Is family mealtime possible when both parents work out of the house?

August 22, 2012

chalkadoodle placemat

If you’ve been reading for a while, you know that I started writing about food after developing a frozen organic baby food company, ChowBaby Foods. ChowBaby was on the verge of launch when the economy crashed. Everything was put on hold and then everything changed. For one, I rediscovered my passion for creating content and focused all of my research, skills, and energy into building a writing career instead of a running a packaged food company.

Heather Stouffer, the founder and CEO of Mom Made Foods, took a different path. A contemporary of mine in the ChowBaby days, she rode out the initial financial crisis and, over the last 5 years, has impressively built a company that offers three organic food lines in stores like Whole Foods and Target nationwide. She’s a powerhouse.

Though I was terribly disappointed when it became clear that ChowBaby wouldn’t launch, I now know that everything worked out for the best. I didn’t want to run a food company (phew!)—I wanted to be part of a movement to feed our children and ourselves better. Now, I’m doing that my way and Heather is doing it hers. Funny that our paths should cross 5 years later.

I feel like Heather has played out one of my alternate realities. Intrigued, I asked Heather to guest post today and she graciously agreed. (Thank you, Heather!) I wanted to hear about mealtime from a mom who I know thinks and feeds like me, but runs a really different household. She and her husband both work demanding jobs out of the house. Can a commitment to healthy, adventurous, family eating be maintained? See what she has to say.


Before I had kids, my husband and I lived and worked in London. We enjoyed cooking at home most weekdays and eating out on weekends. We’d roll in from work around 7:30 or 8 p.m. and sit down to dinner around 9 p.m. Name the ethnic food, and we made it. Going out to eat was also relaxing and fun; we had our favorite places and got to know the wait staff and bartenders in those restaurants. But making dinner at home was my favorite, cherished time together, even though it required our “cooking dance”: avoiding bumping into each other in the tiny hallway that served as the kitchen in our London flat. We promised each other when we had kids, we wouldn’t change a thing.

Well, that’s not quite what happened…After having two kids and launching a nation-wide, organic food company of frozen meals, munchies and bites, Mom Made Foods, mealtimes have shifted things slightly. Here are my top 5 secrets to upholding your adventures with food, even after having kids …

1) Meal O’Clock. Mealtimes at our house are 5:30/6:00pm. Yes, early. The second that the first parent arrives home, the kids are clamoring for our love and hungry for dinner. Pushing dinner time later (which we’ve tried from time to time) means cranky kids who are too tired to eat. So we work on their clock in order to have a happy dinner time together—it’s still our favorite time of day.

2) Planning Meals. The dinner menu is still diverse but recipes have become much simpler. Prep time is minimal as we rush in the door after busy work days. We also have become much more organized about planning meals, especially dinners. We subscribe to a weekly meal plan company, The Six O’Clock Scramble, and one of us shops on Sundays for the week of planned dinners. Our workdays are packed and there’s hardly ever a minute to spare to pick up an extra ingredient on the way home.

3) Eating out. We’ve never stopped going to the restaurants we liked before having kids. We’ve kept a few special ones for date nights, but we’re not afraid to take the family to a restaurant without a kids menu AND white table cloths. Yes, you might have to walk out of one or two to teach a lesson to an misbehaved child, but that’s how they learn! Kids need to be taught manners. They’re not born with table manners.

4) Kids Palates. Research says it takes a child 10-20 times to be exposed to a food before they decide whether they like it. An exposure can mean the food is on the table and not on their plate, then they might put it in their mouth the next time then take it out of their mouth. After a few more exposures, they will be eating it with you. These things take time and a lot of patience! We high-fived recently when our son requested Pakistani food for his 7th birthday dinner. And it’s music to my ears when he asks for salad with dinner. He proudly told his 1st grade class about how and why his favorite vegetable is red peppers.

5) Running a Diner. If you’re not careful as a parent, you can find yourself running a diner, making food to order for each child for every meal. The rule in our house is that the kids can make requests at breakfast and lunch. But when it comes to dinner, their choice is whatever we’re making that night. We eat family-style, so they can help themselves to the foods as they wish, but we’re not hopping up from the table to make a p-b-j the night we make Thai Green Curry. Rather, they can choose to eat the curry or one of the sides as they’d like. We typically have some familiar food in each meal that they’ll turn to if they’re not in the mood to be adventurous. Our daughter is picky and right now if it were up to her, we’d have mac ’n’ cheese for dinner every night. But she’s two years old, and we’re not running a diner.

