Providing quick and healthy meals is the ultimate challenge for harried parents. Your kids are always on the go, and you have many demands on your time. Family meals are no longer unhurried affairs, but that doesn’t diminish their importance. In fact, family meals are probably more essential than ever, given our hectic lives.
Research shows that children who eat family meals get more fruits and vegetables and less saturated fat, and have an overall higher-quality diet. Gathering at the table allows you to connect with loved ones during your busy day. Parents and other caregivers serve as role models, and mealtime helps younger family members to learn good table manners and healthy eating habits.
Family life can be chaotic, but it’s possible to preserve family mealtime and maintain a hectic schedule. Here are some simple strategies and tips to help you get quick, healthy meals on the table in no time.
Rise and Dine: Why Breakfast Matters
Experts agree: If there is a most important meal, it must be breakfast.
“Studies suggest that children who skip the morning meal run a greater risk of being overweight,” says Joan Salge Blake, MS, RD, a Boston-based spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association.
Breakfast's effect on academic performance is a no-brainer: After about 10 hours or so without food, eating in the morning fuels the brain and body for the day ahead.
Salge Blake tells WebMD that breakfast eaters tend to be less disruptive in the classroom and may also be better learners because their stomachs are satisfied and it’s easier for them to focus on school work.
Fast, Healthy Breakfast Meals
Eating anything at all in the morning is a good idea, but the ideal breakfast supplies adequate complex carbohydrate, protein, and some healthy fat, according to Bonnie Taub-Dix, MS, RD, author of Read It Before You Eat It (Plume).
Complex carbohydrates keep glucose levels steady in the blood, which makes for a longer-lasting supply of energy for the brain and body. Protein and healthy fats, like those found in trans-fat free tub margarine, olive oil, and nuts help to keep you and your family full for longer.
Because mornings tend to be chaotic, Salge Blake advises simplicity and planning. “When you pack lunch, pack breakfast, too, especially on the days when kids are rushing out the door early.”
If you or your children don’t like typical breakfast foods, don’t worry. Go for a nontraditional breakfast such as whole grain crackers, cheddar cheese, and grapes. Or serve a small piece of cheese pizza and a glass of 100% juice – or a half sandwich, milk, and fruit.
Start your day right with these balanced meals good for the entire family:
- Whole-grain toast topped with 1 1/2 ounces melted reduced-fat cheddar cheese; 1 cup cubed fruit
- 1/2 whole-wheat English muffin with 1/2 cup low-fat cottage cheese; medium banana; served with milk or decaf fat-free latte
- Mini whole wheat bagel spread with almond butter; 1 cup plain Greek yogurt mixed with ½ cup frozen pureed berries
- Nut butter pancake roll-ups: microwave two small frozen pancakes and spread with 2 tablespoons nut butter; ½ cup grapes; serve with 8 ounces 1% low-fat or fat-free milk
- Whole wheat English muffin egg sandwich: Layer ½ of the English muffin with a sliced hard cooked egg, ¼ cup reduced-fat cheddar cheese, and top with other half. Microwave until cheese is melted.
- Plain oatmeal microwaved with milk instead of water and topped with ¼ cup California raisins and 2 tablespoons chopped almonds
- 2 ounces smoked salmon on 1/2 whole-wheat bagel with low-fat cream cheese; 1 cup berries; serve with 8 ounces 1% low-fat or fat-free milk
- 8 ounces coffee-flavored yogurt with 1/2 cup toasted wheat germ cereal mixed in; plum, nectarine, or apple
- Egg and pita sandwich: 1 egg scrambled in 1 teaspoon olive oil stuffed into small whole-wheat pita pocket and topped with 2 tablespoons salsa and ¼ cup shredded reduced-fat cheese; serve with 8 ounces calcium- and vitamin D-fortified orange juice
- Breakfast parfait: Layer 1 cup low-fat yogurt; ½ cup crunchy whole-grain cereal; and 1 cup fresh, chopped fruit, or whole fresh or frozen berries
- Banana smoothie: In a blender, combine 1 cup 1% low-fat or fat-free milk, 1 medium banana, 1 teaspoon vanilla extract ,and 1 ice cube. Blend well and drink immediately. Serve with 1 slice whole grain toast.
