Daily life has become busier than ever for most families, which can often make eating nutritious meals more challenging. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, typical American diets far exceed the recommended levels of sugar, sodium, saturated fats and refined grains, and fall short of the recommended levels of fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
While it may require a small time commitment, organization and planning, it’s possible for families to beat these statistics and eat healthier foods on a regular basis. Below are four meal-planning ideas for busy families to do just that, all strategies I use for meal planning and cooking for my family as well.
• Plan key meals for the week ahead. If possible, set your weekly trip to the grocery store on a Saturday or Sunday. Prior to going, write out the meals you want to prepare that week, as well as the key staples and ingredients you’ll need for those meals. If you have a strategy and plan before you go to the grocery store, you’ll be much more efficient and effective with your time during the trip and when you cook during the week.
• Ensure that your shopping cart includes foods from all the major food groups. After taking your family’s dietary needs and possible restrictions into consideration, try to include foods such as fresh, organic fruits and vegetables; lean meats or other types of protein found in soy, lentils, beans and eggs; whole grains found in whole-wheat pasta, whole-wheat bread, brown rice, quinoa, steel-cut oatmeal and cereals; low-fat dairy found in milk, cheese and yogurt; and healthy fats found in nuts, seeds, olive oil and avocado. Obviously these foods and categories will vary by family based on dietary restrictions, possible food allergies and personal preferences, but the more you consume these types of foods, the better.
• Precut vegetables and fruits and cook proteins in bulk to create different meals throughout the week. By precutting vegetables and fruits or buying them as precut where appropriate, you’ll be able to quickly cook them or serve them raw on the side of meals or have them ready to include in a salad during the week. Also, if you make proteins in bulk, you’ll be able to create different meals with them throughout the week. For example, you could make a big batch of ground turkey meat that can be used to make tacos one night, spaghetti another night and chili the night after that. In addition, cooking in bulk offers the opportunity for leftovers, which means fewer days you’ll have to cook during the week.
• Make nutritious versions of meals children typically like. If your children happen to be picky eaters, it’s still possible to make healthy meals. Instead of hamburgers and french fries, you could make turkey burgers on whole-wheat buns with tomatoes and spinach and baked sweet potato fries. Instead of regular macaroni and cheese, you could make organic, whole-wheat macaroni and cheese and add cooked edamame or cherry tomatoes. Instead of regular pizza, you could buy and bake a whole-wheat pizza crust and add organic tomato sauce, low-fat shredded cheese, mushrooms, green peppers and spinach. Hopefully, these tricks will allow your children to eat more of the foods they like, but in a healthier way.
If you make the time to get organized, plan and cook most nights of the week, then you can enjoy ordering and eating out at the end of the week and/or on the weekends and still provide an overall healthy eating plan for you and your family.
Reena Vokoun is owner of the Los Altos-based Passion Fit. For more information, visit passionfit.com.