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Sunday, April 6, 2014

my evenings are not for cooking

A few weeks ago I tried making home-cooked meal.
It was a disaster, to say the least.

Stuff was everywhere.
I yelled, was impatient, distracted and not that awesomely fun and loving mom I want to be in the barely two hours I get every afternoon at home with my kids after working.

The kids ran wild while I was cooking... they were in this room, then that room, then upstairs, then in the bathroom. I tried keeping up with it, but couldn't get away from the stove long enough to keep up with it.

I don't believe in TV as a babysitter, so instead, my kids ran around creating adorable (albeit MESSY) games while I cooked.

This is the price I paid for wanting a healthy homecooked meal AND no TV on:

My husband was mortified, stressed and full of questions when he arrived home after working all day. He was shocked. I rarely allowed the house to get this chaotic. I am always playing with my kids or at least overseeing their play so we don't break toys or have some toys on the couch that shouldn't be there!

This was utter chaos.

Here's the thing... the kids had a blast! They were laughing most of the time, in between arguing and saying, "Go away!" They made forts and repaired tractors at the workshop. They played with babies, fixed them up like doctors.

All of that is great. I don't wish I'd just put TV on for them so I could have a clean house and make dinner. I am happy that they were creative and self-sufficient, independent and working together. I just wish I'd been able to manage it better, so we didn't break toys (which yes, that happened on this evening) and so people weren't stepping on things and crying over hurt toes (yup, happened).

I wish I hadn't had to yell, "Do not put that truck on the top of the couch, you'll fall!" or "No throwing those toys you aren't using anymore?" or even "Where are you guys?!" 

Coming home after a long workday, there are already things that need to be done... putting away jackets, shoes, bags from the day. Emptying out the lunch bags and coolers. Writing things on the calendar that were sent home from preschool. It's already busy coming home.

Making a great meal is one more thing on the list that I'm finding I can't handle well!

Since January at least I've been trying to make more homecooked meals. I love cooking, I really do! I enjoy being in the kitchen, trying new recipes. I've made it my mission since January to make my way through my many cookbooks and recipes that we received 5 years ago at our bridal shower. I'm trying new things all the time. It's usually fun.

Except when it's not fun, when it's chaos. Cooking and kids don't mix. I'm sorry, they just don't. Not yet anyway. Of course Saturday morning when making pancakes and we have no where to be, sure, my son is totally into cooking and I have all the patience I need! But at night, after we're all exhausted and they're starving and fighting because they are starving... it's not a fun time to teach my children to be chefs.

My meal? It came out great! 
And yet after the chaos it ensued, I was thinking, "It's not THAT great" and "Was it really worth it? I could have just made Annie's Mac and Cheese!"

Rachael Ray's apple cider gravy chicken with homemade rice pilaf with peas and sweet potatoes! Yum!

So I realize now that I need to change up how I do meals.
I still want to make homemade meals. I don't want us eating out or pizza all the time.
I want to make sure we have the time on busy nights to eat something healthy for us.

But I've realized that working full time means I have to have priorities, I have to make choices. I have to decide what's MOST important during my short few hours between picking up the kids from school / daycare and getting home and them heading to bed. 

Because I commute, the kids are up at 5/5:30, when we get home at 3:30/4/4:30 every day, they're exhausted and hungry. We all are starving. So we eat at 5, bed by 6:30. It's a short few hours together. I want to make the most of those hours together... and being stressed and yelling over making a meal isn't in my priority book.

I need time with my kids versus snapping at them to stay out of the kitchen while I'm cooking.

I love that many other moms find the time and ability to manage all of this. I was trying to be that mom the last few months. I'm just realizing now I can't be.

Or, well, perhaps it's not that I CAN'T be, but rather I'm CHOOSING not to be. Because for us, in this situation, my personal experience I want to zap something in the microwave that I made last night instead of slave over the stove while they destroy the house and raise my blood pressure!

