Providing healthy meals is the ultimate challenge for harried parents. The kids are constantly on the go. And whether you work outside the home or inside, you likely have many demands on your time. Yet even if family meals are no longer the unhurried affairs you may remember, that doesn't diminish their importance.
Gathering together at the table allows your family to connect with each other. Family meals also help children learn good table manners. Just as important, they set the stage for a lifetime of healthy eating.
How can you preserve family mealtime and still meet your busy schedule? Here are a few simple strategies and tips that will have you whipping up nutritious and delicious family fare in a flash.
Rise and Dine: The Importance of Breakfast
If there is a most important meal, it must be breakfast. "Research shows that kids who eat breakfast on a regular basis take in more nutrients overall, including fiber; are less overweight; and fare better on academic tests than children who skip the morning meal," says Janice Bissex, MS, RD, co-author of The Moms' Guide to Meal Makeovers.
Breakfast's affects on academic performance is really a no-brainer: After about 10 hours or so without food, eating in the a.m. fuels the brain and body for the day ahead. Plus, it's a meal, so when you skip it, you miss out on opportunity to consume important nutrients, such as protein, calcium, fiber, and vitamins.
Good Breakfast Bets
Of course, what you eat for breakfast matters. "Complex carbohydrates are the cornerstone of the most beneficial breakfasts because they produce a long-lasting supply of glucose for the brain and body," Bissex says. "Breakfast should also contain protein, fiber, and some fat to help children and adults feel fuller longer."
Translation: Go for fortified whole-grain breakfast cereals, such as Wheat Chex or oatmeal prepared with milk instead of water. When topped with fresh, dried, or frozen fruit, breakfast cereals make a complete meal. And they are ready in a snap.
Time is always tight in the morning, but by keeping breakfast simple so you're sure to include it even on busy days. Here are some more quick and easy morning meals for the family:
- Whole-grain toast topped with 1 1/2 ounces melted reduced-fat cheddar cheese; 1 cup cubed fruit
- Fat-free latte; 1/2 whole-wheat English muffin with 1/2 cup low-fat cottage cheese; medium banana
- Peanut butter pancake roll-ups: microwave two small frozen pancakes and spread with 2 tablespoons peanut butter; 1/2 cup grapes; 8 ounces 1% low fat or skim milk
- Cooked oatmeal with applesauce swirled in; topped with raisins and chopped almonds; 8 ounces low-fat yogurt
- 2 ounces smoked salmon on 1/2 whole-wheat bagel with low-fat cream cheese; 1 cup berries; 8 ounces 1% low-fat or skim milk
- 8 ounces coffee flavored yogurt with 1/2 cup toasted wheat germ cereal mixed in; 1 plum or nectarine
- Egg and pita sandwich: 1 egg scrambled in 1 teaspoon olive oil stuffed into whole-wheat pita pocket and topped with salsa; 8 ounces 1% low-fat or skim milk
- Breakfast parfait: Layer 1 cup low-fat yogurt; 1/2 cup crunchy whole-grain cereal; and 1 cup fresh, chopped fruit, or whole berries
For Healthy Dinners, Plan to Succeed
For Chicago's Janet Helm, a working mother of 2-year old twins, planning is paramount for preparing healthy meals, particularly dinner. "You can't make nutritious foods without a well-stocked pantry, refrigerator, and freezer," says Helm, who is also a registered dietitian and nutrition consultant. "Knowing what you have on hand and where it is streamlines meal preparation."
Helm notes that a well-stocked kitchen doesn't mean every meal is made from scratch. Frozen seafood, store-bought roasted chicken, and pre-cut and frozen fruits and vegetables are high on her shopping list because they are good for you and easy to use.
She tosses sautéed or frozen vegetables into store-bought spaghetti sauce for a healthy pasta dish. In a rush, she'll defrost veggie burgers, marinated meats, and frozen fish fillets for quick entrees (Tip: place individual pieces in a sealed plastic bag and immerse in a bowl of hot water. The meat or fish will defrost quickly without par-cooking).
Relying on Fast (but Nutritious) Food
When you're short on time and have not yet stocked your kitchen, prepared and take-out foods can serve as the centerpiece of a meal or as a side dish. A quick trip to the supermarket or a phone call to the local pizza parlor can be the beginning of a balanced meal as long as you include the right side dishes.
Nothing's quicker than a roasted chicken from your local supermarket, served with pre-washed mix greens. And one slice of pizza served with a large garden or fruit salad will both please and nourish your children.
Also, don't be shy about serving breakfast foods, such as French toast and waffles, for the evening meal. They're healthy and kids love the idea of having breakfast at night. Here are some tips for building healthy dinners:
- Store-bought roasted chicken; fresh or frozen vegetables; and a quick-cooking grain, such as packaged couscous or quick-cooking brown rice
- Frozen spinach and cheese pie (available at Trader Joe's and supermarkets); rice; fruit
- Thin-crust cheese pizza topped with veggies; garden salad with reduced-fat dressing; milk or 100% juice
- Whole-grain frozen waffles topped with low-fat vanilla yogurt and fruit, such as sliced strawberries; milk
- Cheese and vegetable omelets or scrambled eggs; fruit or vegetables; whole-grain toast or rolls; milk
- 100% ground turkey breast burgers or prepared veggie burgers on whole-wheat buns; cooked broccoli; milk
- Pasta and prepared marinara sauce with leftover chopped roasted or grilled chicken or garbanzo beans added to it; garden salad
- Homemade pizza: whole-grain English muffin or pizza round topped with pasta or pizza sauce or sliced tomato and shredded cheese; garden salad
Ready to Stock Your Pantry?
You may not shop for food regularly but you can rustle up a meal in minutes when you keep these basics in the kitchen. Take this shopping list with you on your next trip to the supermarket.
___Canned tuna or salmon
___Grated hard cheese, such as cheddar
___Frozen or canned fruit and vegetables
___Frozen boneless, skinless chicken breast
___Canned beans, such as garbanzo
___Bread crumbs or crushed whole-grain cereal for breading
___Marinara spaghetti sauce