How a Therapist Handles Weeknight Dinners
13 tips for reducing evening mealtime stress.
Asking “What’s for dinner?” often comes from a place of happy anticipation; thinking about what you’ll eat, how good it might taste, the excitement of gathering with loved ones. But if you’re the one in charge of weeknight cooking, getting dinner on the table has the potential to become stressful. Beyond the actual cooking, there’s the invisible workload of planning menus, taking inventory, accounting for allergies and aversions, assessing recipes and grocery shopping. Throw in pivoting for last-minute playdates or work commitments and it’s no wonder that answering, “What’s for dinner?” fills some of us with a low-level dread.
The weeknight dinner conundrum is something that Dr. Molly Millwood, a licensed psychologist-doctorate and author of To Have and to Hold: Motherhood, Marriage, and the Modern Dilemma, frequently encounters in her private practice. And it’s something she navigates as a parent, too.
“If you think of the weeknight meal, it is ideally a time to be decompressing at the end of a long workday or taking care of kids” Millwood says. “Most of us would prefer to just have some relaxed connecting, sitting around chatting about our days, rather than jumping into the next obligation, which is getting the meal on the table.”
While Millwood isn’t the head chef in her family (her husband is), she’s acutely aware of how the demands of domestic duties and childcare leave women and mothers depleted. “This was true even before the pandemic, which has illuminated the degree to which women carry more of the childcare and domestic burdens even when both parents are working full time,” she says.
Chronic depletion plagues all parents, but what makes executing weeknight dinner especially taxing for moms, is that it’s also overlaid with shame. Women struggle against the pervasive modern motherhood myth that we should be able to do it all and have it all, including getting a nutritious, delicious dinner on the table. Failing to do so is to fail as a mother. “From the very beginning, how we feed our children has a tremendous impact on how we feel we’re doing as mothers,” Millwood says. “Family weeknight dinner becomes a performative act of motherhood and a concrete representation of our worth and excellence as mothers.” Add to that our society’s messaging around weeknight dinner means sitting down as a family and eating together. No pressure, right?
So, what to do if you’re experiencing mental burn out, if you’re sick of cooking, if meal prep isn’t cutting it or if you’re resigned (and resentful) to the fact that dinner is just another to-do list item? Here, Millwood shares her tips for how parents can alleviate the stress of weeknight dinner.
Embrace Your Kitchen Personality
Millwood advises people to consider their personality and what will bring them the most ease in the kitchen. “I’m not a multi-tasker, I’m easily over-stimulated, so I much prefer being alone in the kitchen,” Millwood says. “I enjoy cooking and have a nice time if everybody else is occupied and ideally somewhere else in house.” On the other hand, her husband welcomes company in the kitchen and can happily make dinner amid the chaotic swirl of family life without getting frazzled. Know your personality and play to your strengths.
Double Down on Your Cooking Style
Your personality also informs your cooking style, and in turn, the recipes you might gravitate toward. If it feels too stressful to have multiple pots on the stovetop and to coordinate different dishes’ cook times, opt for a baked casserole or a set-it-and-forget-it slow cooker or Instant Pot recipe. When Millwood cooks, she likes to choose a recipe, get the ingredients needed and execute it methodically. Her husband is a more spontaneous cook, so he’s adept at grabbing what’s already in the fridge and making something creative from that.
Communicate and Delegate
Your family doesn’t have to have a rigid schedule and set weekly menu, but it can be helpful to talk about the week ahead and delegate cooking days, even loosely. If there isn’t a conversation, the cooking will fall to the default chef; this doesn’t allow for weekly schedule changes or workload fluctuations. Think pragmatically about the demands for the week ahead; there’s a better chance the cooking can be divvied up and that you’ve considered the kinds of recipes you can reasonably make.
Often, a parent’s ability to get dinner on the table is conflated with a sense of self-worth (especially for mothers), so it can be hard to let go of that responsibility if it’s how we define our competency as a parent. If it’s another person’s turn to take care of dinner, resist the urge to lay out ingredients, pick up groceries or suggest a recipe from their repertoire. Let them handle it. And accept that this might mean they’ll be heating up a frozen pizza or picking up takeout.
