For those of us who aren’t the best planners, we need backups for those meal times that seem to sneak up on us. I know nutrition, and I know meal planning. My office where I see nutrition clients is only about 10 minutes from my home, and I work on my health research or communications projects from my home office. Basically, I have no commute. I have no excuses!

The reality is that my natural tendency is to squeeze in every minute of work I can before the kids get out of school. Once they are home, they are my focus. With kids who swim, and play hockey, soccer, and lacrosse, dinner has to be planned around practices for that day. When we don’t have sports or other activities and the homework schedule allows, we may get out for a walk with our dog, get to the gym, or tackle one of our long-neglected hobbies or projects around the house. About 15 minutes in, I realize I’ve only got one hour until dinner time.

“Why,” I ask myself, “didn’t I throw something into the crock pot this morning?” “Why didn’t I make time to cook ahead last Sunday?” Why, indeed? The bottom line is that I seriously struggle with planning ahead. I strive to do better, but I also have lots of throw-together meal ideas that I can use in a pinch.

Clearly, eating out is an option. Sometimes, that is the best thing we can do for our families. If my child is struggling with homework and needs my help and I have not (yet) stocked my freezer with ready-to-heat meals, the best use of our family time may be the homework followed by a take-out meal shared  at home. The value of the shared meal is only partly nutritional. We can set the table, sit together, talk, share, and be just as grateful and nourished by that take-out food as we are by a home-made meal.

Aiming for more home-prepared meals, though, is good for many reasons. It allows us to ramp up the nutrition in our meals through our ingredient and cooking method choices. Children learn to try new foods and old foods in new ways, without competition from the standard “children’s menu.” And there is empowerment for both children and adults in learning to build meals day after day that fuel us well (this is one reason I work with my teen clients to get them into the kitchen).

Here are 3 tips that will get any busy, last-minute parent on track with more home-cooked meals each week:

  • Discover 5 meals that you can throw together in 30 minutes or less. Whole grain pasta, canellini beans and marinara with a salad. Salmon cakes on whole wheat pita with steamed broccoli. Chicken quesadillas, salsa, and avocado with a salad. These are not the nights to try new recipes. What is easy for you to make? What does your family like? If you don’t have a single easy meal in your back pocket, let building that one meal be your first goal. Try one I’ve featured, or explore healthy recipe sites.  I just made this turkey chili and it is absolutely a new addition to my pinch-hitter list because the hands-on time is brief and the canned goods are easy to have on-hand.
  • Make sure you have the ingredients you need for at least 3 of those 5 pinch-hitter meals in your kitchen week to week.
  • When you cook grains that take a while, like brown rice or barley, cook enough for 2-3 meals. If you don’t want to eat the same grain 3 times in one week, freeze in quantities that will feed the whole family for the following week. And hey look, you just put part of a meal into your freezer! You are on your way!

Congratulations to you for each step you take towards more shared meals, more home-prepared meals, and more nutrition to fuel your life.

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