For Quick, Healthy Meals at Dinner, Plan to Succeed
No matter what the meal, planning is paramount for preparing quick and nutritious dishes. “It’s important to have all the ‘ammunition’ you need in your cabinets and fridge for healthy meals,” says Taub-Dix.
Salge Blake recommends to “get it and forget it” by shopping for food on a regular basis. Scrambling for ingredients wastes time and causes frustration, especially at dinner.
“Everyone thinks it’s so time-consuming to plan, but you actually waste time by not planning,” she says.
A well-stocked kitchen doesn’t mean you need to make every dish from scratch all the time, however.
“Although I adore cooking and baking, I don’t always have the time to make everything every day from scratch, and I often rely on convenience items, such as frozen vegetables and store-roasted whole chicken with a few side dishes when time is tight,” she says.
Taub-Dix likes to do “makeovers.” She prepares a meal, then uses the remaining food to create another dish the next night.
For example, she roasts a turkey and serves it one night with sweet potatoes, red bliss potatoes, and green beans. The next night, Taub-Dix combines the leftover turkey, green beans, and potatoes with frozen vegetables, prepares a simple low-fat sauce, and tops the entire mixture with frozen puff pastry dough to make a turkey potpie.
Cook once, eat twice is also Salge Blake’s advice. She recommends preparing a double batch of chili or beef stew on the weekends and using the leftovers for the next few days.
Relying on Fast (but Nutritious) Convenience Food
Family life can be crazy, and even the best laid plans for healthy meals go astray.
When you're short on time and have not yet stocked your kitchen, prepared and take-out foods can serve as the centerpiece for quick healthy meals 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.
“Don’t feel like you have to do everything. There are many wonderful, healthy foods in the supermarket that you can stock at home to help make mealtime a little easier,” Taub-Dix says.
Nothing's quicker than a roasted chicken from your local grocer, served with pre-washed mixed greens. And one slice of thin crust cheese or vegetable pizza served with a large garden or fruit salad will please and nourish your children.
Salge Blake’s version of Mexican Mac and Cheese starts with a box of macaroni and cheese that she cooks according to directions and mixes with 1 cup cooked, canned, drained black beans and 1 cup of salsa. Serve with a green salad and milk for a balanced meal.
Kids love “brinner,” breakfast for dinner, and parents love the ease of serving French toast, scrambled eggs, and waffles, for the evening meal.
Here are some tips for building quick healthy meals for dinner:
- Store-bought roasted chicken; fresh or frozen vegetables; and a quick-cooking grain, such as whole wheat couscous or quick-cooking brown rice.
- Frozen spinach and cheese pie; rice; fruit.
- Fast tacos: Saute one pound of 100% ground turkey breast meat, season and serve with taco shells, salsa, shredded reduced-fat cheese, shredded lettuce and chopped tomato. Add fruit and milk.
- Thin-crust cheese pizza topped with veggies; garden salad with reduced-fat dressing. Serve with milk or 100% juice.
- Whole-grain frozen waffles topped with low-fat vanilla yogurt and fruit, such as sliced strawberries; serve with milk.
- Cheese and vegetable omelets or scrambled eggs; fruit or vegetables; whole-grain toast or rolls; serve with milk
- 100% ground turkey breast burgers or prepared veggie burgers on whole-wheat buns; cooked broccoli; serve with milk.
- Pasta and prepared marinara sauce combined with leftover chopped roasted or grilled chicken or garbanzo beans added to it; garden salad; serve with milk.
- Personal homemade pizzas: whole-grain English muffin, thin crust pizza round, or whole wheat tortilla topped with pasta or pizza sauce or sliced tomato and shredded reduced-fat cheese; garden salad; fruit.
Ready to Stock Your Kitchen?
You may not shop for food regularly but it’s possible to rustle up quick healthy meals in minutes when you keep these basics on hand. Take this shopping list with you on your next trip to the supermarket.
- Canned light tuna and canned salmon
- Whole-grain breads
- Grated hard cheese, such as reduced-fat cheddar
- Frozen or canned fruit and vegetables
- Whole-grain cereal
- Frozen boneless, skinless chicken breast
- Canned beans, such as garbanzo and black beans
- Balsamic vinegar
- Peanut butter or sunflower seed butter
- Bread crumbs or crushed whole-grain cereal for breading
- Olive oil
- Marinara spaghetti sauce
- Low-fat plain yogurt
- 93% lean ground beef (freeze)
- Ground 100% turkey breast meat