Ah, September! It’s one of my favorite months of the year. Not only does September mark the coming of autumn, but it also means back to school. And back to school means back to schedules and routines–a welcome relief to mothers after the crazy, lazy days of summer. At The Power of Moms, we think this is the perfect time of year to be thinking about getting re-organized or more organized, which is why we chose this month to focus on The Power of Organization.

You may have noticed there are already a gazillion other blogs and websites devoted to organization with mothers in mind. What do we have to add to the mix? Well, unlike the blogs and websites that focus primarily on organizing stuff, we like to focus on helping mothers organize their minds, their time, their families, their routines–anything that will help them feel more deliberate in their mothering.

I, for one, am doing my darndest to get some good routines set in place at the start of this new school year so that everyone in my family will feel more on top of things, less stressed, and like our home is where we want to be at the end of the day. In my opinion, the dinner hour is the thing that really makes or breaks the after school atmosphere, so I’m really trying to nail down a successful routine that does double duty by including my kids in the process as well as decreasing my time spent in the kitchen. You’ve probably heard that “studies show” regular family dinner has a positive effect on everything from children’s grades to their level of delinquency. I just know that I like to have a time to sit down together as a family and be nourished both physically and emotionally–but not go crazy in the process. It’s rarely calm and controlled, never clean or quiet, but so far my plan is doing what I hoped it would. Here’s what I’ve come up with so far.

Delegate menu planning. Not only does this take the pressure off you, the mom, but it also ensures your family is going to like what’s on their plate. I did this last week with my three older children and husband, and in about 30 seconds they had each picked a meal and planned the entire week’s menu: Chicken legs with mashed potatoes and corn on the cob, spaghetti pie, hawaiian haystacks, and a favorite shrimp and pasta dish we simply call “shrimp pasta”. (I know, original.) Sounds like a pretty good week, right?

Shop once. Now that I had a complete menu for the week (there will be leftovers for sure, and probably a pizza night over the weekend), I could go to the store just once and get everything I needed. Nothing throws your after school routine off like a last minute trip to the grocery store for some sour cream. Avoid it at all costs!

Make dinner in the morning. Yeah, I’m serious. Maybe not the whole thing (unless it’s an easy casserole or a crock pot dinner, then go for it!) but at least think about what meat you need to take out of the freezer, or what veggies you can chop up while you’re in the kitchen preparing breakfast anyway. Doing just a few steps like this early in the day will really take the edge off when that bewitching hour rolls around and everyone is “starving”.

Dedicate a specific time for dinner. This is a tough one if you’ve got lots of after school activities going on, but it is so worth it. Treat the dinner hour like any other appointment instead of thinking you’ll just “squeeze it in”. If you’ve got so many after school activities that you can’t “squeeze in” family dinner at least 3 nights during the school week, you might want to think about cutting some things out. Setting a specific time for dinner (even if it has to change from day to day depending on those after school activities) will make it an automatic priority. Post a schedule if needed so that your family will know when they can depend on a good (or good enough) meal to be ready. There are two added benefits to doing this: it will get you moving when you’re not feeling super motivated to make dinner, and it provides legitimate ammo when your kids start raiding the cupboards around 5:00. I am constantly shooing my kids out of the snack cupboard with a reminder that dinner will be ready “soon”. It’s easier for them to take if they know I’m serious.

Assign a “Cook of the Day”. I don’t know which of my Power of Moms friends I stole this from, but it’s a gem. There are so many reasons to do this. 1) One-on-one time with your child. 2) They learn to cook over the years in a relaxed and natural atmosphere. 3) You get that second set of hands you most definitely need. 4) The “cook of the day” can be an advocate for the dinner on the table when other children start to complain. 5) You feel like a rock star of a mother. Need more reasons? Last night my 7-year-old was the cook, so of course we made the meal she chose (chicken legs, etc.). You may not believe this, but even at seven-years-old she was a huge help to me! She husked more than half the corn, and rolled half the chicken legs as well. I could tell she was relishing being mommy’s little helper, having that one-on-one time together, and feeling proud of herself for doing such grown up work. I’ve noticed the same response from my older children (10 and 13), they just show it differently.

Assign dinner jobs. At our house, everyone has one thing to do to get the table ready for dinner (place mats and napkins, flatware, drinks, and condiments), someone volunteers to be the “waiter” or “waitress” since I like to to serve up by the stove and take dished up plates to the table, and then there are clean up jobs as well (clearing the table, wiping the table and chairs, sweeping under the table, and of course, dishes). In theory, no one leaves the kitchen until it’s completely clean. We’re still working on that, because sometimes (as every mother knows) it’s easier (and quieter) to do it myself.

There you have it! I hope this is of worth to some mother out there wondering how she’ll make it through one more night of mealtime mayhem. Keep in mind that like all good organizational systems, the hardest part will be getting started. Of course there will be days (maybe even weeks) when it will be difficult to maintain your dinnertime plan, but once you have a system in place it will be that much easier to get back on track. Bon Appetit!

QUESTION: What are your successful dinnertime tips?

CHALLENGE: Make a plan to improve your dinnertime routine.

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