Parenting is a labor of love, but it’s still hard work. Hopefully, parents can give each other nights off because they are both striving to have an equal partnership in home chores and child-rearing. And Labor Day is the perfect time to show your hard-working partner how much you appreciate them by taking the kids, cooking dinner, and giving them a little downtime. No doubt you’ve juggled the kids and dinner (and more) by yourself before, but here are some tips to make it a little easier.
The best version, of course, would be to let your significant other go out to dinner, sleep at a fancy hotel, and then come back at 2 p.m. the next day after they have slept in, gotten a full body massage, and are fully rested and restored. As lovely as that would be, it’s probably unlikely.
A more realistic “night off” just means cooking dinner AND managing the children so your partner can sit down for five minutes and read the news. I realize that the difficulty level of this endeavor depends on the ages of your children. Mine are 1 and 5. On most nights, I cook dinner and my wife plays with the kids. Sometimes I try to do both, and that involves strapping the baby into the baby carrier and enlisting the 5-year-old as sous chef.
Finding ways to get the kids involved is key. I usually choose a simple job for my son, like peeling carrots or cutting cucumbers. While he’s doing that, I’ll get the rest of the meal going. Once the carrots and cucumbers are done, I’ll try to spark his creativity by asking him to make up his own salad or spice mixture (something that he enjoys)—anything that keeps him creatively occupied and in the same space as me.
A good tip for family cooking is to cook for everyone. One Meal. Beyond the occasional breakfast request, there is no short-order cooking in our family. If the kids don’t like it, they don’t have to eat it, but there’s usually something on the plate they can fill up on.
Here are a few more tips for someone looking to give their parenting partner a night off:
Cook Simply. Lasagna is not simple. Rice or a salad, with some fish or chicken cooked in a pan—that is simple. Or just do the recipe you can make with your eyes closed. If you make a mean pasta with tomato sauce, make that!
Clean as you go. Though not always easy, this is much preferable to ending the evening with a mountain of dirty dishes, pans, counters, baby butts, and toddler hands. If you can’t manage this, at least take on the dishes after bedtime—no partner should have to suffer your disaster.
Grill out. I guess this is a typical dad thing, but it makes taking care of the kids and dinner that much easier. I have a table next to my grill so I don’t have to run back inside, and I let the kids run around the yard while I cook. Also, hot dogs or a marinated piece of chicken or fish with some veggies is way easier than burgers. For burgers, you have to form them, keep a close eye on them, gather the condiments and sides, and get everyone’s order. However, a simple grilled meat (or tofu!) with some vegetables and salad can be quickly put on a serving platter and dinner can begin.
Enjoy cooking! Cooking for me is almost a break in itself. It is one of the best parts of my day, so while helping the family, I also get to enjoy one of my favorite activities. If you don’t enjoy cooking, learn to make something that you can do without thinking (like the pasta I mentioned before). A consistently tasty dish that kids have through their childhood often creates good memories that they’ll appreciate as adults.
Finally, even if it is your partner’s night off, you can and should still ask for help. There may be a moment before dinner when everyone will be crying (including you), one of the dishes you worked so hard on will have fallen on the floor, the children will be fighting, and you have to get the plates on the table and cut the meat or vegetables and get all the children to eat. Unless your partner is actually at that hotel, they’ll be happy to give you a quick hand to make dinner a success.
Whether it’s giving Mom or Dad the night off from cooking, or doing something else to help balance the home chores and ease each other’s exhaustion, the important thing is to show our loved ones that we are in this together. And during these strange times when many families are eating at home more often than ever before, every effort matters.
Daniel Klein is the director and producer behind the two-time James Beard Award winning online documentary series The Perennial Plate. Klein, a former chef (Bouchon, Craft, The Fat Duck), and his wife and co-producer, Mirra Fine, have created over 200 short films around the world with tens of millions of views and nine Vimeo staff picks. They also produced the most recent season (and the relaunch) of the nationally syndicated PBS series “The Victory Garden’s Edible Feast,” for which they were nominated for an Emmy, and the feature length documentary "What Are We Doing Here?" Their production arm has worked with such diverse clients as Guinness, Hilton, Organic Valley, American Express, Equal Exchange, and Capital One. Their films have been shown at film festivals around the world and at the United Nations.