Surviving the “Witching Hour” as a Single Parent (and a Dinnertime Distractions printable, too)

The following is by contributor Jaimie of Two Chicks and a Hen.

Our March theme, “Routine and Rhythm,” is something I think about often.  For single parents, it’s especially important to plan ahead for the difficult times.   With some thought and effort, we can create consistent, positive rituals to help us through the tough periods.

The witching hour, that period between afternoon snack and dinnertime, is challenging for most parents. As a single or sometimes-single parent, you cannot let the witching hour burn you out.  Your day is still long from over, and there’s no one coming home to take over the reins or even to field your complaints. There’s still cleaning, the bedtime routine, and, for many of us, paid work that we accomplish after the kids are asleep. We can’t allow ourselves to run out of steam by the time dinner is on the table.

Managing the Pre-Dinner Hour

Whether you’ve just walked in from work or you’ve been home all day, and whether your kids have been with you for a week or have just returned from their other parent’s house (perhaps especially in this case), this time of day has the potential for chaos.   Thankfully, since the witching hour is a daily occurrence, we have the luxury of planning for it.

If you’re having trouble managing the pre-dinner hour, try some of the following ideas:

1. Take five or ten minutes to center yourself before the witching hour begins.

This is something I’ve just started to do recently, and I’ve been amazed at how helpful it is. This ritual will differ from person to person, but you might spend five or ten minutes meditating, doing yoga, knitting, or having a cup of tea. Give yourself a moment to breathe, focus on your intentions for the next several hours, and start over from scratch, putting behind you whatever challenges you’ve already met during the previous ten to twelve hours.

2. Involve the kids in dinner prep if they’re interested.

Kids love to cook, and having them help you is a great way to pull them into your realm during this challenging period. It also gives you the opportunity to casually chat, something especially important if you’ve been separated from them for any period of time. If you’ve never involved your kids in cooking before, you might find that it prolongs the cooking time a little bit at first. After a very short time, you’ll likely be pleasantly surprised to see that once your children master a few basic cooking prep tasks, their help truly does make a contribution.

Photo by Shutterstock
Don’t push it, though. Their involvement in cooking dinner should be enjoyable. I find that most often my kids want to help cook, but sometimes they don’t. And when they do help, they’re often vacillating between helping and playing. My four year old might peel some carrots, run into the living room to play with her sister for ten minutes, and then return later to stir some ingredients. And when they’re flat out not interested, I simply let it go, recognizing that keeping the peace is more important than their helping cook every single meal.

3. Keep a schedule of diversions you can call upon when necessary.

About a year ago, I made myself a week-long schedule of “dinnertime distractions,” things my little ones could do at the table or in the kitchen to keep them occupied (and near me) while I cooked.

It looks something like this:

  • Sunday: Stickers and paper at the table
  • Monday: Kitchen sink water play
  • Tuesday: Puzzles and peg boards at the table
  • Wednesday: Rubber stamps and paper
  • Thursday: Matchbox cars and masking tape roads
  • Friday: Make your own pizza
  • Saturday: Poker chips with bowls and big spoons for sorting and stirring

This isn’t something written in stone; I’ve gone days (or in the most recent case, many weeks) without referring to this chart. If the kids are happily playing, I’ll let them be rather than interrupt them for the planned activity. If they’re reaching the breaking point, however, I know I have an easy, ready-to-go trick up my sleeve to prevent major meltdowns.

[ Print and Create Your Own Dinnertime Distractions Chart (pdf) ]

4. Don’t expect perfection. Just do the best you can.

If one of your planned side dishes is just going to be one thing too many, forget about it. If dinner is twenty minutes late because you have to intercede before a toddler falls apart, oh well. It’s not ideal, but most things in life aren’t.

5. Trade with another parent to help make one day a week easier.

Right now, my kids have a standing playtime with our neighbor’s children one late afternoon a week for two hours. This means that every other week, my kids play there, and on the opposite week, their kids play here. It’s a no-brainer that the witching hour is a breeze for me during the week that they’re downstairs, but it’s also actually often easier even with the extra two kids here who occupy my girls’ time while I get dinner on the table and some other chores done.

