The key to preparing nutritious family dinners in a limited amount of time is planning ahead. “When 4 o’clock in the afternoon rolls around, most people have no idea what they’ll have for dinner,” says physician and professional chef John LaPuma, who co-founded ChefMD, a health and media company dedicated to helping people choose and cook healthful meals. “Unfortunately, most of us tend to grab the first thing we can find when we’re getting hungry, which is usually fast food.”
Another deterrent might be your memory of the time you slaved over a delectable dish like baked stuffed bell peppers only to have your children greet the meal with a resounding “ugh!” A few such experiences can make the words large pepperoni pizza spring to mind.
Yet you don’t have to settle for quick and greasy. A few simple tips can help you get a kid-approved meal on the table in less time than it would take for the pizza delivery guy to arrive.
Try these tactics:
- Cook for more than one meal. When you have an hour to make something special, double the recipe so you’ll have enough to refrigerate or freeze for another dinner. Many casseroles taste even better reheated. The same goes for stews (try using lots of vegetables and only a few ounces of lean meat) and hearty soups; the ingredients seem to meld more fully over a day or two.
- Keep a well-stocked cupboard. With the right ingredients handy, you can easily throw together a terrific meal without having to shop. Essentials include pasta, rice, potatoes, onions, a variety of canned and frozen vegetables, canned beans, tomato sauce, olive or canola oil, and cheese. One example: While the water for your rigatoni or penne boils, dice an onion and saute it in a few drops of oil; then heat some spaghetti sauce in the microwave. You might zap some frozen broccoli, too, if your kids will eat it; broccoli turns basic noodles into pasta primavera.
- Take advantage of convenience foods. Prewashed salad greens and bags of baby carrots make it easy to add vegetables to any meal. And don’t hesitate to use frozen veggies. Sure, fresh vegetables generally taste best and look most appealing. But they haven’t necessarily retained more vitamins and minerals than the freezer versions. Either way, the trick to limiting nutrient loss is using fast cooking methods, so microwave your spinach or steam it briefly on the stove. Another useful item is canned soup; read labels to find ones with less sodium, little fat, and plenty of veggies, or check out the lines of delicious vegetarian soups (such as hearty ham-free split pea) at your local health food store.
- Time your recipes. It’s easy to overestimate how long it takes to prepare a dish — especially if you chop up the vegetables, pause to put clothes in the washer and water your houseplants, then return to the kitchen to finish up. The next time you fix one of your family’s favorites, watch the clock, don’t stop until you’re done, and write the total time (prep plus cooking) beside the recipe for future reference. Organize recipes by how much time they take. You may discover you have more options than you’d realized.
- Let someone else do the cooking. Some evenings you simply don’t have the time — or the will — to make dinner. Luckily, more and more businesses — local restaurants as well as large supermarket chains — offer well-made and wholesome prepared meals, from vegetable lasagna to roasted chicken. Find three or four your family likes, and keep the list handy for those nights when you barely have time to sort through the mail. Just make sure the items are relatively low in fat and well-balanced. Try to work some fiber and other nutrients into the meal by accompanying the main dish with a loaf of whole grain bread and at least two vegetables; you can get there with a simple salad of greens and tomatoes, steamed cauliflower and green beans, or some raw carrot sticks and a bowl of frozen peas zapped in the microwave. Don’t forget a colorful fruit salad for dessert — even if it’s just a sliced banana, a few fresh apple chunks, and water-packed canned peaches.
When you have half an hour to make dinner, try out one of these four quick and healthful recipes:
Comforting Cauliflower Casserole
(Time: 25 minutes)
If your kids like macaroni and cheese, try this delicious — and more nutritious — variation. Chop a head of cauliflower into bite-size pieces. Add the cauliflower and your kids’ favorite pasta to a large pot of boiling water. (A one-pound package of pasta generally serves a family of five or six.) Cook until the noodles are tender, usually about 10 minutes. Drain and pour into a pasta bowl. Stir in two tablespoons or olive oil. Then add pepper, grated parmesan cheese, and a bag or can of corn — or, if your kids like them, chopped black olives. Toss and serve with a salad or steamed carrots.
Speedy Soup and Sandwich
(Time: 30 minutes)
Believe it or not, you can create a delicious homemade vegetable soup in almost no time at all. Saute a chopped onion in olive oil in a two-quart pan. Add a cup of canned low-sodium broth, two cups of coarsely chopped fresh or canned tomatoes, a can of beans, and a cup of fresh, frozen, or canned corn. If you have any suitable veggies in the crisper, toss them in. Dust lightly with pepper. For sandwiches, choose a truly whole grain bread (make sure whole is the first word in the ingredients list), line a platter with your family’s favorite fillings (including lettuce, tomato slices, and other veggies), and let them all make their own. Instead of offering them mayonnaise, which is loaded with fat, put a few types of mustard on the table.
(Time: 20 minutes)
All you need are taco shells, a cup or two of chopped lettuce (choose romaine or red leaf over iceberg), a coarsely chopped tomato, canned black beans, a jar of mild salsa, and grated Monterey Jack cheese. Put the fillings on the table, and let the kids create their own Mexican masterpieces. (To lower the meal’s fat content, see if your children will be happy using heated corn tortillas instead of taco shells, which are stiff because they’ve been fried.)
Hasty Homemade Pizza
(Time: 30 minutes)
Thanks to premade pizza crusts, available in most grocery stores, concocting a crowd-pleasing pizza is a breeze. Spread the crust with tomato sauce, then get your children to help with the toppings — a tactic that raises the odds that any picky eater in the family will do more than nibble off the cheese. Encourage the kids to be creative, and tell them to pick at least two vegetables. Great combinations include onions and sweet red peppers, wilted spinach and black olives, and corn and sliced tomatoes. If your family insists on meat, add some reduced-fat pepperoni or extra-lean ground beef sparingly for flavor. Finish the pie with a light sprinkling of low-fat mozzarella cheese, and cook according to the instructions on the package. Serve with a salad of mixed greens.
Roberta Larson Duyuff, MS, RD, CFCS, The American Dietetic Association’s Complete Food & Nutrition Guide. Chronimed Publishing.
American Medical Association, Good Food That’s Good For You: Good Nutrition at Every Age
American Academy of Pediatrics, Nutritional Needs of School-Age Children
ChefMD Healthy Recipes. About ChefMD.
American Heart Association. Dietary Recommendations for Healthy Children.