I used to make lavish and creative dinners for my family. But that all changed during the coronavirus pandemic. As a nutritionist, here are my healthy tips for making mealtimes easier.

By Sarah Garone
September 14, 2020
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Credit: Eric Jeon

As a nutritionist and food blogger with three preteen kids, I've said for years that cooking for my family is my love language. The dinner I'd make each evening was at the forefront of my thoughts throughout the day. What would it be? Enchiladas bursting with veggies? Turkey meatloaf and mashed potatoes? A chopped salad and homemade bread?

In the days since the coronavirus pandemic hit, however, I've found the daily stresses of an uncertain future, plus working from home (with kids schooling online in the background) have sapped my usual cheer for home-cooked meals. These days, 5:00 p.m. has me wondering what reasonably healthy something or other I can slap together that won't leave me exhausted with a sink full of dishes.

In the last several months, I've had to get a little creative to streamline things in the kitchen after a stressful day. Here are my top nutritionist-approved tips for making mealtimes a little easier and healthy at the same time.

Stock a Healthy Pantry

When I have the right building blocks at my disposal, I find I can usually combine them into something nutritious and satisfying at dinnertime. Even if you don't have a game plan for a week's worth of meals when you go grocery shopping, fill your cart with healthy staples you know you can work with. Beans, canned fish, eggs, quinoa, whole wheat pasta, and well-liked veggies like carrots and frozen peas can set you up for success. From these basics, who knows what tasty on-the-fly tacos or casserole you'll whip up?

Make Friends With No-Prep Dinners

What do sandwiches, quesadillas, and pizza have in common? (Well, besides cheese?) They all require next to no preparation—but can still be an excellent source of nutrients like protein, fiber, and good-for-you fats. To alleviate dinnertime headaches, make no-prep dinners your new BFF. Top a flatbread pizza with veggies, stuff a turkey sammie with sprouts and avocado, or shake some bagged greens into a quesadilla. Instant kid-friendly one-dish meal!

Embrace "Dump" Recipes

The name sounds a little off-putting, I'll grant you, but so-called "dump" dinners can be a beautiful thing. These recipes are just what they sound like: Grab a few simple ingredients and dump them into your slow cooker, Instant Pot, or casserole dish. Mix and let the flavors meld as they cook. A quick Google search will net you tons of dump dinner recipes—even healthy ones!

Quick note: Dump dinners often rely on canned foods, which may be high in sodium. Opt for a low-sodium version of ingredients like chicken broth, canned tomatoes, and cream soups. Or, with small items like beans or corn, drain and rinse the contents of the can before adding to the recipe.

Double Up

It's so simple, I don't know why I don't do it more often. Simply doubling a recipe to eat two nights in one week eliminates so much effort (and so many dirty dishes). This doesn't have to mean eating exactly the same dinner twice in the space of a few days. To keep things interesting, I try to vary the presentation of doubled-up foods. Pulled pork sandwiches one night, pulled pork pizza later in the week. Or a large pot of rice as a side dish on Monday, then repurposed into veggie fried rice on Thursday.

Try a Prep Weekend

These days, in the absence of parties and events to spice up the weekend, it may seem like the week passes in one big blur. But hey, maybe the lack of parties and events leaves you with a bit more energy on the weekends. If that's the case, consider channeling your inner prepper. There's a world of helpful resources online for how to put in a chunk of time on a weekend day to reap tasty dinners all week long. Some plans involve just a couple of hours of work you can squeeze into a Sunday afternoon—then check meal-making off your list for several weeknights.

Can't muster the energy to prep for hours on the weekend? Front-load just a little bit of meal-making by chopping some veggies for roasting, pulling the meat off a rotisserie chicken, or stirring together a spice blend for later use.

Cut Yourself Some Slack

Nothing is easy about being a parent during the COVID-19 pandemic. If you're struggling to feed your family well in the midst of extreme stress, you're not alone. But here's the good news: The occasional takeout meal or frozen pizza won't ruin your kids' (or your own) diet. Other healthy meals and snacks throughout the day can always help fill in nutrition gaps. Give yourself a little grace, knowing you're doing the best you can.

Sarah Garone, NDTR, is a mom, nutritionist, and health and wellness writer. She lives with her husband and three children in Mesa, Arizona. Find her sharing (mostly!) healthy recipes at A Love Letter to Food.

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