6. For worst-case scenarios, have an emergency dinner waiting in the freezer.

This needn’t even require extra work—simply cook double whenever you prepare a freezable meal, and put half away immediately. And if a freezer meal is not going to work out, consider a non-supper.

These tips may not make for a perfect meal every night, and they may not all work for everyone, but what’s important is that we approach the difficult times of day with intention rather than fear. A sense of humor helps, too. A week ago, I sent my two girls into their room and told them I needed five minutes of peace before cooking dinner. I closed my eyes on the couch to do a quick meditation, and twenty seconds later my four year old was attached my side, telling me “I also want five minutes of peace.” Moments later my two year old was scaling my legs—“I want feece too, mama.” It wasn’t the moment I was hoping for, but I did manage to laugh at the absurdity of it all.

How do you manage to get through the witching hour peacefully?

About Jaimie

Jaimie, an American ex-pat living in chilly Montreal, is a single, work-at-home mom to a preschooler and a kindergartener. When she’s not busy building her freelance editing and writing career or making messes with her kids, she blogs about her adventures in creating a simple, creative, sustainable life for her family at Two Chicks and a Hen.

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  1. Thank you, Jaimie! These are some great tips for handling what is one of my most trying times of day, too (tho’ I will readily admit I take for granted that I’ve got a “second string” coming in the door to relieve me).

    I’m not a single or sometimes single parent, but I am a “Tax Time Widow” annually about this time of year and I think we’ll be putting your chart and these tips to good use to help our family get through what is normally a pretty bumpy time of year. Thanks! 🙂

    I’m really looking forward to the discussion on this topic!

  2. Ooh always home alone at the witching hour my hubs gets home late for dinner everynight long after little folks are stretched to the limit… I have found that dinner can just get later and later as I kind of stare at my kids waiting for the day to end – the only way it will end is if I do something!!! So to prevent toddler misery at story time in bed when tiny people are desperate for a sleep… I start the whole end of the day rolling with stories. A “bed time story for everyone”… then I often leave them lingering over books while I get the chores done… when little tempers flare they hop in the bath (soothing) and we chat… everyone swings back down to ground level… into pajamas and dinner and bed. Little people collapse into bed and I often read chapter books to the bigger kids, while the little ones fall asleep, with a torch under the covers… someone has to teach my kids how to have fun!!!

    • Ha! I just laughed out loud at:

      “I have found that dinner can just get later and later as I kind of stare at my kids waiting for the day to end – the only way it will end is if I do something!!!”

      I’ve definitely had those moments when I’ve been waiting for the fairy godmother to swoop in ;). I love the idea of getting the bedtime routine underway and then sneaking in some chores while they’re getting relaxed with books. When mine are a bit older, I think I’ll try that.
      Jaimie´s latest post: Mardi Gras Masks

  3. Great post, my little guy (8 months) is still to young to do many of the activities suggested, but I’m looking forward to putting them into practice down the road : )

    My hubs travels 1-2 weeks/month for work and I find trading with another mom invaluable. In fact, when our baby was small and colicky all my “trading” involved was me chasing her toddler and her rocking my wailing baby as we chat over the pandemonium. It’s nice to play with a little one who has different needs than yours does. She gets a break from running everywhere and my sore arms get rested.
    Sarah Gainey´s latest post: A Mission Statement at Last

  4. These are a few things that work well for me. First, do as much food prep as possible earlier in the day. Second, I separate my son who has homework from my other two younger children who do not. We used to do homework at the kitchen table where I could watch him and finish dinner at the same time, but there was just too much distraction and frustration. Now he immediately goes to his room to do his homework while I bring him his own snack. He has a pleasant desk in front of a window and he gets some peace and quiet after a long school day. Third, we have dinner early — usually at 5:30. That limits the witching hour to about an hour and a half, which is much more manageable. Then they have a light snack about an hour before bedtime.

    • Good tips here, Stacey. I second the early food prep and prompt 5:30 dinner time. If I don’t eat regularly, I find I’m less patient with the children. Supper usually recharges me for another few hours of graciousness!
      Aimee @ Simple Bites´s latest post: Why and How You Should Create a Healthy Food Culture for Your Family

      • Good point, Aimee! I think of hunger when I’m factoring in my kids’ moods (in fact, a small snack is usually a good solution when the kids do get a little out of sorts) but I admit I don’t think too much about how my own hunger affects my mood and energy level.

