Children's Hospital Colorado

Healthy Meal Tips for Busy Families

You’re not alone. Many families are busier than ever these days, and lots of parents feel like they don’t have enough time to prepare healthy meals for their kids. But it doesn’t have to be hard or time consuming. With just a few prep steps, you can stay organized and quickly put together easy, nutritious meals every day of the week.

Find recipes online

Searching the internet for “easy, healthy recipes” is a good way to find new and fun ideas for family meals. You can also use MyPlate Kitchen to browse through recipes and videos and MyPlate Kids’ Place for activities and games that can help get kids interested in healthy eating. Look for recipes that include fiber, which helps food move quickly and smoothly through the intestine so kids don’t have trouble pooping. The following are foods with fiber that you can feel good about feeding your family:

  • Vegetables and fruit
  • Whole grains
  • Legumes (such as beans, chickpeas and lentils)
  • Low- or non-fat dairy or protein

Use a slow cooker

Look for recipes that are for a slow cooker because they’re designed to reduce your cooking time. MyPlate Kitchen has several recipes including a pork stew over brown rice that includes fruit, vegetables, grains and protein.

Pork stew over brown rice

  • 2 pounds lean pork stew meat
  • 3 cups baby carrots
  • 1 large onion, sliced
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons dried thyme leaves
  • 1/2 teaspoon coarse ground black pepper
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1 1/2 cups complete bran and wheat flakes ready-to-eat cereal (crushed to 3/4 cup)
  • 1 cup dried tart cherries
  • 3/4 cup 100% apple juice or apple cider
  • 4 cups hot cooked brown rice

Trim fat from pork. Spray large pan with non-stick cooking spray. Cook half of the pork at a time until browned. In a 4- to 6-quart crockery cooker layer carrots, onion, thyme, pepper, salt and garlic. Sprinkle with cereal and cherries. Top with pork and pour apple juice or cider over contents in the cooker. Cover and cook on low setting for 7 to 8 hours or on high setting for 3 ½ to 4 hours. Prepare the brown rice according to package directions toward the end of the stew cooking time. (Brown rice typically takes about 40 to 45 minutes to cook). Stir pork mixture and serve over ½ cup brown rice.

Prep a casserole

Casseroles are convenient because they can be made ahead of time and are ready to bake and serve any night of the week. They’re also a great way to sneak a variety of nutritious foods into a meal. Try this four-layer casserole from MyPlate Kitchen.

Four-layer casserole

  • 1 pound of ground beef, 85% lean
  • 4 potatoes
  • 1 package of frozen mixed vegetables (or canned mixed vegetables)
  • 1/4 cup of cheese, low-fat shredded (cheddar or Colby-Jack)
  • 1/4 cup of milk, 1%
  • salt and pepper (optional, to taste)

Cook ground beef in frying pan until brown. Rinse in warm water and drain to remove excess fat. Scrub potatoes and cut into slices without peeling. Place potatoes in a large baking or casserole dish. Top with vegetables, ground beef and cheese. Pour milk over the casserole. Add salt and pepper as desired. Cover with a lid or foil. Bake at 350°F for 1 hour or microwave in non-metal baking or casserole dish for 19 to 23 minutes on high.

Make a meal plan

Carve out a few minutes on a day off to plan out healthy snacks and meals for the week. Start by taking inventory of the ingredients you already have in your cabinets, freezer or refrigerator. Knowing what you have on hand can help you save money when you go to the store. (Additionally, keeping your home stocked with a variety of healthy foods ensures you’re able to put a simple, healthy meal together whenever you need to.)

Next, search and select the recipes you want to make for each meal. You can use Grocery Game Plan tips from MyPlate to keep yourself organized. Make sure you’re thinking about your schedule for the week. If there are days where you won’t have a lot of time, the slow cooker or casserole meals might be good options. Think about making the meal large enough so that you have leftovers. Doing that can give you a night off from cooking.

Shop, cook and eat as a family

Step back and think about your family’s health, even when you’re busy. Eat meals together at the table as a family, and limit distractions by turning off the TV and phones. Being mindful at the table will help you eat less and enjoy your meal more.

It can be the same with grocery shopping. In fact, getting your kids involved in grocery shopping may increase their interest in what they’re eating. Consider making it a game or educational experience. Help them learn about different kinds of foods. Explain that eating healthy will help them at school and during athletic activities. Let them pick foods they’ve never tried before. And let them help cook.

Know before you go: eating out

It’s certainly OK to eat out once in a while, but keep in mind that a meal at a restaurant is often less nutritious than a healthy meal that is cooked at home, and the portion sizes are often larger. When your family is on the go and a drive-thru is the only option, it helps to be prepared with these tips:

  1. When you have some free time, take a few minutes to determine the restaurants you use most often or the ones that are closest to your home, work or kids’ activities.
  2. Read through the nutrition information and pick out a few lower-calorie items from each restaurant.
  3. These are now your go-to order items. The next time you’re waiting in a drive-thru line or confronted with a huge menu while you’ve got cranky kids in tow, you won’t have to think about it — you’ll automatically order a healthy option for them.

Other quick tips for making restaurant meals healthier

  • Order a single sandwich or entrée; avoid the soda, fries, chips and other add-on items.
  • Always order water instead of soda.
  • Order off the kids’ menu or ask for the smallest portion size.
  • Ask for the sauce, mayo or dressing to be removed or placed on the side. These are often sugary and contain a lot of calories, so it’s better to avoid them or limit how much goes on your food.
  • French fries and chips aren’t nutritious, but if you want to get them, try ordering one and sharing with the whole family.

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