The beginning of each New Year presents a great opportunity to hit the “reset” button. It seems that every year, for about the past five years or so, planning around family meals is one of the items that makes my list of personal priorities. Every year I give it a go: meal planning, shopping lists, consistent trips to the grocery store, everyone on-board to prepare a portion of the meal. But I have to admit — this strategy never seems to make it through the month of January, when “reset” once again becomes “fast forward.”
Yes, family meals are a priority for our family, even as we know they’re not so easy to pull off as often as we would like. I’m guessing you may think and feel similarly. Work, school, and activity schedules, along with commute times and general fatigue, often create barriers to establishing the calm and settled dinner atmosphere I seek.
But the benefits of family meals are immeasurable. Lasting just an average of twenty minutes, shared family meal times have been associated with reduced risk for substance abuse, promotion of academic achievement, and reduced risk for child obesity. So here I begin again, with five simple dinner meals that include the plan, the list, and some flexibility. I hope you find them helpful as well…
MEAL #1: WRAPS
Who doesn’t love a wrap? Really. Wraps are simple to plan, fun to make, and tasty to eat. Plus, offering different options for wrap inclusion satisfies everyone’s food preferences and possible dietary restrictions. Here are a few items to include on your wrap list:
- Four, corn or rice tortillas
- 1 can black beans or vegetarian refried beans
- Shredded cheddar or Monterey jack cheese
- Reduced-fat sour cream or Greek yogurt
- Salsa and/or guacamole
- Diced tomatoes
- Shredded lettuce
- Sliced peppers
Alternatives: Lean ground beef, ground turkey, soy crumbles, diced baked tofu. Or turn it into a taco for a crunchy alternative.
Assembly: As you wish.
Accompaniments: Brown rice or quinoa and a simple green salad.
MEAL #2: BURGERS
Burgers? Yes – burgers. So easy! Put these on your meal plan every week and offer a different adaption each time.
- Veggie burgers, or lean ground beef for the carnivores among us
- Whole wheat buns
- Cheese slices as preferred
- Lettuce, tomato, ketchup, mustard, salsa, etc.
Alternatives: Black bean burgers, falafel, turkey burgers
Assembly: You know this one. : )
Accompaniments: Baked sweet potato fries and steamed or roasted broccoli
MEAL #3: PASTA
Pasta is a fantastic foundation for meals. You can make it as simple or complex as you would like. Depending on your time and energy level, simply add a jar of sauce, or get fancy. Here are a few ideas for add-ons.
- 1 pound pasta of your choice (plain, whole wheat, gluten free)
- 1 small jar prepared pesto
- 1 can diced tomatoes or 1 small jar of prepared bruschetta
- Shaved parmesan
Alternatives (pasta): Cheese or vegetable-filled ravioli or tortellini.
Alternatives (add-ons): One jar prepared olive tapenade and roasted red peppers; 1 can tuna, 1 can white beans, chopped cherry tomatoes.
Assembly: Add the “add-ons” to the cooked pasta and top with shaved Parmesan.
Accompaniments: Fresh spinach salad with cherry tomatoes and shaved Parmesan
MEAL #4: SALAD BAR
Low prep and self-assembly are the success features of this evening’s meal. Salad bars are satisfactory for both vegetarians and non-vegetarians, and kids enjoy salads when they can build them.
Here’s a suggested list of options. Pick and choose the ones that work for your family:
- Mesclun greens for the base
- Diced tofu or chicken
- Canned tuna or salmon
- Canned beans or chickpeas, rinsed and drained
- Shredded cheese, feta or gorgonzola crumbles, or fresh mozzarella
- Shredded or baby carrots
- Diced or cherry tomatoes
- Black, green, or kalamata olives
- Toasted sunflower or pumpkin seeds
- Broccoli and cauliflower florets
- Chopped pecans or walnuts
- Olive oil and balsamic vinegar, and/or natural lower fat salad dressings of your choosing
Alternatives: Everything is an alternative for salads. Pick what you like.
Accompaniments: Baked potato with Greek yogurt or toasted focaccia bread
Meal #5: MIDDLE EASTERN EVENING
You’ve made it to the end of the work/school week, and pizza just won’t cut it. Here’s a meal to round out the week, and easy to serve a crowd. Vary the amounts based on your needs. Again, this is for self-assembly.
- 1 – 2 boxes whole wheat couscous or quinoa
- 1 can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
- Chopped cucumber
- Diced fresh tomatoes
- Crumbled feta cheese
- Sliced kalamata olives
Alternatives: Add diced chicken, or swap out the chickpeas for chicken
Accompaniments: Warmed whole wheat pita bread, plain Greek yogurt
Whew! I feel better already, having a meal plan and a list to accommodate at least the first week of back to school/work in 2015. I’m sure you have 101 more ideas to vary, adapt, or add to these basic meals. If so, share them in the comments below!
Here’s to a New Year of family meals!
Anne Marie Kuchera, our Kids Plus Nutrition Consultant, is a Licensed Professional Counselor and Registered Dietitian.