3 Ways To Empower & Connect With Your Kids at Dinnertime

If you have followed A Fostered Life’s blog or YouTube channel for any length of time, it’s likely you’ve heard me emphasize the importance of empowering children. Two things children need most—all children, but especially children who have a history of trauma—is to feel empowered (or a sense of personal agency) and to feel connected (or a sense of belonging). This is the big takeaway I got from Positive Parenting Solutions (along with a fantastic arsenal of empowering and connecting tools), and when we began to embrace this concept and look for ways to empower and connect with our children on a daily basis, we saw a real change in our children’s relationships with one another and interactions with us.

One area of home life that is bursting with potential for empowering and connecting with kids is dinner time! In the midst of our hectic lives, with family members coming and going, the dinner table can be such a sacred space for a family.

Here are a few ways to empower and connect with kids at the dinner table.

Put your child in charge of dinner. About once every week or so, a child in our home is in charge of dinner. (Yes, this includes our five-year-old.) I communicate that child is in charge of dinner that night and work with them ahead of time to plan their meal. Sometimes that means looking at simple recipes, and other times it just means showing them a visual guide (keep reading) and letting them get creative. I encourage whichever child is in charge to delegate roles to others in the house. Sometimes they do, but I have one child who wants to do it all himself (or only have me help).

Give them a visual guide, then take your hands off the wheel. We use this one from Eastern Virginia Medical School, which is for omnivores. We have also used this one from Pick Up Limes, which is especially for vegans. This tool is a fantastic way to teach children how to have a well-balanced diet without them realizing you’re trying teaching them something 🙂 Giving a child a picture like this and letting them pick each component, with minimal input, is so empowering. Children are very perceptive, and given the opportunity, they will rise to the challenge! Some of the child-prepared meals we have had include spaghetti with meatballs and tossed salad, waffles with turkey sausage and sliced bananas, and fried chicken with tossed salad and bread. They look at the chart and choose foods that they can plug in to each section. It makes them feel very important and very grown up.

DIY Dinner. Another really simple tip for empowering your kids at meal times is to set out a bunch of ingredients and let them fix their own meal. Two meals that are really conducive to this are Taco Bowls (“Taco Tuesday” anyone?!) and Sandwich Bar (“Can you say charcuterie?”).

For Taco Bowls, everyone gets a scoop of rice in a bowl and then they get to add their own toppings from the bowls on the table: taco meat (vegan meatless crumbles work too), beans (this is the recipe I use in the Instant Pot), shredded lettuce, chopped tomatoes, shredded cheese, chopped avocado, corn, salsa, and taco sauce are our go-to taco bowl fixins. Sometimes I also put a bowl of tortilla chips out to scoop the bowls with. The kids love having independence and deciding what goes into their bowls!

For the Sandwich Bar, I just put out a basket of bread, a plate of lunch meat and cheese, lettuce, sliced tomatoes, a jar of peanut butter, a jar of jam, and condiments like mayonnaise, mustard, and ketchup. I usually also put out some veggies for dipping, like carrot sticks, cucumber slices, and mini sweet peppers. Each kid loves making their own sandwich, and it gives them a sense of personal empowerment.

Engaging conversations around the dinner table. Interacting around the dinner table helps promote the development of communication skills, interpersonal skills, and emotional bonding. According to The Family Dinner Project,

researchers found that for young children, dinnertime conversation boosts vocabulary even more than being read aloud to. The researchers counted the number of rare words – those not found on a list of 3,000 most common words – that the families used during dinner conversation. Young kids learned 1,000 rare words at the dinner table, compared to only 143 from parents reading storybooks aloud. Kids who have a large vocabulary read earlier and more easily.

