How to make the hours between 5 and 8 p.m. suck less

Three hours shouldn't have to feel like three years.

Photo: iStockphoto

There are a lot of factors that can send parents over the edge in those few hours a family spends together between work and bed. Some are longstanding and universal, like that dreaded Witching Hour, when our precious children turn into a tornado of emotions; others are minute, like in my house when my nine-year-old chews with her mouth open or my toddler throws her spaghetti at the wall.

We’re supposed to cherish this time together, but also feed, bathe, and provide a healthy bedtime routine for our kids—which is asking a lot. So, how do you cope?

After nearly a decade of experimentation, and about a week of incessantly polling my fellow parents, here’s my list of tactics to tame the anarchy that governs the hours between 5 and 8 p.m..

Dinnertime

There is an easier way, I promise, but it may include two words every procrastinating parent dreads: meal planning. Not into it? Don’t worry, we have other ideas, too.

Meal plan

Toddler kissing baby on the forehead in bed How to tackle double bedtime when you’re alone with a toddler and a babyAfter literal years of scoffing at the idea of putting a meal plan into practice, I’m here to report that it actually does make life easier. Every Sunday, our family gets together— all laptops and iPads on deck— and spends a half hour cruising recipe sites for fun meals. Then, along with our tried-and-true classics, I compile a weekly list and put it on the fridge door. My oldest gets really jazzed when we let her pick dinner for the night, even if that dinner is “grilled cheese and some sort of salad or whatever.”

If weekly is a little too intense for your family, you could also plan one week, and then rest the next.

Bonus tip: I write out the ingredients of each recipe at the same time so I have a list ready for the weekly grocery run.

Cook grown-up dinner once the kids are in bed

If you have younger kids with an early bedtime, feed them a hodge podge of dinners past. Lisa, mom of 18-month old Ellie, has this down to a science. “We all sit down together for Ellie’s dinner, which is usually a combo of his favourites or leftovers, and then [my partner and I] eat dinner together after they’re asleep.”

Kids can cook, too

We put ours to work in the kitchen before they even turned two. At first, we gave them low-stakes tasks, like snapping off the ends of green beans, and then graduated them to more complex roles as their skills developed. My 20-month old washes Tupperware in tepid water, while my oldest has never met a soup she can’t stir and is a truly accomplished egg flipper.

Bathtime

My children consistently come home filthy, with pockets full of questionable trinkets from the day—a plastic wind-up Easter chick, two pounds of pebbles, fifty staples pressed into a folded piece of construction paper. I’ve seen it all. Here’s how to undo that.

Bathe the kids before dinner

Who says bathtime has to happen after dinner? Try bathing the kids before you eat. They’ll be more relaxed after all that splashing in the tub, and it will give your oven time to preheat or the butternut squash to perfectly roast. If you have the luxury of both parents being home at a reasonable hour, divide-and-conquer by having one parent do the bath while the other prepares the meal. This is especially helpful when one of you has had an overwhelming day and needs a little alone time.

Make older kids’ bedtime about self-care

For our nine-year-old, we frame bath or shower time as winding down rather than just getting clean. We put on a playlist of her favourite songs, drop in a bath bomb, and let her take the time to relax. It’s never too early to establish a nightly self-care routine!

Bedtime

Hell hath no fury like a child told it’s bedtime.

Give them an incentive

Reading a favourite book, picking a different stuffed animal to sleep with each night, being the one to flip the light switch—kids are motivated by rewards. And pretty much any reward will do. It’s a new take on a bedtime song that does the trick for mom of one, Simone, and her 3-year old daughter. “Dale is currently obsessed with songs from Frozen, so we reward her with listening to one once she has a bath and gets in her pyjamas. Our bedtime routine used to be an hour—now she hustles through it in 15 minutes flat.”

Give them back the power

This one is so simple: just give your kid choices. Instead of telling them to put on their pyjamas (a tantrum-inducing ritual in our home), I ask if they’d prefer the striped or polka-dotted pair. Which cup do they want for their bedside water, yellow or red? Kids are much more enthusiastic when they feel some ownership over how the routine goes.

The rule of 10s

“If you have multiple kids who are needy at bedtime, give them each 10 minutes of your undivided attention to use as they want” suggests Claire, mom of three. “Stories, songs, a chat… they are in control of what you do.” 

But perhaps my favourite piece of advice about the nighttime hustle came from a particularly honest friend who laughed and without missing a beat, said “Is putting them in front of the TV a strategy?” She told me that when it comes to most things parenting, she advises to just lower your standards and not stress if all Hell breaks loose. And I’m going to take that energy home with me tonight as I wait for the clock to tick 8.

Read more:
Got a baby with serious bedtime FOMO?
How steady sleeping patterns and routines helped my fussy baby thrive

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