The weekly grind can be exhausting for parents who are juggling their schedule and the kids, leaving little time for home-cooked meals. Get your action plan to make prepping meals in the kitchen less daunting on the weekdays.
BY: JAMIE SHIFLEY, MS, RDN, LDN
A young mother of three gets out of work at 5:30pm. She’s facing a 45 minute commute, picking up her kids from their after school program and daycare, making dinner, and bedtime on her own, as her significant other is working late that night. She wants the best for her family, but the stress of the workday wiped her out, and she has no idea what to make for dinner. She opts to pop through the drive-thru close to her house and grab something quick. Despite her best intentions, this happens much more frequently than she’d like to admit.
Did that scenario sound all too familiar?
Many modern parents experience daily pressures with packed schedules and high stress. This results in home-prepared meals that take a backseat to other priorities and obligations. Not to mention the social media photos of perfectly plated food that overwhelm and make parents feel inadequate in their abilities to accomplish such feats.
Despite living in this environment, the most important thing to remember is that perfection is not necessary.
It’s simply about carving out some time each week to plan ahead so busy parents may reap the positive benefits. In fact, a recent study found that planning meals ahead was associated with better quality and variety of nutrients, as well as lower obesity rates. Planning meals ahead has also been shown to help families save money and ultimately reduce stress.
So how does one start this process?
1. Make a list.
Choose a time to sit down with interested family members and plan out 4-5 dinners for the week. Begin creating a grocery list for your dinners, followed by breakfast and lunch.
2. Plan out your dinner ingredients.
For dinners that are not pre-planned, keep simple quick ingredients on hand to pull a meal together in no time. Also consider how to have leftovers that may come in handy for your lunch planning (in Step 5). Examples of foods that you can keep on hand are:
- Frozen meats and seafood
- Whole grains such as farro or quinoa
- Frozen veggies
3. Schedule your dinners.
Once the dinners are decided upon, put them into a shared calendar either online or on your phone.
4. Plan out breakfast foods.
Next, think about what you will need on hand for quick, healthy breakfasts. Consider keeping whole grain, low sugar cereal, oatmeal, whole wheat English muffins, nut butters, fruit, eggs, and salsa on hand for breakfast.
5. Plan out your lunches.
Lastly, think about lunch and how you may plan to have leftovers once or twice a week from dinner. Also include on your list some easy lunch staples for your non-leftover days, including:
- Cottage cheese
- Whole grain crackers
- Precooked, frozen whole grain muffins
6. Prep and cook.
Once you purchase all of your groceries for the week, pre-prep meals, freeze them, and have them ready to go when you arrive home. Other options include:
- Freezing a crockpot meal
- Dropping a meal in a pressure cooker
- Thaw the meal and cook it that evening
This approach takes some additional time and planning at the forefront, but is a stress-reliever once it’s complete.
Flavor ingredients can also help add fresh flavor to otherwise bland foods. Consider keeping the following ingredients in stock that can give fresh produce and meats that extra burst of flavor to help elevate the meal, which makes it more likely to be accepted by all family members:
- 1-2 lemons and/or limes
- 1-2 bunches of fresh herbs (parsley, basil, etc.)
- Balsamic vinegar
- White wine vinegar
- Olive oil
- Plenty of dried herbs and spices
- Salsa and/or hot sauce (depending on your spiciness preference)
Remember that you need not implement all of this at once. Begin by choosing the step that seems least daunting to you, then, gradually implement others. The key point to remember is to keep your meals simple and balanced by including a fruit or vegetable, some type of protein, and a whole grain.
You will not be perfect, but you will be very grateful on those nights when you can come home, pull a meal out of the fridge and stick it in the oven. This allows you the time to savor your glass of wine while helping your kids with their homework.
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Jamie Shifley, MS, RDN, LDN is a Chicago Area-based registered dietitian specializing in corporate wellness, education, and nutrition communications. She is passionate about teaching everyday people how to easily integrate healthy and delicious meals into their daily lives. Jamie is dedicated to using science as a way to separate facts from fads, creating approachable, real-life solutions to mealtime and nutritional struggles.