7 Rules for Quick, Healthy Family Meals

One of my biggest struggles after tantrums is getting a healthy meal on the table fast. It can be a struggle when kids are screaming in the other room, the baby is hungry beyond what the handful of Cheerios will do for her and dinner is still 25 minutes from done. But today, Frances Largeman-Roth, RDN is here with some awesome tips for making dinner preparation run smoothly — and more healthfully! Check her out on Twitter and her website for more easy meal ideas and recipes.

After a long, hot summer and lots of short weeks of school, it feels like we’re all finally settling into a schedule. But it’s also high season for school sports, PTA meetings and work events, and those packed schedules mean it’s harder than ever to put family meals together.

It’s not only hard to get everyone’s tush seated at the same time, it’s also a challenge for parents (most of whom have just worked a long day) to cook a healthy meal and get it on the table in time. The parents I know feel guilty serving anything that’s “convenient,” but at the same time, they’re strapped for time and feel stressed about making something from scratch that their kids will actually eat. Here’s my advice: find a happy medium. That means offering your family plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables and making dinners from scratch as much as you can, but knowing that it’s also okay to lean on some packaged items that make dinner super easy and also offer up good nutrition.

Okay, so how does this actually translate to a healthy dinner? Each week plan out three to four meals that you’re going to cook, and then shop for another three to four that you’re going to assemble. And keep that freezer stocked with frozen organic vegetables and other meal solutions. Don’t feel bad about using frozen veggies — they are frozen right after harvest, so they may actually be more nutritious than those greens that flew cross country and then sat in your fridge for three days.

Family meals are about getting everyone a healthy dinner that helps their brains and bodies grow — they are not about serving up a perfect-looking meal. There’s something called sanity and it’s underrated! Here are the rules I live by to feed my family of five.

My Top 7 Rules for Easy Family Meals

1. Keep it easy and real. You are not entertaining people — you are simply providing sustenance for people whose bottoms you have wipes about a thousand times. Save the stress for when your fancy sister-in-law comes to visit.

2. Put at least one thing on the table you feel really good about. That can be organic broccoli florets with Parmesan sprinkled on top, or slices of fresh cucumber or roasted chicken. You have all three tonight? Pour yourself a (5-ounce) glass of wine and sit back and enjoy!

3. Turn the TV off. That goes for Kindles, iPhones, iPads and Pods, and any other electronic device. This is definitely my husband’s least favorite rule, especially during football season. Look people, we’re talking about 30 minutes tops without your gadgets. You can’t expect your kids to engage with you if you’re scanning your inbox for updates from your boss every 10 seconds. Plus, it’s much harder to eat mindlessly when you’re focused on sharing the meal and not the screen.

4. You’ve got one family, so cook one meal. I believe there should be no distinction between kid food and adult food. True, kids protest various foods (and food groups) from time to time, but if you always offer a variety of food at each meal, your children will NOT go hungry. The second part of this rule is that mom and dad both need to set a good example by eating their fruits and veggies. This is my husband’s second least favorite rule.

That said, one of my three kids is super picky and doesn’t eat much meat, so I do keep things on hand for her when she refuses the family dinner. A great option is Annie’s new line of certified organic soups, which were created just for kids and come in varieties including Bunny Pasta and Chicken Broth Soup and Creamy Tomato and Bunny Pasta Soup, which has half a cup of vegetables per serving. My daughter loves it and I feel good about serving it. It’s a win-win!

5. Don’t turn the oven on! Okay, that sounds a bit extreme, but I really do try to avoid using my regular oven. What I do use almost daily is my toaster oven/convection oven. I roast vegetables in it, bake pizzas, make salmon — you name it. Not only does it not heat up the kitchen, it cooks things in less time. And the quicker you can put food on the table, the happier everyone will be.

6. Become a master of easy veggies. I love all vegetables, but certain ones take more time, like butternut squash and Brussels sprouts. I always offer my kids bowls of three different vegetables each night. I prep them in the morning for their lunches and force myself to cut up extra for dinner that night. You can actually knock out about two to three nights if you prep enough. So what constitutes an “easy veg”? It doesn’t require cooking and can’t take more than three minutes to have it kid-ready. The list includes: cherry and grape tomatoes, mini cucumbers (you can keep the skin on), sugar snap peas, radishes, bell peppers and baby carrots. Offer three different colors to maximize the variety of nutrients in your meal.

7. Use the 1+1+1 rule. Make a meal from one frozen/packaged/purchased item, one fresh thing and one leftover. That way you never feel like you’re just heating and eating, and you’ll also help avoid the sodium overload that can come from packaged and processed foods. An example might be rotisserie chicken + frozen organic broccoli + quinoa.

A huge thanks to Frances for sharing these tips and for taking some of the pressure off! I absolutely love frozen veggies — you never have to worry about them going bad in the crisper and they’re always ready for an easy side or stir fry. —Erin

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  1. I really like the majority of these rules!! I love the one family, one meal concept! We’ve always been really big about having our daughter eat what we’re eating and making her at least give things a try…does that mean we haven’t had to make her a PB&J sandwich a time or two, no, but we always try to encourage her to eat what we’re serving first…and she actually eats better than many adults I know. LOL. I honestly have to say that we probably could never cut down on the amount of time we utilize the oven…my husband and I love cooking and that is something we enjoy doing together while catching up on our days. We just try to start cooking early enough that our daughter isn’t ravenous snapping at our heels due to hunger. LOL.