by Laura Buxenbaum, MPH, RD, LDN
For many households, family meal time is as obsolete as a rotary phone. Regular sit-down dinners have been lost to demanding schedules filled with long work days and never-ending after-school activities. It should come as no surprise that time is the number one barrier to preparing healthier meals at home. In fact, according to a study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, working adults spend less time on food preparation, while spending more money for convenience.
Saving time by skipping family meals may seem like an easy solution, but when it comes to the overall health and happiness of your household, dining together should be a high priority. Here’s why: recent studies link regular family meals (three to five meals per week) with lower rates of substance abuse, teen pregnancy and depression, as well as higher grade-point averages and higher self-esteem in children and young adults.
But what about those individuals whose days of work and grinding schedules are behind them or whose kids are grown and off to college or the workforce? Eating together can still be just as important. Our choices around the dinner table tend to be healthier and lower in fat and calories when the dinner table is at home as opposed to a restaurant. Secondly, eating alone can be isolating. Coming together at a meal, whether with loved ones, friends or co-workers, provides connection and conversation.
Whether time or other barriers get in the way of coming together with family or friends for a meal, it is possible to prepare a nutritious meal to sit down and enjoy together. Follow these time-saving tips to make healthy meals in minutes so you can spend less time in the kitchen and more time at the table.
Plan: Meal planning is happening less and with less time. According to data from the Hartman Group, more than half of dinners in America (53 percent) are planned within an hour of eating. Avoid that last-minute stress and the inevitable not-so-healthy takeout order by making a weekly menu. Save your family money by shopping smarter using a list. Research shows that when a list is used to shop, 40 percent less is spent on impulse purchases.
Use USDA’s MyPlate to plan healthy meals that include vegetables, fruit, lean meat, whole grains and low-fat dairy foods. When planning meals, remember that it doesn’t have to be gourmet. Pairing a rotisserie chicken with brown rice, broccoli and fresh fruit is a quick and easy meal. Serve milk with meals to provide three of the four essential nutrients that Americans are not getting enough of in their diets – calcium, potassium and vitamin D.
Prep: Take advantage of extra time on weekends since you probably won’t have it on hectic weeknights. Chop vegetables, brown ground meat, boil eggs, shred cheese and mix up dressings or marinades and have them in the fridge ready to go when it’s time to cook. In fact, research shows that greater amount of time spent on home food preparation is associated with higher diet quality, including significantly more frequent intake of vegetables, salads fruits, and dairy.
Pantry and Fridge Essentials: Save time and eliminate food waste by using what you already have on hand in your pantry and fridge. Astonishingly, according to the USDA Economic Research Service, one-third of the food that Americans purchase is thrown out. Keep your pantry and fridge packed with meal assembly items such as whole grain pasta, brown rice, canned veggies and beans, shredded cheese and lean meats.
Additionally, keep frozen fruits and vegetables on hand to use as a side or incorporate into a main dish. They can be just as nutritious as fresh vegetables and work great as a side dish, incorporated into a casserole or for dessert. Turn your healthy kitchen staples into a last minute, healthy one-pot meal like the recipe below.
Cheeseburger Macaroni Casserole
1 pound lean ground beef
½ cup chopped onion
1 cup uncooked whole-wheat elbow macaroni
(or whole-wheat penne or rotini pasta)
1 medium tomato, chopped
1 (8-ounce) can tomato sauce
1/2 teaspoon seasoned salt (optional)
1/8 teaspoon pepper
1 cup shredded reduced-fat cheddar cheese
Preheat oven to 350˚. Coat an 8×8-inch baking pan with nonstick cooking spray; set aside.
Cook ground beef and onion in a large skillet over medium heat until beef is browned and onion is soft; drain.
Cook macaroni according to package directions, omitting salt; drain. Spoon macaroni into prepared pan. Spread beef mixture and chopped tomato over macaroni.
Pour tomato sauce over beef and sprinkle with seasoned salt, if desired, and pepper.
Sprinkle with cheese and cover loosely with foil; bake 35 minutes or until cheese is melted and edges of casserole are bubbling.
Laura Buxenbaum, MPH, RD, LDN is the Assistant Director of Food and Nutrition Outreach for The Dairy Alliance. She received her Master of Public Health at UNC Chapel Hill and has been working in dietetics for over 15 years. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.