Social media has greatly exacerbated the pressures of perfectionism that many of us feel in the kitchen. “We see all these curated and airbrushed images of domestic life,” Millwood says. “Food pictures that people post are of only their best meals and look absolutely gorgeous. It gives the impression that people can just pull this off on ordinary weeknights.” Even if we know that an Instagram feed is curated, we often fall into the trap of measuring our own success (or lack thereof) against it. “We’re all existing in this environment where we’re constantly being fooled into thinking that other people are doing everything better,” Millwood says, “And that it’s easy for everyone else and hard for us.” So, remember, Instagram is not real life, nor must the meals you make qualify as Insta-worthy.
Set an Intention
If you suffer from perfectionism, Millwood says it can be helpful to ascribe an intention to your weeknight dinner. “Think about the meaning of the cooking and the meal,” Millwood says. “What is it really about? Is it about nourishing our bodies, is it about connection, is about sensory pleasure? If you can get clear on the purpose, then I think some of the perfectionism can fade away.” So, if your intention is to take delight in eating, it doesn’t matter if the meal doesn’t look pretty, just that it’s delicious. If your goal is connection, then who cares if it’s not the greatest meal? It’s more about gathering and putting something on the table that wasn’t a total drag to make. Sometimes, it’s as simple as just allowing yourself “to be good enough instead of striving to be perfect.”
Millwood advises parents to “Think about what allows you to be at your best as a parent.” This can be especially helpful for single parents, who bear the burden of weeknight dinner. “If that’s a shortcut meal that allows you to be less haggard and more present for your child while they’re eating it, then that’s better than striving for a home cooked meal that leaves a single mom feeling less engaged.”
Let Go of Expectations
“Sometimes the key is to let go of expectations or standards that have either been imposed upon us or we impose upon ourselves,” Millwood says. Often, dinner is imbued with added expectations because it’s part of our identity, our familial heritage or a cultural representation of what it means to be able to provide and prepare certain foods. This ties back to intention setting and identifying what’s most important.
Try Declaring a Foraging Night
Once a week, Millwood’s family has a foraging night, where everybody does their own thing. This might mean eating up leftovers, cobbling together a salad from veggies in the crisper drawer, making an easy pantry meal, or thawing something from the freezer. “Those nights break up the relentlessness of [weeknight dinner],” Millwood says. “There’s a night on where we’re making a lovely meal from scratch, then there’s a night off where people are foraging.”
Don’t Feel Obligated to Cook with Your Kids
“There’s this pressure that exists to include kids in cooking, that that is part of the prescription for doing parenthood well,” Millwood says. “That you’re supposed to bring kids into kitchen, pick kid-friendly recipes and pick tasks they can do. It’s lovely in theory, but often difficult to execute.” It’s fine if you want to have your kids help in the kitchen but think about whether that jives with your individual personality or if it’ll create more stress.
Dinnertime Doesn’t Always Mean Eating Together
Sitting down to eat dinner as a family every night is billed as an ideal, but competing schedules and priorities can make that seem impossible. “If you think about the research on what a difference it makes when families sit down every night to a meal, we can be pretty confident that it isn’t the food, it’s the togetherness,” Millwood says. Instead, create another prescribed time when the family can come together. Carve out 20 minutes to chat about your days over something to drink. Or if your kids are still small, feed them first and have family play time afterwards, put them to bed, then have your dinner.
Try a Weekly Date Night
Millwood and her husband break up the monotony of the weeknight dinner routine with a weekly Friday date night dinner at home. When their kids were younger, the couple made an easy, kid-friendly meal for the children to eat while watching a movie in the basement. Then, they’d have a cocktail and enjoy a simple yet festive meal, such as specialty cheeses, bread and olives. “It’s something that’s been incredibly important for our wellbeing as a couple, that every Friday night we have our separate space and something we’re excited to eat,” Millwood says.
“Give yourself permission to have normal fluctuations in your energy and motivation to do a meal,” Millwood says. “Expect that some days it is going to feel next to impossible; you’re too tired, depleted, [there’s] too much of a sense of dread around even figuring out what to make.” On nights like those, cut yourself some slack and opt for takeout, a frozen meal or a heat-and-eat pantry staple such as canned soup or mac ‘n’ cheese.