By the time you pick the kids up from soccer practice and swing by the dry cleaners, it's late and the kids are starving. You can still serve them easy healthy family meals in record time with these prep-ahead tips.
If you want to cook easy healthy family meals packed with fruits, veggies and lean protein (and really, who doesn't?), there's good news: It's not as hard as you think. Viki Shanta Retelny, a registered dietitian and the author of "The Essential Guide to Healthy Healing Foods," says "planning ahead saves time and is really beneficial." Focus on ways to showcase vegetables and whole grains, all the while keeping in mind that iron-rich protein should make up one quarter of the plate, says Michelle Dudash, a registered dietitian nutritionist and the author of "Clean Eating for Busy Families." Whole grains should also fill one quarter of the plate, with veggies or fruits rounding out the other half. Here are some great ways to prep ahead for healthy family meals.
- Slice and Dice the Night Before
Go shopping on the weekend for all the ingredients you need for the week. For example, shop for the ingredients for roast chicken dinner, turkey burgers with homemade sweet potato fries and pasta. After shopping, get ready for tomorrow's meal by prewashing and cutting brussels sprouts and storing them in an airtight container. Dice potatoes and put them in a covered bowl of water in the fridge to keep them from turning brown. Leave the chicken in the fridge so it's ready to be washed and cooked Monday night.
- Use Down Time
When the first evening rolls around, you are ready for roasted chicken with brussels sprouts and potatoes, a favorite of Dudash and a snap to cook. Sprinkle the veggies and chicken with a garlic and oregano vinaigrette and bake together with the chicken and potatoes. Don't twiddle your thumbs as you wait for it to cook -- start in on dinner for the next day. When the chicken's in the oven, "cut sweet potatoes up into slices and soak them in water for tomorrow's meal," says Dudash. Again, keep the potatoes in water in a covered container in the fridge to keep them fresh.
Dudash's juicy turkey burger, made with lean turkey and mushrooms, can be mixed the day before as well. You'll need to chop and saute some mushrooms, garlic and spices and then let the mix cool before adding them to the ground turkey. Then you can form the patties, wrap them on parchment paper or tinfoil and pop them in the fridge overnight. Simply grill them up the next evening. Pat dry the potato slices you cut up the night before and toss with olive oil, cumin and chili powder before baking. As those cook, cut up some veggies such as asparagus and squash for the simple pasta dish you'll serve tomorrow.
- Use Your Freezer
Prep doesn't have to only happen the day before -- whip up a big batch of this 10-minute marinara sauce to store in your freezer for a few weeks, and pull out a portion to thaw overnight in the fridge. When the kids are hungry, quickly roast or steam the vegetables you cut last night as you cook whole-grain or high-fiber pasta. Heat your sauce and assemble your pasta dinner. It couldn't be simpler!
Encourage Healthy Eating All Week Long
Making sure you always have a few healthy regulars in your pantry will help you whip up easy healthy family meals in a pinch. Unsweetened applesauce goes perfectly with pork dishes and is full of vitamin C, while olive oil and spices will jazz up vegetables, chicken and salmon. Canned beans are a great source of protein to have on hand, and cook quickly. Whole-grain and high-fiber pasta are both packed with nutrients like fiber and iron, notes the United States Department of Agriculture. And stock up on plenty of nuts and dried fruits to add some pizzazz to salads or any quinoa, rice or couscous dish.
Your fridge needs some love, too! Stock it up with go-to healthy options like fruits for desserts or to toss on a salad for added sweetness. Greek yogurt is great for dips and can replace sour cream in some recipes. Frozen veggies like sweet peppers, asparagus and root vegetables add color and tons of nutrients to your meals, without the quick spoilage time of fresh produce.
Want more tips on healthy eating? Here's How to Plan Healthy Family Meals.
Molly Blake is a California-based freelance writer. She is working on perfecting her kale chip recipe.