Here's what working around here, after that epic fail of a homecooked meal!
  • Crockpot weekends - I try to make at least one meal on the weekend in the Crockpot. Usually it's something we'll eat later in the week or for lunch. Barbecue chicken, pulled chicken with pineapples, salsa chicken, etc. This is a lifesaver. Throw it in the pot and voila, a few hours later, it's done. LOVE this. I need more recipes to get creative, but it's working well. 
  • Simple staples - We are a simple, strict budget family. So I'm not going to be able to make a new super awesome meal ever night. Just can't afford that. So we have breakfast for dinner and pasta once a week. Those are 2 of the 7 nights covered for me, and we love it. We never get bored with it. We also do a leftovers night once a week (typically the night that my husband has a meeting every Tuesday so it's easier for me to get things done alone). That's 3 of 7... so I really only need to come up with 4 meals. This works for us. I don't have to be Martha Stewart. I can come up with just a few great ideas and make that work. That's freeing, honestly, less pressure I was putting on myself. 
  • Mindful of schedules - Like I mentioned above, my husband has at least one night a week where he's working so not home during dinner. I used to try cooking something on those nights... disaster! It was exhausting doing the dinner, clean up and bath and bed time routine alone. So, I cut out the dinner part. We do leftovers that night. It's so much easier, fewer dishes needing to be cleaned, and more time with me with the kids. 
  • Meal planning - Writing out the meals on the whiteboard each week is REALLY a timesaver. It is also less frustrating than opening the fridge wondering out loud, "What on earth are we having for dinner tonight?!" I write everything in, being mindful of what we have going on certain nights for events. I do this on Saturday or Sunday, takes me about 5 minutes. I then immediately write out a grocery list of what we'll need for the recipes. I stick the list in my purse for whenever I'm able to get to the grocery store. It's all a good routine that works easily without fail. I go through my recipe books once a week, too, typically on weekends when meal planning, to find new things to try. I'm constantly writing "yes, yummy!" on the top if we like the recipe, and if we don't like it I throw it out (many of my recipes I cut out of magazines or from online so I have them in a binder and just toss if we don't like it). With meal planning, I also try to plan what will be something we can take to work for lunches. Sometimes we take leftovers, but it's nice to do something like in the Crockpot for lunches during the week, too. 
  • Cook the night before. Sometimes I'm able to do this... after kids go to bed, cook tomorrow night's meal, if it's more elaborate or time consuming.  Then it's ready for the next day. Sometimes, honestly, I'm way too tired after working all day to cook at night... but it's a good idea in theory that I'm trying to do more often. If I plan to cook at night, I literally schedule it on the whiteboard so I know that's not a night I'll be running or doing laundry, I reserve it for cooking and then the next night I'll do another chore or work out.
  • Choose simple recipes. Don't make the elaborate stuff all that often! I love Rachael Ray because I feel like she makes most of her recipes for mothers to cook - either SAHMs who are busy all day or working out of the home moms who don't have time at night (or energy!) to cook. So I stick to simpler recipes that I know I could make in less than an hour. 
  • Have healthy snacks available. For the nights that I am interested in or have time to make a meal that takes more than a half hour, I have healthy snacks ready and cut up for myself and the kids to eat so nobody is screaming of starvation. I have green pepper slices, tomatoes, carrots, grapes, etc. in a drawer in the fridge. If someone is hungry before dinner they can snack on those. This keeps them happy while I whip up dinner, it goes quicker this way. 
  • Have go-to easy activities ready for the kids to do in the kitchen. I use Play-doh, coloring, painting, and magnet games at the table as my go-to activities to get them seated and in eyesight, not tearing up the house! These work well. 
  • Have a healthy yet fast backup option. For us, this is Subway or the local pizza place. There are just some nights where we had a doctor appointment or some event to attend, and now we're rushing home to make dinner yet kids are screaming and exhausted and it's just not working. There are nights when I just don't have it in me... rough day at work, tired or sick kids, etc. On those nights we have to have a backup option that works for us. We've found two restaurant / fast food options that we are OK with. We can get apple slices and milk at Subway to add to a healthy sandwich. We also go to Hannaford grocery store and get a chicken already cooked, mashed potatoes, and we have frozen veggies at home, meal done, takes 10 minutes of grabbing it at the store! I know Martha wouldn't favor these ideas... but sorry, I'm a realistic busy mother who needs options that work for me and my family. These work for us. Just having these as options and thinking and planning out what's easiest for our family and yet not totally unhealthy, that is freeing. Less pressure. Do what works for you. Allow yourself to make a different choice some nights.

Overall, I'm trying to not stress about meals. 

Yes, of course, it's important to me to make healthy things for my kids. Less Hamburger Helper and macaroni and cheese, more recipes from cookbooks. I am all in favor of this.

I have found more balance lately though. I'm realizing I cannot do it all. I can't possibly work all day, attend a birthday party or doctor's appointment, prepare show n' tell item for preschool the next day, pack more diapers for daycare after reading the note that they need more, get my lunch ready for work the next day, do work emails and respond to birthday party RSVPs, etc. etc. etc. AND cook every single night and have happy kids... it just doesn't work for me. Again, for those it does work for, I'm in total awe of them, in a very positive, good for you, that's awesome and I will continue striving to be like that way.

I'm just at a place of accepting my limitations and challenges, and being OK with doing what works for us around here. 

Isn't that what parenting is all about anyway? Figuring out a way around the challenges to have more FUN in your family? 

So, enjoy your meals, mamas. 
Do whatever works for you.

The biggest thing that worked for me was letting go of expectations I was putting on myself, and making a plan that worked for us. A thoughtful, written plan that we all could follow.

Good luck! Happy eating!

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