IT’S SCIENCE: EAT DINNER TOGETHER, Anne Fishel, Ph.D, The Family Dinner Project

Dining together as a family is hugely important, for so many reasons. For example, according to this article from The Scramble, “kids and teens who share family dinners three or more times per week…

  • Are less likely to be overweight
  • Are more likely to eat healthy food
  • Perform better academically
  • Are less likely to engage in risky behaviors (drugs, alcohol, sexual activity)
  • Have better relationships with their parents

This is important for all children, but it is especially helpful for children who may be experiencing developmental delays due to early childhood neglect and trauma. Dinner tends to be a favorite time of night for our kids in foster care. They love the predictability and togetherness of it.

There are other ways to empower kids at dinner time. Giving them each jobs to do, inviting their input on menu planning, respecting their choices about what and how much to eat, and avoiding power struggles around food all contribute to their sense of empowerment. We host a dinner party every Monday, which gives our kids opportunities to get to know other people in the context of hosting a meal. However you go about it, look for ways to connect with and empower your kids at dinnertime.

I promise, you’ll be so glad you did!

Image via Canva.com

My Favorite Easy Dinners

I love to cook. I love making everything from scratch, especially—hours standing in the kitchen, chopping, mixing, seasoning—it’s one of my favorite ways to spend a free afternoon.

But I live in the reality of having four active children who attend three different schools and have various extracurricular activities—not to mention weekly therapy, speech, and other appointments. Which means that grocery shopping sometimes gets pushed off a few days too long and cooking has to happen in between tying shoes, refereeing sibling spats, and monitoring bike riding in the street.

It’s kind of a miracle we don’t eat take-out at least five nights a week, now that I think of it!

The thing that has saved me is that I have several go-to recipes that are unbelievably simple and require very little forethought. Most of the items needed are in my freezer or pantry.

As I’ve focused on food in a few recent videos (here and here), I’ve gotten more questions about what eating looks like in my busy household.

I hope to do some more videos about food, but for now, I wanted to share a few of my quick-and-pretty-nutritious-not-to-mention-darn-tasty recipes:

Image result for frozen chicken thighs Pace Chunky Medium Salsa, 16oz

Salsa Chicken (about an hour and ten minutes)

Ingredients:

  • Frozen Boneless Chicken Thighs
  • One or two jars of salsa
  • Shredded cheese (cheddar is great)

Preheat oven to 375. Lay the frozen chicken thighs across a baking dish. Pour salsa over the chicken. Bake for one hour. Sprinkle cheese on top before serving. Serve with tortillas or rice (which you can cook ahead of time and freeze to heat up in the microwave), slices of avocado, and corn (frozen).

Image result for frozen meatballs  Prego Roasted Garlic & Herb Italian Sauce, 24 oz.

Spaghetti (about 30 minutes)

Ingredients:

  • One jar of spaghetti sauce.
  • One bag of frozen meatballs.
  • One box of spaghetti.

Warm the sauce. Add the frozen meatballs. Make the spaghetti according to the directions. Boom. Serve with a bagged salad.

Image result for turkey smoked sausage

Sausage and Vegetables (about an hour)

Ingredients:

  • Whatever of the following you have on hand: onions, potatoes, bell peppers, garlic
  • Smoked sausage/kielbasa (I usually use turkey, but whatever you have works)

Preheat oven to 375. Chop veggies into bite-size pieces. Cut sausage into large bite-size pieces. Pour everything into a baking dish. Toss with some olive oil. Bake for 45 minutes until veggies are done.

Veggie Fried Rice

Ingredients:

  • Cooked rice (from the freezer)
  • Sesame or peanut oil
  • Chopped onion
  • Chopped garlic (from a jar)
  • Frozen mixed veggies
  • Soy sauce
  • Optional: frozen cooked shrimp or leftover cooked chicken

Heat oil in large skillet. If using frozen shrimp, add that first. Otherwise, add rice, veggies, and soy sauce to taste. Cook, stirring frequently, until it’s all hot and delicious.

Breakfast for Dinner I (15 minutes or less)

Ingredients:

  • Eggs
  • Bread
  • Fruit

Cook the eggs to your preference. My favorite way is to break eggs (two per person) into a large bowl (taking care not to break the yolks), heat a large skillet with butter (or olive oil if you have a dairy allergy in the house), pour the eggs into the hot skillet, cook for about two minutes then cover and turn off heat.

