Nutrition Column – Fast, Healthful Meal Tips for Busy Families

You’re running late at work and you still need to pick up the little ones at day care, stop by the grocery store, get dinner on the table and take Johnny to baseball. You want to serve your family healthy, nutritious meals, but you’re in overload, out of time and out of ideas on what to serve.

If this sounds familiar, you’re not alone. Today, with so many people feeling overworked, overscheduled and over-frazzled, family meals at home often get squeezed out. Here are some timesaving tips to help you and your family find time to prepare and enjoy family meals at home.

Plan ahead  

– Set aside a time each week to organize the coming week’s meal plan. Get menu ideas from family members. They’ll be more likely to eat what is prepared and more interested in helping with preparation and clean-up if their food preferences have been considered.

– Keep menus simple. Food that keeps your family healthy can be quick to fix. All you really need for a quick and healthful meal is a carbohydrate, protein and vegetable/fruit source. For example, start with a whole wheat tortilla, top with refried or black beans and cheese and microwave until hot, add chopped tomatoes, peppers and onions and serve with salsa and a glass of milk.

– Cook when you have more time. On weekends or your day off, make soups, stews or casseroles to freeze ahead for use in the next week or two. If making meat sauce, brown some extra ground meat for use in tacos or on pizza. Freeze the browned meat in meal-sized portions in plastic freezer bags. Talk with your neighbor about sharing the extra portions with each other.

– Plan for planned leftovers.  Cook a big meal on the weekend and use the leftovers as the basis for one or two additional meals later in the week. For example, serve ham on Sunday and frittered ham, potatoes and eggs on Tuesday.

Shop for time savers

– Buy partly prepared foods. Try grated cheese, jars of alfredo or spaghetti sauce, and mixed salad greens to save time. These foods often cost more, so check the price.

– Stock your kitchen. Keep foods on hand that you can make and serve in a hurry. Examples include canned fruit, vegetables and beans, canned chicken, tuna and salmon, dry pasta and rice and frozen entrees or meals.

Save time in your kitchen

– Cook once for everyone. Does your child like plain food? If so, set some of the cooked food aside before adding other ingredients. That way you won’t need to take time to prepare different foods.

– Cook the fast way. Broiling, stir-frying and microwaving usually require less cooking time than roasting or baking. Convection ovens cook more quickly than do conventional ovens.

– Make no-cook meals. There’s no rule that says family meals need to be hot, especially when it’s hot outside. Consider whole meal salads with canned tuna, chicken or beans or cold sandwiches served with raw vegetables and chopped fruit.

Above all, enlist the help of family members. Ask your child to set the table, pour milk or do other simple tasks. Not only will it help you, but you will be helping your child develop an interest in cooking. Preparing family meals together also gives you time together, even on busy days.

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by Pat Kendall, Ph.D., R.D., Food Science and Human Nutrition Specialist, Colorado State University, Cooperative Extension