I get asked all the time if it is possible to cook and serve a nice family dinner when you have littles underfoot. And I can tell you, unequivocally, yes. it is possible. It isn’t always easy to know how, though, and often we didn’t learn it in our own families. So here are my lessons in how to have a nice dinner with children, from 18 years and 8 kids’ worth of experience.
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How to Have a Nice Family Dinner
There are a few steps involved in having dinner with your family, especially a nice dinner. You have to know what you are serving, have the right ingredients, prepare the food, keep your little ones out of mischief at the most difficult time of day, set the table, serve the food, and sit down to enjoy the meal. Then afterward, you have to clean up, tidy the kitchen, and prepare anything that you will need for the next day’s dinner.
1. Know What You Are Having
A good family dinner starts with meal planning! This isn’t just having meals planned for a week, though. It’s also having a backup plan for what you will do if there are unexpected guests, if someone gets sick, if you need a quick dinner because you were gone longer than intended, or if plans change.
Vintage cookbooks sometimes came with menus and shopping lists for a whole year. These were really popular in the ’30s and ’40s. Some of the best-known cookbooks are What Will We Have for Dinner, Alice Bradley’s Menu Cook-Book, and The Modern Family Cookbook (only the 1940s editions). By the 1950s, these books were unpopular, and later editions of cookbooks don’t have the full-year-of-menus. If you like the meals offered, then this is, without a doubt, the easiest way to make vintage family dinners a regular thing.
However, I prefer to make my family’s favorite meals fairly frequently. And for this, I use a slightly different method. I use vintage meal formulas and keep lists of vintage main dishes, sides, and extras, which I plug into the vintage meal formulas.
Vintage meal formulas are things like this:
Then you can just plug in the dishes for those particular things.
If you want to read more about the nutrition standards I use for planning, you can read about those in my meal-planning article.
2. Have The Right Ingredients
This starts with keeping the basics on hand at all times. A comprehensive vintage cookbook from the 1930s or the 1940s will always include a list of shelf-stable pantry staples to keep on hand. Then the fresh stuff, the milk, and the meat would be ordered on a weekly or daily basis.
So, to keep the right ingredients on hand, you need to lists. You need a list of staples that you can order in bulk once a month. This will include favorite herbs and spices, salt, sugar, vinegar, oil, flour, baking supplies, favorite condiments and pickles, and canned goods for your emergency shelf.
You also need to make a list every day or week of what perishables you need for your menus. If you live where there is good grocery delivery or pickup, you can order every day, like a vintage housewife. I live in a food desert, so I plan a once-a-week trip to pick up as many perishables as I can, and include substitutes on my emergency shelf (canned milk, canned meat).
3. Prepare the Food
Being able to cook easily is a matter of practice. If you are inexperience, it is a good idea to pick 3-5 meals to practice until you can make them super easily.
In order to cook really easily, you need to know what order to make your meals in. If I am making a meal in the afternoon for dinner, I will start at 3 and make the dessert and the salad, which needs to chill. Then hot-roll dough, unless I am serving bread and butter. Then I start the main dish, then the potatoes.
In the remaining time, I prep the other vegetables, and any extras. For instance, you would whip cream for the dessert and set it to chill. Or shape the rolls to bake in the last 20 minutes. Or dish up pickles.
4. Keep Your Littles Out Of Mischief
This is the hardest part for most people. Up until about the age of 1 year, I usually plan their meals and naps so that I have some time that they are playing while I make dinner. You can see some of my Baby Schedules to get an idea of what I do.
As they get older, I expect them to play, outside or in their rooms/playroom from after snack time until they get called for nursery supper. You can see my preschool schedule here.
However, as with all children, there are going to be days where everything goes sideways and my kids have to be watched all day. Also, the dinner prep hour is what my mother used to –lovingly– term the “arsenic hour.” So how do I handle difficulty?
First, there is playing alone in their rooms. Some of my kids are introverts, and they need time alone to be ready to behave at dinner. Even my little ones have rooms adapted to keep them safe at their ages. If they are too little to be unsupervised, I have a playpen in the kitchen.
Secondly, I will call them to come and sit in the kitchen and draw or read or something similar if they are not behaving with consideration for their siblings or self-control. An example of this is, “Because you pushed your brother just now, and you know better, you must come inside and sit here quietly at the kitchen table while I cook dinner. You will not play outside anymore until I see a change in you and know I can trust you.”
Finally, I can’t tell you enough how helpful nursery meals are! So I will let the Better Homes and Gardens Baby Book speak for me: “To avoid bad eating habits, Baby will be better off during the entire preschool period if he has his principal meals, or at least the main part of them, alone and before the family eats. At least, give him his meals alone during his first two years.” During the family meal, I can then sit him with zwieback or bread and butter, and NOT worry about eating for myself!
5. Set the Table and Serve the food
If you have older children, this is a job to assign as a chore!
Otherwise, I recommend the method from a 1940s quick-dinner article.
6. After-Dinner Chores
First, clear the table and tidy the dining room.
Next, put away the food, then scrape, rinse, and stack the plates.
Finally, make the kitchen sparkling clean. Here’s a quick summary from Young America’s Cook Book. When you finish washing dishes, wash out dish towels unless they are to go into weekly wash. Clean the sink.
Then check work areas, equipment, work surfaces and floor for any last jobs. Clean wooden, linoleum, vinyl, tile and steel counters with hot water combined with a small amount of mild soap or detergent. Use stiff brush on wooden surfaces, cleaning with grain of wood in long, straight strokes. Rinse and dry. Polish metal with clean, dry cloth.
Wipe enameled surfaces with a special commercial product made for this purpose, or use home-made soap jelly. To make jelly, save soap ends until you have one-fourth cup. Combine with one cup boiling water. Stir, and let cool. To use, dip a lightly dampened cloth or sponge into jelly and rub over soiled area-beginning at the bottom and working in long, slightly overlapping strokes. (Never work from top down, or round and round, if you want to avoid streaking.) Use a second cloth or sponge and clear water to rinse; dry. An application of light waxing is optional, but will help to preserve surface and to keep off soil.
Dry mop kitchen floor (unless spotted and not previously cleaned, in which case, use warm water combined with mild soap powder or detergent, rinse, and dry; wax).
Before you leave the kitchen, make a final check. Are the burners and oven turned off? Drawers and cupboard doors closed? Refrigerator door closed? Now clean-up is behind you. If you need to thaw meat or prepare bread dough or start the oatmeal, now is the time for that. You can also prep your morning coffee.
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Better Homes and Gardens Baby Book
Young America’s Cook Book, New York Herald Tribune Home Institute
Betty Crocker’s Picture Cookbook
2 thoughts on “How to Have a Nice Family Dinner (When You Have Little Ones Underfoot)”
It really is possible but you do need to be willing to fence up those kids a little bit, a high chair or playpen is not a bad thing.
Such beautiful and thorough detail, as always ❣️ Thank you for sharing and inspiring Emily!