Meanwhile, put bread in the toaster. Toast. Top with butter and jelly of your choice.

Cut whatever fruit you have on hand. Applesauce from the pantry does quite well if you don’t have any fresh.

Breakfast for Dinner II (about an hour)

Ingredients:

  • Eggs (about 8-10)
  • Any of the following you have on hand: onion, broccoli (frozen florets are fine), tomatoes (I’ve used canned diced, drained), spinach, mushrooms (canned work), asparagus, etc.
  • Optional: shredded cheese

Preheat oven to 375. Break eggs into a bowl and whisk them well with a fork or whisk. If you’re going to use cheese, whisk that into the eggs. Chop veggies into small pieces. Heat a large skillet with olive oil. Sauteé veggies for a couple of minutes then pour eggs over veggies. Bake for about 45 minutes or so. Serve with cut up fruit or applesauce and toast.

Vegan Taco Bowls

Ingredients:

  • Frozen meat-substitute crumbles
  • Taco seasoning
  • Canned black beans
  • Chopped tomatoes or canned diced tomatoes, drained
  • Cooked rice (from the freezer or made ahead of time in the Instant Pot, which I use all. the. TIME.)
  • Avocado
  • Corn (from the freezer)

Heat a skillet with olive oil. Warm the meat-substitute crumbles. Add taco seasoning and water per instructions. Warm rice in the microwave. Warm beans in the microwave. Warm corn on the stove (I prefer that to microwave, but you can totally microwave the corn). Dish a cup or so of cooked rice into a bowl. Top with taco-meatless-meat, warmed beans, corn, tomatoes, and sliced avo. My family LOVES this one! It also works with the salsa chicken in place of the meatless meat substitute.

Chili

  • Canned beans (black, pinto, red)
  • Canned diced tomatoes, not drained
  • Chopped onion (from freezer)
  • Chopped garlic (from jar)
  • Chili powder (2-4 T)
  • Cumin (1 t)
  • Corn (from freezer)
  • Shredded cheese (optional)
  • Tortilla chips.

Heat oil in large sauce pan. Sauteé onions and garlic. Add beans, tomatoes, chili powder (2-4 TBSP), and corn. Stir and heat until simmering. Serve with shredded cheese and tortilla chips.

Cereal for Dinner

I’m not above serving bowls of cereal for dinner. My kids think it’s a huge treat. I usually do this when my husband is away.

PB & J for Dinner

I’m also not above serving PB & J for dinner. I usually serve it with fresh fruit or—yep—applesauce.

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A Few Notes:

  • I make large batches of rice in my Instant Pot and freeze it right away so it warms up nicely in the microwave when I need it and doesn’t get dry. So I usually have cooked rice in the freezer, which is a great go-to for a base for many last-minute meals. It’s also a good idea to freeze leftover rice the day you cook it rather than put it in the fridge in a plastic container. Rice gets dry so quickly in the fridge, but not if it’s frozen right away.
  • When corn on the cob is in season and at its cheapest, I buy TONS of it, cut it off the cob and freeze it in big freezer bags. The taste of frozen fresh corn is SOOOOOO superior to frozen corn from the grocery store freezer-section. It can been cooked easily on the stove or in the microwave.
  • While most of the meat I buy is ethically sourced, I do keep bags of frozen boneless chicken thighs, which I have not been able to find from ethical sources, which cook pretty well without thawing. To avoid this, you can substitute ethically sourced legs or thighs, but they need to be thawed before cooking.
  • Whenever I have veggies that are getting really ripe that I’m not about to use, I prep them — peel, chop, whatever — and freeze them to use later.
  • I periodically buy a bag of onions and chop them up and freeze them for using in recipes. This saves a bunch of time.
  • While I much prefer cooking with fresh garlic, I do keep a jar of chopped garlic—which is available from my Dollar Tree—in my fridge to use in a pinch.