    • Early food prep–yes, that is a huge help! I’ve read of people prepping stuff for the whole week on Sunday, which sounds wonderful, but I’ve never even attempted it. Someday…
      Jaimie´s latest post: Mardi Gras Masks

  5. Wonderful tips! I’m not a single parent, but with four kids we have a bit of a witching hour no matter what sometimes. 🙂

    Some other things that work here…

    1. When I was working outside of the home, I found that I had to spend good one-on-one time with my daughter first when I got home before anything else. If we had some close time snuggling with a book or whatever, then from there I could start with dinner. Without giving her that first, she had such high needs for me that trying to get anything else done was a battle.

    2. Having dinner planned and as much early prep done as possible makes a huge difference. When I know all week that Wednesday night we’re having chili, I can chop extra onion the night before, getting out things that need to thaw, etc. And there’s no last minute “what do I make for supper?” panic.

    3. Have some really easy, quick, healthy go-to meals. Spaghetti is cheap, all natural and fast, and you can pair it with a salad and it’s balanced and most kids like it. Another favorite here is make your own soft tacos and burritos. It takes 5 minutes to heat the tortillas and refried beans, gather some bowls of chopped toppings and put sour cream in a baggie with the tip cut off (the kids love to pipe their sour cream on top). Then we gather at the table and assemble our own (with help, for the littles). It’s healthy, tasty and fun, but it’s also easy and some days we really need that!

    4. Have healthy snacks out for kids to snitch. My kids are always hungry as I’m making dinner and I started putting out the veggies early so they could munch on those. They especially love to come “steal” things as I am prepping them, like sliced mushrooms. I am fine with them filling up on veggies and it keeps them happier in the pre-dinner wait.

    I love your posts and am eager to read the next. 🙂
    Alicia´s latest post: Eating out with kids- How to make it fun for everyone

  6. What a great post! DD (5) often watches TV in that hour or so immediately before dinner. It’s the only TV time she gets all day, so I don’t feel too bad about it, but I love your suggestions for other activities. I’m going to hold onto them and try to offer them as alternatives!
    I’m a morning person, so end-of-day time is hard. I’ve found that I do much better, from mid-afternoon on, if I get plenty of good sleep the night before and also carve out about 20 minutes to read my Bible or just relax around midday. For someone who works outside the home, that might mean taking a real lunch hour, instead of just eating at your desk.
    Kathryn´s latest post: International Women’s Day

    • Oh yeah, a good night’s sleep for the parent–that’s a crucial one, isn’t it? I think that’s probably a challenge a lot of single parents face since they’re trying to squeeze so much into the day.
      Jaimie´s latest post: Mardi Gras Masks

    • I’m a morning person, too Kathryn and share your feeling that the end of the day is hard.

      In fact, the more I think on this the more I’m certain that the “witching hour” at our house is related much more to me and how overwhelmed, tired, or stressed out I am feeling than my children.

      Getting enough rest, downtime, time in nature, and having a strategy for this time of day certainly help me as the adult. I am also very aware, especially after reading this post, how blessed I am not to be doing it on my own. During the times of year when I am, I don’t always sustain the grace and calm that I wish I could, for sure.

      Lots to think about and reflect on with this post! I really appreciate all everyone is sharing and the varied perspectives represented here.

  7. Fantastic post, Jaimie. My hubby is traveling more and more frequently for work so I can definitely relate. Loved hearing your helpful suggestions!
    Aimee @ Simple Bites´s latest post: Why and How You Should Create a Healthy Food Culture for Your Family

  8. Good ideas, thanks.
    One additional idea–the best information I’ve ever read about the witching hour is that well rested children do not have a witching hour. Experience has shown that to be very true! When my kids have “witching hour” it’s typically when I’ve let bedtime slide a little later for a few days.

