butters, sunbutter, or other protein-packed spreads/dips
Whole grain chips, pita chips, or popcorn

I know what you’re thinking.  Before dinner?  It’ll ruin their meal.
In addition to what I’m trying to cook already?  It’s too much work.
Aren’t I supposed to be sending the message that you eat what you’re served for dinner, and nothing else?

All true.  My responses:
SMALL AMOUNTS.  Some of the above are better choices than others anyway, but that doesn’t mean you can’t give a little dish of freeze-dried fruit or veggie beans as a reasonably nutritious snack item; a small amount will keep them occupied, help curb the hunger, and distract them without filling them up entirely.  (And if they DO refuse dinner after these items, you won’t be in a huge nutritional hole.)
KEEP IT READY.  Not all these items, not all the time.  But if you have one or two of these things on hand at all times, you can just grab what you’ve got and hand it out as needed.  (By the way, L. almost never needs a snack anymore — he understands that dinner is forthcoming, and he can usually wait.  And even P., if properly occupied, can usually wait until just before dinner hits the table; generally, we get him into his chair about 5 minutes beforehand and give him a small serving of something that’s ready to eat, on his dinner plate, while he waits for the rest.)
MAKE IT PART OF DINNER.  If it can be something that you’re planning to serve anyway, great.  We’ve moved to a habit of putting a fruit plate on the table about 3-4 nights out of 7, so that’s usually the first thing I take care of, and then it’s ready for them to snack on as needed.  Or if you know that you’ll be serving whole-grain bread with their meal, give them half their planned serving to munch while they help you set the table.  And if all else fails, and you’re worried about the message you’re sending, you can always pretend that the popcorn or veggie chips were part of the intended menu for that night; casually slip just a tiny portion of that item onto everybody’s plates and set it on the table, if you must.

When dinner’s over, and lunch-packing time comes, I usually realize that the boys didn’t finish up that fruit plate, or didn’t really need to eat the veggie chips once I got them busy “helping.”  Those items then get slipped into containers and packed in the lunchboxes, making yet another time-sucking job just that much easier.  This is an imperfect system, and Lord knows evenings in any house with small children can be a crazy ride under the best of circumstances.  But I firmly believe that cooking and eating are about family time, and we can help ourselves make that time of the day more enjoyable for everyone by having a plan for the whole family’s needs.