If you’re one of the millions of parents who are struggling with this new normal, we’re here to both commiserate and help. We learned how to cope on the fly last Spring and with the start of a new school year, we are determined to create some sort of structure around our days, peppering a little joy and teamwork to keep our kids feel nourished, engaged and, dare I say, joyful.
I sent off my two oldest kids to college a few weeks ago and then returned to get our littlest one ready for the third grade. After a few days of parent-struggle shuffle and unsure of how to proceed, a couple of neighbors and I formed a zoom-school pod. My son and I built a long desk, turning our living room into a one-room schoolhouse/cafeteria/rec room. It’s bonkers and filled with joy and frustration but a great lesson in teamwork from my neighbors, ex-husband and the kids themselves.
Food is the center of this pod and anchors our mornings. The kids eat all their meals outside, without screens and with a lot of noise. The four children in our group attend three different schools and don’t share the same breaks and lunches, so we came up with some helpful game plans that keep us sane and nourished.
I do all this to make sure that breakfast is ready at 8am, that lunches are pre-cooked or assembled before I leave for work and that I only need to hit the store and farmers market once a week, at most.
Here’s how I roll:
It’s usually a big pot of oatmeal (we put out fruit/cinnamon/brown sugar/chocolate so kids can customize) and a stack of bowls. If there’s a moment before bed, we’ll prep out the dry and wet ingredients for pancakes the night before, ready to whisk together and drop in on the griddle. I always serve breakfast outside. It’s too early to clean up any part of the house. Also, PIE makes a great breakfast (and has less sugar in it than what Jojo dumped into his oatmeal this morning).
Give kids 2 options for lunch. I scribble a menu each morning for the kids to check off their options for lunch. Giving them a choice leads to fewer complaints and some sort of agency. Have cut fruit ready all the time. It’s hard enough to compete with the bags of chips that find their way into my house, but cool watermelon on a hot day makes everyone happy.
Infuse water. The best way to save money on food is to avoid buying drinks. Take a big pitcher of water and have the kids tell you how to flavor it. We’ve been adding a squeeze of an orange and some passionfruit, but strawberries, cucumbers and mint are some of our other favorites.
Assemble lunch early. We’re not short-order cooks, so anything from pulled pork sandwiches to tuna melts and condiments for chili are assembled that morning, kept in the fridge and heated up in a large, cast iron pan or griddle.
Bread is everything.
Yeah, I bake bread, and a lot of it. I’m not suggesting you make bread like we do, but we have a no-screen-after-school rule here, so Xavier weighs out and mixes up a double batch of our all-purpose whole wheat bread once or twice a week and gets any frustration of his day out on the dough. I let it rise overnight in the fridge and spend a couple of minutes shaping them in the morning. Half the dough gets shaped into buns, the other half into a loaf. These get baked off by whoever is running the pod that day and lasts us a few days. Cornbread is easier to make than pancakes and makes a great addition to your chili option.
Make batches that last.
I make a pot of chili, thank you Chef Carol for this delicious chicken chili recipe, a pork shoulder and poach chicken every other week, freezing half of whatever I make for the days when we all just can’t deal with making dinner.
The fillers, extras and sides.
I cook large batches of rice twice a week for rice bowls, burritos and fried rice. To make things easier, I buy two 10 lb. bags of short grain brown rice from our farmers market once a month (Koda Farms is my favorite). I also cook a big batch of pasta (thank you, Leah!) in order to whip together pasta salad on the fly. We get sweet potatoes from our farmers market as well and cut them into wedges for roasted sweet potato “fries” (toss generously with olive oil and salt and bake in a single layer on an unlined cookie sheet at 400F until nicely browned on one side). Frozen cookie dough is my jam, and these bake straight from the freezer for a thick-and-chunky oatmeal cookie and thin out into delicate oatmeal wonders if you let the cookie pucks defrost for a couple of hours before baking. Last but certainly not least- don’t limit your one-pan recipes to cooking, because cobblers and crisps are the best way to cook down fruit that the kids wrinkle their noses at.
Make them work for it. I’ve done the research; kids complain less when they’ve done the cooking. Let them make mistakes (there’s always rice or pasta) and learn from them. Teach them not to put knives in the sink and get yourself a soaking tub (for the dishes, not for you- just yet) to fill with hot, soapy water. There won’t be time to do dishes during the school day, but they’ll have an easier time washing them once they’ve soaked during math class.
Teach them to serve. We have one really important lesson we teach in our kid’s and teen classes; always make sure your neighbors are served before you help yourself. Engage the kids at home to practice serving each other (or you) before pouring themselves a cup or heaping up their plates. This simple action is a good bridge between their intense virtual sessions and sitting down to eat.
LAST BUT NOT LEAST:
Give yourself a break.
It’s why cafeterias serve pizza on Fridays. Are your kids alive? Are they kind? Did they put their dishes away? Pat yourself on the back, support a local restaurant and order out whenever you can. I stay sane by hiding chocolate out of sight and reach of the kids in various places and squeal a little when I find a piece or two (or three) when straightening up.