    • That’s an interesting point. I’ll have to try to pay attention and see how much of a difference that makes with my kids.
      Jaimie´s latest post: Mardi Gras Masks

    • I think the point about being well rested is an important one for kids AND for parents 🙂

      I know, in our house, the “witching hour” usually has a lot more to do with me and my own attitude/stress level than my kids.

      I think that is why the first point, about taking some time to get centered and take a break, is a good reminder for me. I that know my own attitude sets the tone in my home, more often than not. If I am in a good space, then even on the occasions when the children aren’t, I handle it better and the whole transition of the day flows better and we avoid having a “witching hour” at all.
      Kara @SimpleKids´s latest post: Surviving the “Witching Hour” as a Single Parent and a Dinnertime Distractions printable- too

  9. Thank you so much for this post! My husband travels often and I feel guilty about having them watch movies when I’m trying to make dinner and pack lunches. I love the schedule of “dinnertime distractions” and will definitely utilize that! Playdough is a favorite activity that we’ll add to our list and I’ll definitely be using your idea of making masking tape roads! Thanks!

    • Kim–playdough is huge in our house, and I actually had it on the list, but I switched it with something else because I thought people might think it was too messy and too much work! We’ve got a good system down for playdough followed by quick clean-up, so I find it to be a fantastic dinnertime distraction.
      Jaimie´s latest post: Mardi Gras Masks

  10. Great ideas! I’m of the traveling husband single mom set and lately its been freezer meals that have saved me. Once a week, I double cook and freeze a dinner. Once a week, I thaw a dinner that I froze a previous week. That’s two of my meals for the week. Other nights I prepare something quick-spaghetti and meatballs, tacos, chicken breasts, etc. Being organized helps so much and also releasing myself from the pressure to cook an amazing meal. My kids are little, they really don’t care for fancy food anyway-as long as they get a protein and a veggie, I’m not going to worry about it.

  11. I agree with Tina, well rested children don’t have the witching hour. I would also add something important: Make sure your kids get lots of outdoor playtime in the afternoon (two hours is not too much, even in “bad” weather) and then give them a snack when you get in. Then their bodies will be settled and content and able to occupy themselves in their own independent play.

    • Thank you for your comment, Nanci. I thought about Tina’s point overnight, and I wanted to say that I think to some extent, this depends on the child and all the other circumstances of the situation. I’m sure that in the best-case scenario, with the perfect amount of rest, most kids wouldn’t have too difficult of a time, but even then it’s a case-by-case basis.

      I think what worries me more about this is that a lot of single parents don’t have the luxury of offering two hours of outside time before dinner, given obligations with work, school, etc. And even if you can do this, if your children spend nights with their other parent, you have no control over how well-rested they are when they return.

      So I do think the point about children being generally well-rested is a good one; I just wanted to address the fact that sometimes the ideal just isn’t possible.
      Jaimie´s latest post: Mardi Gras Masks

      • Hi Jamie. I’m not a single mom, though my husband is a pilot and is gone for 2 weeks at a time. I find that clarifying my priorities is what enables enough outside time. Limiting my own computer time, preparing for dinner in advance, having my kids (even the 2 year old) “play” at cleaning with me, etc etc it all makes a huge difference. I just know that I have to do all of that, because it makes all of us happier and healthier. And if I don’t make that outside time happen, there’s chaos, clinginess, and drama. Maybe give it a try. See how you can arrange things to spend at least an hour outside every afternoon. You may find that with the kids in better spirits you’ll get a lot more done youself.

        • Hi Nanci,

          I agree with all of your points–and I actually am in a position where I can take my children outside. There are lots of single moms, however, who pick their kids up from daycare after work, and they simply have no time to do these things. Single parents feel enough guilt as it is (as do, I think, married ones sometimes as well), so I’d hate for people to feel as if it is entirely their fault that certain parts of the day are just not very easy. I agree that in an ideal situation, all of your suggestions are very good ones. But I also think it’s important to deal with what reality is for many people, and that may mean having to rely on other things to help the day go more smoothly.
          Two Chicks and a Hen´s latest post: Mardi Gras Masks

  12. I love the matchbox cars with tape roads idea! I also frequently let my older girls “wash” dishes in the sink while I cook if they don’t want to or can’t help with dinner.
    And the squeezie bag of sour cream….genius! I also sometimes let the girls watch a video during this time of day.