So I’d love to hear back from you! What are some of your favorite go-to easy recipes that you can whip up on a moment’s notice from things in the fridge/freezer/pantry?

Baked Potato Bar!

Last Monday, our family was in Virginia Beach with my parents and my oldest brother’s family of five. We each had a cabin on a little dead-end street in a beautiful state park, and we all took turns making dinner for one another.

Of course I volunteered for Monday 🙂 #MondayNightDinnerParty

I wanted to do something that would be relatively simple and healthy that could be tailored by each person according to their dietary preferences (one does not eat meat, one does not eat dairy, etc.) I went to the grocery store in hopes that something there would inspire my menu, and discovered that baking potatoes were on sale. Score! I decided to do a Baked Potato Bar, and it was a huge hit!

Here’s how I did it, from start to finish:

Grocery List:

12 baking potatoes

1 package of fresh chives

1 yellow onion, sliced

1-2 c sliced mushrooms

1 can of chili (I used Amy’s Organic Chili with Vegetables—not spicy!)

1 package frozen or fresh broccoli crowns

1 package of shredded cheddar cheese

1 container sour cream

1 container of spreadable butter

coconut oil

salt & pepper

Preparation:

Preheat oven to 400.

Scrub each of the potatoes clean and pat dry.

Scoop out a teaspoon or so of coconut oil, rub it all over your hands, then rub each potato all over with the coconut oil. Get more oil on your hands as needed. Place potatoes in a baking dish or cookie sheet, leaving room between each potato. Poke each potato with a fork two or three times if you want to (I do because my mom always did, but I’m not sure what purpose it serves!) Liberally salt and pepper the potatoes in the pan.

Bake for 60-90 minutes. (Note: there might be some smoke at first as some of the oil burns off the potatoes. That’s normal and will stop unless they’re actually on fire!)

Meanwhile, heat a skillet to medium and add about a teaspoon of coconut oil. Sautée your onions until clear, then add the mushrooms and continue to stir/sautée them until they’re cooked. Remove from heat.

Steam your broccoli (stovetop or microwave, your choice).

Warm the chili just before serving (again, stovetop or microwave).

Chop your chives.

Presentation:

Set out the toppings, buffet style. I left the sour cream and butter in their store-bought containers, but if you wanted to get a bit fancier, you could, of course, put them in nice bowls. I did set out the cheese, chives, chili, and onion-mushroom sautée, but left the broccoli on the stove so it would keep warm.

Set out the potatoes.

Set out a stack of plates and a jar of utensils.

Call everyone to dinner.

This menu is especially appealing to kids, because they love to fix their own food! It was so fun to watch each of them get creative with what they put on their potatoes.

This menu is especially appealing to adults, because there was zero whining or negotiating about who would eat what or how much. Oh, and also it turns out adults like to have the freedom to fix their potatoes the way they like them too 🙂

NOTE about using coconut oil:

I am pretty much obsessed with coconut oil these days. I use it on my body, on my kids’ bodies, to brush my teeth, and for cooking. I love how it smells and how it tastes, but note that it does add a definite flavor to your food when you cook with it (at least, the kind I buy does). So if folks in your midst don’t like coconut, or have coconut allergies, substitute olive oil, which is what I used for baking potatoes for years.

NOTE about baking potatoes:

I like the skins crispy. Some people like them softer. If you prefer softer potato skins, wrap them in foil before baking. Otherwise, leave them just oiled, not foiled, and they’ll be deliciously crispy. 

ANOTHER NOTE about baking potatoes:

This would also work well with sweet potatoes! Perhaps you’d choose different toppings, but sweet potatoes or yams make great baked potatoes as well, and add a bunch of good nutrients to boot!

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Y’all, this is one of the simplest, crowd-pleasingest menus you could do. There is almost no actual “cooking” involved! It’s mostly prep! And you could easily involve your kids in the prep if you wanted to (mine were too busy running around with their cousins this time, but other times, they’d be right there with me, chairs pushed to counters).

What would you add to the menu? Do you have favorite baked potato toppings I didn’t include?

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