On Thanksgiving, serving family dinner on a Thursday is a given. Everyone has the weekday off to make it happen. But what about the rest of the year?
With two working parents and multiple kids in extracurricular activities, weeknight family dinner sometimes "gets pushed to the back burner,” says Lisa Rothhaupt of Lindenhurst, no pun intended.
Rothhaupt works an overnight shift as a pharmacy technician and her husband, Jeffrey, works days in a hospital engineering department. She tries to make dinner for him and their sons, Richard, 9, and Lance, 5, on her days off, but she and other Long Islanders are interested in learning ways other families on Long Island make weeknight dinners work.
Here are a dozen tips:
1. Choose one sacred weeknight. “There needs to be a realistic expectation,” says Sharon Somekh, a Roslyn Heights pediatrician who left her practice in February to focus on her Raiseology parenting website and podcast. “Five nights a week might not be realistic.” She suggests that, when putting together children’s schedules, the family try to keep one weeknight evening free for a family dinner. Somekh’s family includes her husband, Joel Portnoy, an ear, nose and throat doctor, and four children, Lital, 12, Gefen, 9, Romie, 6, and Idan, 3. “I know Tuesday nights are the easiest for my husband to get home for dinner,” she says. “It needs to be scheduled in such a way that barring something that really can’t be changed, nothing should trump family dinner.”
2. One word: Crock-Pot. “We utilize the Crock-Pot a lot because we are so busy,” says Christine Brown, a business owner from Huntington whose family includes husband Brandon, a machinist, and son Dante, 10. “I’m able to throw a meal in there and still get other things done. I don’t have to stand over it and watch it,” Christine says. She’ll place ingredients for a stew in the Crock-Pot in the morning, for instance, and cook it on low for six to eight hours. That way, family dinner isn't a heavy lift and is more likely to happen.
3. Have "digital" dinner. This is one time when having the smartphone at the dinner table can be a plus. When Charles LoGiudice III, an electrician from Bay Shore, can’t make it home in time for supper with his 2-year-old son, Charles IV, and his wife, Elaina, a stay-at-home mother, they FaceTime with him from the dinner table. “He’s in his booster seat at the table,” Elaina says of the toddler. “I prop up the phone where the centerpiece is. Then he can see the phone from there and Daddy can talk to him.”
4. Involve the kids. Mark Esken, an IT specialist from Great Neck, manages most of the cooking for his family, which includes his wife, Susan, an accountant, and daughters Elena, 12, and Hannah, 10. He has the girls help with the food prep, such as chopping the garlic, he says, which makes family dinnertime go more quickly and efficiently and be less of a burden. “Each kid will take a job,” Mark says.
5. Don’t surrender. If one child has an activity and can’t make the dinner, don’t give up on gathering the others, suggests Tiffany Ziegler, a high school English teacher from Seaford. Maintain the pattern. She and her husband, Brett, a contractor, have three sons, Gavin, 7, Aidan, 3, and Liam, 1. “It’s already hard now with work and the sports schedule,” she says. Gavin plays travel baseball and lacrosse, and also plays football and hockey. But if Gavin has a practice, Brett might take him while Tiffany sits down to dinner with Aidan and Liam. “It shouldn’t be just eating on the couch watching TV,” she says. And when Gavin and Brett get home, they’ll eat together, Tiffany says.
6. Have “dinner” without the food. Maura Charles of Huntington works in Manhattan and doesn’t get home in time on weeknights to eat with her husband, Peter, and their daughter, Ella, 3. So instead, the three of them share “Wind-down Time” starting at 6:30 or 7 p.m. “We read a book and ask about each other’s days,” Maura says. Adds Peter, “We watch 'Jeopardy!' together.” In some ways, that’s better than eating together, they say. “She's ready for focused 'spending time together,' ” Maura says of Ella.
7. Eschew nighttime extracurriculars. “I don’t register them for any activity after 6 p.m. That’s important to me,” says Liat Ginsberg, a stay-at-home mother from Great Neck. For now, at least, that strategy works, leaving evenings open for dinner with 9-year-old twins Ben and Ella and husband Gary, a financial adviser.
8. Plan for the week. “I plan my meals ahead on Sundays,” says Beth Henkel, a part-time dog groomer from Melville. Having a game plan makes it more likely that she and her husband, David, a retired Verizon employee, and their three children, Jordan, 14, Syndney, 9, and Peyton, 6, will be able to focus on quality time together in between religious school and sports practices.
9. Embrace the freezer. Marialisa Sesto, a kindergarten teacher from Lindenhurst, cooks in bulk and freezes food in portions. She might make soup, or meatballs, or sauce and eat some one night and freeze the rest, so one preparation does double duty. “All we have to do is take it out and defrost it,” she says. Her family includes husband Marvin, who owns an air-quality business, and children Marvin Jr., 11, and Anthony, 8.
10. Make dinner so much fun that even the kids make it a priority. At Michelle McKean’s house in Huntington, for instance, the family has a “Dinner Questions” jar filled with conversation starters such as, “Did you help anyone today or did anyone help you?” and “What do you think teachers talk about in the faculty room?” When McKean, a personal trainer, her husband, Bob, who owns Main Street Nursery Florist and Landscaping, and their four daughters, RyanMarie, 19, Grace, 15, Renee, 13, and Dylan, 9, sit down to dinner, “typically my 9-year-old will instigate it because it’s one of her favorite things,” McKean says. Pediatrician Somekh seconds this strategy: “As they get older, they won’t WANT to do anything that interrupts family dinner.”
11. Enlist Grandma and Grandpa. Laura Blumenthal of Great Neck is a lawyer, and her husband, Seth, is an engineer. They both work full time and have two young kids, Sammy, 2, and Gracie, 6 months. Every Tuesday, Seth’s parents come from Connecticut to help make dinner, and every Wednesday, Laura’s come to help. Then they all eat together. It’s a win-win — the grandparents know they’ll see the grandkids at least once a week, and Mom and Dad know they’ll have family dinner at least twice during the weekdays.
12. If all else fails, there’s always Friday. For some people, that means Shabbat dinner. Others have different traditions. “Every Friday we have pizza,” McKean says. “My husband picks it up on his way home from work. Everyone looks forward to it.”