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Wilburn: Mealtime planning goes a long way
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There are lots of benefits to eating as a family.

Families are more likely to eat a nutritious meal when most or all of the family eats together. Families who eat at home have control of portion sizes and ingredient choices. Children who eat with their families are likely to consume more fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Research proves they are also less likely to smoke, drink and use illegal drugs during their teen years.

Enjoying meals together enhances family communication and improves manners, too. And, of course, there is a lifetime of positive memories created by sharing meals together.

Busy schedules, long commutes, homework, evening sports events and other commitments have nibbled away at family meal time. Today, home-cooked meals are becoming rare. How can you preserve family mealtime despite a busy schedule?

Here are a few simple tips to whip up nutritious and delicious family fare in a flash.

Make healthy eating happen

Step 1: Get Ready

Involve all family members in menu planning. Give each person the chance to talk about their food likes and dislikes, favorite recipes and what they'd like to see on the menu. Give family members tasks such as helping out with shopping for food, unpacking groceries, setting the table or cooking. Brainstorm a list of meal ideas and write them down so you can use them again and again.

Step 2: Plan Main Courses

Start with the "main attraction." Decide on the main course (which can be vegetables) for each meal over the coming week. Think about foods your family enjoys, your budget, the time you have to prepare the food and nutrition. Look for chances to use "planned overs" from one meal to another later in the week. Once you come up with a main course for each meal, add on other side dishes (vegetables, fruit and whole-grain side dishes such as brown rice or whole-wheat pasta) and a healthy beverage like low-fat milk or water.

Step 3: Stock the kitchen with staples

Stocking the pantry, refrigerator and freezer is a good habit to get into. Keep a few essential ingredients on hand to make it easy to prepare a quick and tasty meal.

Step 4: Cooking made easy

Try these strategies to spend less time preparing and more time enjoying a family meal:

Save prep time with packaged, ready-to-eat fresh vegetables, such as baby carrots, salad mixes and chopped or shredded broccoli and cauliflower.

Use frozen vegetables to make a stir-fry. Add skinless chicken. Serve on top of a quick brown rice, whole-wheat pasta or noodles with a side of garlic bread.

Cook vegetables on the grill. Drizzle them with a small amount of olive oil and seasoning and wrap in aluminum foil, or place in foil tray to cut down on clean-up time.

Try making fried brown rice or risotto, or mix cooked rice with leftover vegetables and meat. Use quick-cook brown rice to decrease the cooking time.

Mix kidney or black beans, taco seasoning and a bit of salad and roll up in a whole-wheat wrap or stuff into pita bread for a quick, nutritious meal.

Use a slow cooker for quick and convenient casseroles. Look for healthy, affordable recipes in cookbooks or ask friends and family to share their favorite recipes.

Adapted from: Rutgers New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station

Debbie Wilburn is county extension agent in family and consumer science with the Hall County Extension. Contact: 770-535-8290.

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