As any parent can attest, providing kids with healthful foods most of the time can be a real challenge. When it comes to family meals, time barriers and conflicting activities of both parents and children are two of the biggest barriers to family meals, according to Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, Ph.D., MPh, RD. Yet, there's tons of research that points to the benefits of family meals.
Family meals have been linked with healthier body weights; higher quality diets; and less alcohol, tobacco and drug use, less disordered eating, and less risk of depression among teens.
So how do parents who don't see anything slowing down for them or their kids anytime soon find (and make) time to feed their growing children and entire family better? I asked blogger Sarah-Jane Bedwell, author of the new book Schedule Me Skinny, to offer some tips to help time-strapped parents feed their families well. Below you'll find five of her favorite time-saving strategies.
1. Take 10 minutes to plan healthy dinners for the week. Half of each dinner plate should be filled with fruits/veggies, 1/4 of the plate should include lean protein foods, and the remaining 1/4 plate should be filled with healthy starch (like whole grains or starchy veggies prepared with healthy fats and herbs/spices). On two nights each week, make a double batch of any recipe so you have leftovers for lunches or dinners for other busier nights.
2. Make a strategic shopping list: The Food Marketing Institute reports that for every minute we spend in a grocery store we spend $2. That's why it's important to take five minutes each week to make a strategic grocery list that is organized by area of the store. If all the produce you need is listed together, all the meat is listed together, etc, not only will this get you in and out of the store faster, but you'll also be more likely to stick to your list and therefore spend less money on impulse buys.
3. Prep for success. Part of the Schedule Me Skinny 30 Minute Power-Planning Session is to spend 15 minutes at the beginning of the week prepping food so that meals can be put together in just minutes all throughout the week. To prep, cook one large batch of whole grain or starchy vegetables (such as quinoa, brown rice, whole wheat pasta or potatoes). Next, wash and chop hearty veggies like peppers, cucumbers, broccoli, and carrots. On a weeknight, you can throw together the items you've already prepped along with an easy protein source such as canned salmon or tuna or beans to make a quick, healthy dinner.
4. Pre-portion your food. Portion control is extremely important to help children enjoy foods in moderation and to grow into healthy weights. However, it can be hard to take the time to measure items during a busy week when you're trying to feed your kids a snack before soccer practice or get dinner on the table in a timely fashion. If you simply take five minutes or less at the beginning of the week to measure commonly used items like fatty foods (like cheeses, nuts and salad dressings) and favorite treats (like chips, candy and snack mixes) and portion them into baggies or small containers for instant portion control later on, you'll save a lot of time when you're time-crunched.
5. Keep a snack stash on hand. To help kids keep their energy levels up, their metabolisms going strong and to meet (and not exceed) their nutrient needs to help them grow, it is important for kids to eat every few hours. Snacks can be a great way to go when time is short in-between meals. To help you stay armed when the munchies strike, it's smart to take five minutes each week to make a stash of snacks that don't have to be refrigerated in your car/purse/desk. Options include: dried fruit and nuts, apples, bananas and single-serve peanut butter packets. A good rule of thumb is to keep snack options at around 200 calories and include a whole grain or fruit/veggie AND a lean protein or healthy fat for staying power. Examples include one small apple, sliced and a string cheese or 1/2 banana topped with one tablespoon almond or peanut butter and rolled in 2 tablespoons crushed whole-grain cereal. Keeping your own snacks on hand will prevent you from spending money on over-priced junk food from a vending machine or drive through and save you the time of trying to find or fix a snack!