For many families, Back-to-School triggers a “resolution reset” even more powerful than New Year’s resolutions, say nutritionists at Wegmans Food Markets. Planning around everyone’s schedules, preparing healthy meals and snacks for all, and setting aside time for family meals during the week doesn’t just happen – it takes commitment. The good news? Carrying out this resolution is far easier than you might imagine, and the payoffs really matter. The key is to rely on simple strategies to organize meals.
Numerous studies show that five or more family meals a week yields powerful benefits: these meals nourish the spirit, brain and health of everyone around the table. Children have higher grades and self-esteem, form healthier eating habits, and are less likely to engage in risky behaviors. While striving for five or more family meals weekly is the goal, breakfast and lunch also count toward the goal, and families should feel good about every meal they can share, even if the total is fewer than five a week.
Wegmans Nutritionist Krystal Register MS, RDN, LDN is a working mom who believes in the importance of physical activity as much as great nutrition. Everybody in her family either works out regularly or participates in sports, so nutritious meals and healthy snacks that replenish are a must. Here are strategies her family lives by.
HALF-PLATE HEALTHY: Fill half the plate with fruits and vegetables, and half with anything else. Examples? Half the plate filled with a salad, fruit or veggie sides, and the other half with a protein and starch, such as a serving of lasagna, a tuna, chicken or egg salad sandwich, or a serving of fish and seasoned rice. Follow this basic rule, she says, and you’ll be putting “healthy” on the table.
THEME NIGHTS: “Some families do well with ‘theme’ nights, like Meatless Monday or Taco Tuesday,” she says. Involve the kids with choosing themes – it gives them a stake in planning, it creates variety and it makes shopping easier. Active time for dinner prep can be 30 minutes or less. “My family uses the Wegmans app to keep our shopping list up-to-date. Out of our favorite salsa? We add it to the list for our next shopping trip. With favorite recipes, the app lets us add ingredients to our list with one click. The app also helps us keep a running list of things we usually buy.”
COOK ONCE, SERVE TWICE: Buy a couple of rotisserie chickens. Serve one for a chicken dinner one night, and use the other for a chicken leftovers dinner another night – maybe a veggie salad topped with chicken, or a stir-fry dinner.
PACK THE PANTRY AND THE FREEZER FOR SUCCESS: A pantry and freezer full of items your family likes best means you’re always ready for dinner – even unplanned ones! Proteins: like canned beans, tuna or salmon. These transform a simple salad into a meal. Sauces and seasonings: everything from ketchup and mustard to salsa and stir-fry sauces, pasta sauces, taco shells, and refried beans. Freezer must-haves: lots of veggies and steamable jasmine or brown rice, the perfect quick complement to a stir-fry. Many options come in Family Pack size for extra value. If your family likes Tex-Mex style foods, a package of frozen burrito shells – along with the beans and salsa in your pantry – can make you “burrito ready” any time.
BROWSE THE PREPARED FOODS SECTION: These items take most of the prep out of fixing dinner. Family Pack sizes are abundant, from heat-and-eat pulled pork or grilled lemon-garlic chicken breasts to penne alfredo with chicken and peas, to super-delicious roasted vegetables and other veggie sides.
REMEMBER PROTEIN: Protein keeps you going long and strong all day: it builds and maintains the body’s cells, tissues and immune system, and helps you feel fuller longer. “Most of us get enough total protein, but tend to get the bulk of it at dinner – and often very little at breakfast, lunch, or with snacks. By aiming to get between 20 and 30 grams of protein per meal, you maximize the power of protein across your day,” Register says. Easy ways to add protein to a meal or snack: think yogurt, hard boiled eggs, hummus, or tuna.
Parting wisdom: Celebrate eating together
It can certainly be a challenge for busy families to carve out time for family meals, Register says. But what has worked for her family is to keep things simple – “it doesn’t have to be a fancy meal” – and to celebrate that moment of being together: “take a deep breath, light a candle, and use cloth napkins!”