    I agree with your comment, Jaimie, that even well rested kids can have a tough time at this time of day. I homeschool my oldest and all 3 of mine (6, 3, and 6 months) are home with me all day long. Sometimes our witching hour is just a reaction to having been cooped up inside together all day! It definitely is better on days when they’ve been able to get outside. But anticipating the challenges and preparing for them is SO key to having a happy home. Now, if I could just figure out how to cook while holding my 6 month old ; )
    Paula@Motherhood Outloud´s latest post: Cultivating an Uncommon Union- From the Husband

    • That is a good point, Paula. Temperament and other factors do come into play, certainly.

      I’ve even been reflecting about how during the warmer months my family pretty much lives outside all day long and yet those “witching hour” moments still have the potential to be there.

      Regarding cooking with a 6 month old: I have two strategies – 1) wearing the baby on my back in a sling and 2) non-suppers (via Simple Bites – And I don’t let myself feel guilty about the occasional pizza night either 🙂

      Best Wishes!

      And, yes, LOVE Alicia’s sour cream idea 🙂

  13. This is a great conversation, everyone! I really appreciate the variety of opinions and viewpoints here. It is interesting to see what works for you.

    The more I think on this, the more I think the my personal “witching hour” has much more to do with my own levels of stress, feeling overwhelmed, and tiredness at the end of the day that that of my kids.

    It really brings to light how important rest, exercise, time in nature, and down time are BOTH for kids and for parents, I think. In a perfect world we’d all have the same access and time for these things, but I can certainly see how it is much more challenging in different family situations (and even seasons of life).

    Thank you, Jaimie, for writing this post and sharing some strategies I think we can all benefit from.

    As usual, Simple Kids readers blow me away with your depth of insight. I appreciate how open you have been in sharing your struggles and successes.

  14. We dont really have witching hour anymore as the kids are older but I found a few things helped when we did.
    Hungry children are annoying and they whine, thats not their fault and I know I am at my worst when I am hungry myself. We used to get in the door at 4 pm and would sit down for fruit and water, everyday. They ate lunch at 11:20 and their last snack before pickup was at 14:20 so they needed something to prevent blood sugar drops before dinner.
    Also after a full day of stimuli and activities quiet time was crucial so after fruit and water we would all crawl on top of my bed, grabbing blankets from the blanket chest and curling up together (so as not to actually get into bed in dirtyish clothes). I would read to them for maybe 10 minutes and then turn on calm music very low, I would then read my book for another 5 minutes or so while the got settled into their own books or would lie down with their eyes closed. Sometimes when I left the room so would they but most often they would snuggle for at least another 15 minutes.
    Making meals easy, Usually when I cook I will make double or triple and throw 1-2 meals in the freezer. Also I always have a few types of curries or other sauces in the freezer. Get some rice going and chop veggies for a salad takes me 5 minutes. Then 10 minutes before the meal is served I turn the heat on underneath the sauce and chop up some fish, throw it in or use leftover chicken and we lay the table together before eating. I usually make these sauces 8 litres at a time (my biggest pot) and usually have 4-5 types and use this 1-2 a week. Add a couple of pre-made freezer meals per week and that is 3-4 days a week we have easy peasy meals. On extra hectic weeks I will use 2 freezer sauces, 2 freezer meals and an easy meal for the fifth day, thats 15 minutes a day for meals and maybe 30 on the fifth day.
    On really rough days, when they had had big days at school or pre-school and where extra tired Id turn on audio books or the tv for a while I was getting dinner going.

  15. Awesome post and conversations! Will file these great ideas away as I will be going back to work at the end of this month….

  16. *sigh* I need to take some of your suggestions for fun activities. Winter has been long, cold and gray and things start to go south around 5:00 (we’re all cooped up and sick of it). This also coincides with the time of day when I run out of energy to be an active listener and start becoming an active nagger/groucher/crankypants.
    Alexis´s latest post: When Baby Cries Too Much – Reflux 101


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  3. […] and related clean up) without my dear husband who gladly entertains the children during the witching hour so I don’t have to hear repeated choruses of “Is the the pizza ready […]

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