We have to remind ourselves of these rules regularly, and it takes constant work to hold the boundaries, especially on that really busy week when a parent is traveling for work or life just gets crazy. But those are the times when it’s most important to stick to it. The hard work does pay off.

– Heather

Working moms—I especially want to hear from you? How do you work it out?

Picture: Chalk-a-Doodle Placemat

8 Responses

  1. Heather, I love this post. Such fabulous solutions and suggestions, and thank you for suggesting The Six O’Clock Scramble as a family dinner resource.

  2. Erin says:

    I’ve read several families having success with breakfast as their family meal, the bonus is that everyone loves breakfast food!

  3. Rosie says:

    My husband and I both were outside the home at demanding jobs so I love posts like these. What Heather employs in her home is no different than what we do in ours with meal planning probably being the most important. Whoever is the first one home (usually me given that I work East Coast hours) is the one responsible for getting the meal started. The days of late mealtimes are over with the exception of Friday and Saturday nights. On those nights, a snack of cheese, bread/crackers, olives, crudites and/or hummus is enough to keep our wee one from becoming grouchy from a hungry tummy while at the same time slowly making the transition into weekend/relaxation time. With the rare exception of a special work or social event that keeps one of us out of the house, we eat dinner as a family every single night with the TV off, music on and candle lit (our daughter LOVES using a candle). The meals aren’t elaborate but they are homemade and simple. Pastas, frittatas, lots of salads, grilled chicken, fish, tacos, roasted veggies-they are all game. We are all served the same thing but with minor modifications for my daughter (I’ll pick out the red onions from her food, eliminate overly spicy ingredients, etc.).

  4. One Hungry Mama says:

    Thanks for sharing, Rosie. It so clearly takes dedication—whether both parents work out of the house or not. The truth is, it’s just all hard at the end of the day. It seems like, regardless of the work situation, the only way to make it happen is to make it a joyful part of the evening that everyone in the family looks forward to. If there’s arguing, complicated recipes, distractions, of course it’s not enjoyable… which then, of course, it feels like a big ol chore.

    I love the candle idea. It’s amazing how just little things make a big difference!

  5. One Hungry Mama says:

    Erin: that’s such a good point. If both parents can’t make dinner, then make “family mealtime” another time. Snack time, breakfast, whatever!

  6. Tiffany says:

    I am in complete agreement with this post. It does take a lot of patience. If my mom knew what we know today about re-introducing food many times when I was a kid I would have been a much healthier kid. I hated most vegetables! My daughter was as fussy as I was as a child, but we stuck it out and now she eats happily eats so many foods I refused to eat as a kid. She asks for vegetables and fruit and is becoming an adventurous eater.

  7. One Hungry Mama says:

    I love your story Tiffany. One of my favorite analogies when speaking to parents is that we stick with car seats no matter what, even when our kids freak out, cry, resist. When this happens, it’s frustrating and takes patience, but we don’t leave in a car until they are strapped in. Period. That’s because we know it just has to be that way. And, eventually, it works out. Because our kids accept that it’s just the way it is. Sometimes, with picky eaters, we have to apply the same mentality to feeding healthy foods. It sounds extreme, but actually makes our job easier. When kids freak out, it’s annoying… always. But when we know what needs to be done, have a clear plan and are confident, there’s no anxiety about what needs to be done. We just get through it and, again, *eventually*, things get better. Kind of like what you’re saying with your daughter.

    Thanks for sharing!

  8. Cari says:

    My husband and i both work outside the home. I don’t get home with my kids (after picking them up at either the after-school program or a grandparents house) until 5:45pm. My husband is home by 6:30pm. While i am washing all the tupperware from all our lunches, i am also preparing dinner. I do try and plan ahead and have something marinating from the night before, or take suggestions from my kids as to what they are in the mood for. Thankfully, they eat vegetables either raw or lightly steamed and for the most part will eat what i make. If they are having a “picky” night, they have the choice of eating what’s there on the table or waiting for breakfast the next morning. They usually chose to eat a little something. Like you said, we don’t live in a diner. Planning ahead is key but thankfully i love to cook and can usually come up with a well balanced meal of pasta or rice and a veg or a meat dish and veg. Both kids like to try new things and recently took a liking to curries and sushi. Thank goodness because my husband and i both love all types of Asian dishes. It’s definitely a work in progress.

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