Ways to Deal with Dinner Time (When You're Never Home at Dinner Time)

Dinner time - healthy, fast options
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Remember when dinner used to happen at home, at, you know, dinner time? When kids' extracurricular activities used to take place after school? Those days are pretty much over. Now, music classes, sports practices, and swim lessons all happen at the same time: The time when everyone is supposed to be eating. How is a busy family supposed to have an evening meal that's healthy (let alone happening at home, around the table, at the same time)?

Try these strategies. They'll help with the healthy part, at least.

1. Shift dinner time to another time.

Kids are always hungry after school anyway. If you have down time between school and the evening's activity, eat your evening meal early, then give kids a healthy snack after their sports practice or lesson. If that doesn't work with your schedule, fuel them up with their healthy snacks at 4 or 5 p.m., and then sit down to a meal you can all share later in the evening.

2. Pack a dinner-time picnic.

Leftovers, sandwiches, soup or pasta in an insulated container, or something else quick, nutritious, and homemade: Make your dinner early and then pack it to go. Your child can eat in the car and you (plus any other siblings that had to tag along) can eat during his activity. You may even need to pack this meal at the same time as you pack school lunches, or when you put away the previous night's meal.

You'll save time doing that anyway.

3. Take it slow.

When you need a meal fast, the slow cooker is your friend. Set it up first thing in the morning or during your lunch break, and then you can fit dinner into that 20-minute window between one kid's guitar lesson and the other one's basketball game. (Another option: freeze-ahead meals—just don't forget to defrost!) Look for recipes that include vegetables, or add a bagged salad or frozen veggies on the side.

They are just as healthy as other options and take no time to prepare.

Fill Up on Finger food.

If you need a to-go meal (see #2) for several people at once, I have found that it's easier and faster to pack ingredients and components for everyone to share, rather than a full boxed meal for each person. Pack a cooler with salad or sandwich fixings and fruit, and let each person prepare their own dinner. Or toss together an array of easy-to-prep, healthy appetizers such as dried fruit, raw vegetables, hummus, whole-grain crackers, low-fat cheese cubes, hard-boiled eggs, quick breads, or muffins made with vegetables, or nuts.

Find Better Fast Food

Sometimes a drive-through really is just about your only option during an especially busy dinner time. It happens! When you find yourself in that situation, make the best of it by choosing grilled meats (instead of fried), fruit and vegetable sides, and water instead of soda or juice. Check out these suggestions for the most sensible choices at many big restaurant and fast-food chains. The book Eat This, Not That is also a handy resource (you can get it in a kids' or adult version, and my kids really buy into it!).

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