One thing I hear from parents on a daily basis is that every family is pressed for time. Between work and after-school activities, time to make healthy meals for your family seems virtually impossible. Here are a few tips I give to busy parents who are trying to make healthy cooking a priority.
It only takes a few hours once a week to come up with a meal plan for the week and to prepare those meals in advance. If you wait until you get home from work to think about "What’s for dinner tonight?" you are more likely to grab fast food or to eat out instead of cooking**. Find time on your least busy day to come up with a plan for the week.** I like to sit down on Saturday or Sunday afternoon to come up with a grocery list based on what our week looks like (who is going to be home, what events we have going on in the evening, etc.). Once I come up with some ideas for cooking, we hit the store. When we get home, we try to prep anything in advance we can for the week.
One of my favorite things to do is to make a giant salad on Sunday afternoon. Wash and chop all of the vegetables in advance. This way a salad is already made to put on the table every night of the week. It’s a great way to get in those extra servings of vegetables! I also make a list of what we will be having for dinner every night of the week and post it on the refrigerator. That way, everyone in the family knows what’s on the menu and they can help to get things started in case I’m not home.
Don’t Cook Every Night I hear from so many of my clients that they feel overwhelmed at the prospect of cooking every night, which is why it’s easier for them to just eat out. My answer to that is that no one should have to cook every night! Only cook when you have time, otherwise it’s just going to become a chore.** With just a little planning and creativity, you can make your meal last several days without your family knowing that they’re eating leftovers.**
For example, consider buying a larger package of chicken breasts at the store. You can marinate them and cook them on the grill on Sunday afternoon when you have more time to cook. You could have grilled chicken on Sunday night, chop up that same chicken to put over a salad on Monday night, and have chicken tacos or quesadillas on Tuesday night. Since the chicken is already cooked, your meals on Monday and Tuesday will take only minutes to put together. If you think of it this way, you only have to cook three nights a week (and only one of them being a busy weeknight).
Get Everyone Involved It sounds simple, but the more children are involved in meal planning and preparation, the more likely they are to adopt healthier eating habits and become great cooks themselves! Even though it may take a little extra time,** get your kids involved in making the grocery list** for the week and coming to the store with you to pick out their favorite foods for dinner.
I have my young kids pick out one recipe each week for us to try. They have to help make it, too! It’s a great way to get pickier eaters to try new foods, and it really gives them a sense of pride to see how much work goes into making a healthy meal. If your spouse isn’t a pro in the kitchen, give them another job, such as chopping up toppings or vegetables.
Take Advantage of Convenience Foods There are so many shortcuts to making meals these days. They might be slightly more expensive, but they are worth it if you are pressed for time.** Consider using vegetables, fruits, and meats that are already trimmed, washed, and chopped for you.** It will make the time you spend cooking much shorter and more enjoyable. And remember that just because you aren’t cooking one night, doesn’t mean that you can’t still give your family a healthy meal. If Friday is pizza night, try some of the newer frozen pizzas made with whole-wheat crust, veggies, and low-fat cheese. Your family will think you made it yourself!
Carmen Roberts, M.S., R.D., L.D.N., is a registered dietitian, receiving her undergraduate degree in dietetics from James Madison University and her master’s degree in health education and administration from Towson University. She is a certified specialist in adult weight management and teaches cooking classes. Carmen enjoys educating her clients about how nutrition affects the body and its role in overall health and wellness. She also loves volunteering, including as a Girl Scout troop leader.