Five-Minute dinner solutions can be great for busy nights.

Family dinner is HARD.

This piece of wisdom is something I’ve learned, and continue to learn, as my kids grow older and I spend more time navigating ever-changing schedules — not just theirs, but mine and J.’s as well. Job changes, life changes, after-school activities and necessary travel all throw constant monkey wrenches into the smooth, tightly organized schedule I like to imagine is our home life (but rarely completely achieve). I’ve also learned quite a bit about others’ family dinner habits and attitudes through my work with The Family Dinner Project, and one consistent key takeaway is that when it comes to dinnertime, things are ROUGH out there.

Recently I learned that the five-minute meal is a thing — that people, strapped for time and ideas but desperate to do what they know is the right thing by pulling together a home-cooked meal, are searching for five-minute dinner recipes. I get that. Boy, do I. Who among us wouldn’t love to look up from our computers, our laundry, our homework helping, our vacuuming, our conference calling, or any number of other pressing tasks that we have to get checked off the to-do list, and say “Hey! 10 minutes until dinnertime — guess it’s time to take a leisurely stroll into the kitchen and pull together dinner, with time to spare?”

I get that an arsenal of five-minute meals would be a gift to the family that is constantly rushing between school and soccer, ballet and band. I get that on the nights when everything goes wrong and you walk in the door after dinnertime with exhausted, cranky kids and a mountain of take-home work that you didn’t expect to, um, take home, the five-minute meal could very well be the one thing saving your sanity and making the difference between holding your *ish* together and collapsing behind the bathroom door in tears while everything and everyone melts down on the other side. So for those nights, for those families, I offer these five-minute meal ideas.

Six Ways to Make Dinner in Five Minutes or Less:

  • Wraps: Smear a tortilla with hummus, add veggies and/or cheese, throw a handful of berries or a clementine on the side
  • Quesadillas: Pop some deli turkey or leftover chicken, shredded cheese and a handful of baby spinach between two tortillas and griddle until the cheese melts. Serve with salsa and apple slices
  • Waffles: Toast up some waffles from your freezer stash, top with yogurt and berries, and if you’ve got it, add a slice or two of deli-sliced ham on the side
  • Pizza bagels: Smear cut bagels with marinara sauce, top with shredded cheese and toast. While they’re toasting, cut up some carrots, bell peppers and grape tomatoes and serve with your favorite dressing or dip
  • The Big Salad: Some handfuls of greens, grape tomatoes, a few slices of cucumber or whatever else you’ve got on hand, plus cubed cheese and whatever cooked proteins or nuts or seeds are available. Throw it all in a bowl, add some dressing and serve with crackers or a slice of bread
  • Egg on toast: Fried eggs take about 3 minutes to make, so throw some in a skillet while you toast some whole wheat bread. Pop the eggs onto the toast, add some sliced avocado and fruit on the side, and that’s dinner

It’s smart homemaking, in my opinion, to keep the ingredients for at least one of these five-minute dinners on hand at all times, JUST IN CASE. But here’s why I don’t recommend making a habit of five-minute meals.

Three Reasons Why Five-Minute Dinners Aren’t the Best for Families:

  1. People learn by what they see prioritized. Whether it’s you, your spouse/partner or your kids, there’s a certain message that will be communicated and internalized by a constant stream of five-minute throw-together dinners. That message is: Yes, we have to eat, but taking the time to plan and cook a meal isn’t important enough to earn more than a few minutes of my time.
  2. Nutritional value and variety come second in a five-minute menu. There’s nothing nutritionally wrong with what I’ve laid out above; in fact, each of these ideas purposely includes fresh produce and a reasonable balance of healthy ingredients. But day upon day and week after week of pizza bagels, waffles and eggs for dinner doesn’t leave much room to introduce new foods, or to prepare and serve longer-cooking powerhouses like sweet potatoes. Part of the magic of frequent family meals is the opportunity to regularly offer new foods and model enjoying them, rather than just falling back on something that’s quick, easy and accepted every night.
  3. It’s hard to stop rushing once you’ve started. Anyone who’s ever started the day feeling like they’re already behind schedule knows this: When you rush to get dressed, rush to get shoes on little feet, rush to pack bags, rush to drive to work or school or day care, rush to make it to that appointment, rush (but get nowhere, and feel all the more hurried for it) through end-of-day traffic, rush in the door, rush back out to the next activity….well, you get the picture. The more rushing you do, the more it accumulates, and it’s hard to pull back out of that mindset, calm the adrenaline that’s pumping, and focus on what you’re doing. So every time you cram making dinner into a five-minute window, you’re starting your dinnertime in hurry-up mode. Even if you intend to then sit down and relax with the family while eating (and let’s face it — if you’re constantly turning to five-minute fixes, this isn’t likely), you’ll be sitting down with that jittery, do-it-faster feeling — making it harder to focus on the conversation, eating at a reasonable pace, and really being in the moment.

The occasional five-minute dinner can be a lifesaver when things go wrong. But if things are so jam-packed in your family life that you find yourself needing to turn to these solutions more than once every week or two, something else has already gone wrong. Nobody deserves to feel so harried and hurried all the time that the basic act of feeding yourself and your kids is too much to handle. Instead of making these dinners a habit, look for solutions to the hurry-up culture — pare down activities if you can, ask for carpool help from friends, plan and cook ahead on the weekends, divide up other responsibilities so you’ve got more time to at least boil some pasta and saute some chicken more nights than not. And keep the five-minute dinner ingredients handy for emergencies only. There’s no medal for being the busiest parent on the block, but there are plenty of rewards to be had if you can slow down long enough to make dinner a priority.