We contacted several registered dietitians and cookbook authors—who are also busy working moms—to get advice on how to prepare wholesome, hassle-free meals. Here are seven smart strategies for solving real-life dinnertime dilemmas (before they arise).
1. Shop with your meal plan.
Create a shopping list from the recipes you’re going to make during the week. Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD, of Real Mom Nutrition, says “I used to dash to the store three to four times a week because I didn’t have a key ingredient for my dinner recipes. So now when I’m shopping for the week, I refer to my recipes to make sure I have everything I need. It saves me a lot of time and makes the week run smoothly!”
2. Get your kids involved in shopping.
Janice Newell Bissex, MS, RD, co-author of Meal Makeover Moms’ Kitchen, says that “kids who pick out and grow their own food are more inclined to eat, or at least try it! The next time you go to the farmers’ market (or produce aisle in the grocery store), send your kids on a scavenger hunt to find a fruit or veggie that they have never tried. If they are old enough, they can search online for cooking instructions and recipes and help to prepare them. You can also take them to a plant nursery in the spring and let them pick out a few herbs and vegetables that you can plant together in the garden or in a pot by the window.”
3. Jump-start dinners with short-cut ingredients.
Katie Sullivan Morford, MS, RD, of Mom’s Kitchen Handbook, says the keys to making healthy eating more convenient are to shop smart, prep in advance, and store ingredients where they’re visible. Her recommendations to simplify snack and meal preparation include:
- Store cut-up, crunchy, fresh vegetables in a clear container in the fridge right at eye level for easy snacking or to toss into a quick dinner salad.
- Keep fruit handy, such as easy-to-peel tangerines, small apples, washed grapes, or sliced pineapple.
- Cook batches of lentils or whole grains with which to build simple meatless meals.
- Shop for good-for-you convenience foods, such as bagged leafy greens, canned beans, frozen fruit, rotisserie chicken, and canned tuna.
4. Stock the freezer.
“Family dinner is a priority in our house, but I’m not always successful in doing the pre-prep on the weekends that I’d like to do. On the weeks when I don’t have all of our meals planned out, I always know I have a freezer packed with options,” says Janet Helm, MS, RD, of Nutrition Unplugged. “I will often go to my local warehouse club store and stock up on meats and repackage them into individual portions for the freezer. If we cook a large roast or a big batch of grains, I store the leftovers in the freezer alongside store-bought frozen vegetables for an easy mid-week stir-fry, pasta dish, or taco supper. So even when the refrigerator is bare, I can always count on the freezer for the staples I need for a quick dinner.”
5. Prepare one meal and let everyone serve themselves.
“One of my biggest struggles at mealtime is pleasing everyone at the table,” says Regan Jones, RD, founding editor of healthyaperture.com. “With two young sons, it takes a little strategy to ensure I don’t turn into a short-order cook. I’ve found the key to success is based on two principles. First, I prepare only one meal. My family now knows when they sit down to dinner, there’s no asking for something different from the kitchen. Second, I don’t plate everyone’s food. Everyone picks what they want from all the meal’s components. So for example: If I’m serving a spinach salad with feta, black olives, and strawberries, I bring all of those individually to the table. I’ve found that a child who will avoid a dish completely because it has olives in it just might eat everything else in the dish when served separately. Not only does this teach independence, but also avoids food waste.”
6. Serve new foods with familiar favorites.
With two “choosy” little girls (ages 4 and 2), Holley Grainger, RD, of Holley Grainger Nutrition,knows firsthand how challenging it can be to get young children to try new foods during mealtime. “For a long time, I only served the girls the foods I knew they liked. I have since made some adjustments to our meals by packing their lunch boxes with an assortment of new and familiar foods, focusing on protein sources, fruits, and vegetables. For dinner, I plan ahead for both new recipes along with family favorites. Each night I offer at least one ‘safe’ food like fruit, brown rice, or veggies and dip so that if they choose to not eat the meal I’ve prepared, they still will not leave the table starving. This has been a big adjustment but has helped to increase their willingness to expand their palates (while decreasing my stress level).”
7. Offer variety to satisfy differing food preferences.
When trying to satisfy meat eaters and vegetarians alike, media spokesperson Frances Largeman-Roth, MS, RD, advises prepping a variety of ingredients so that plates can be easily personalized. “My oldest daughter doesn’t eat much meat, but loves pasta and rice. My son is just the opposite! He loves steak, meatballs, sausage, shrimp, etc. The littlest daughter thankfully eats everything. This means that I’m always trying to create balanced meals that everyone can eat. So, that might be shrimp tacos with a black bean swap for my oldest daughter. Or I’ll make roasted salmon with brown rice and offer her edamame instead of the salmon. Family meals are so important. Make time to sit down with your family and share what happened that day. The meal doesn’t have to be fancy—it’s who is at the table that matters.”
On that same note, Liz Weiss, MS, RD, co-author of Meal Makeover Moms’ Kitchen, shares a similar dinnertime dilemma. “My husband is a seafood-eating ‘vegetarian’ but everyone else in my family, including my two teenage sons, eat meat,” says Liz. “Meal planning in my house means preparing one meal that’s meatless yet still appealing to everyone, like a hearty soup made with fiber-rich beans or lentils. Or I select recipes that provide everyone with meat and meat-free choices, like a make-your-own-pizza bar with an assortment of toppings like sausage, chicken, soy meatless, and veggies.”
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Want to remember all the tips? Here’s a handy infographic, perfect for pinning.