Healthy Meals for Busy Families

Feeding a family is no mean feat. Follow these tips to whip up nutritious, delicious fare in a flash.

By Elizabeth Ward, MS, RD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed By Cynthia Haines, MD

Providing healthy meals is the ultimate challenge for harried parents. The kids are constantly on the go. And whether you work outside the home or inside, you likely have many demands on your time. Yet even if family meals are no longer the unhurried affairs you may remember, that doesn't diminish their importance.

Gathering together at the table allows your family to connect with each other. Family meals also help children learn good table manners. Just as important, they set the stage for a lifetime of healthy eating.

How can you preserve family mealtime and still meet your busy schedule? Here are a few simple strategies and tips that will have you whipping up nutritious and delicious family fare in a flash.

Rise and Dine: The Importance of Breakfast

If there is a most important meal, it must be breakfast. "Research shows that kids who eat breakfast on a regular basis take in more nutrients overall, including fiber; are less overweight; and fare better on academic tests than children who skip the morning meal," says Janice Bissex, MS, RD, co-author of The Moms' Guide to Meal Makeovers.

Breakfast's affects on academic performance is really a no-brainer: After about 10 hours or so without food, eating in the a.m. fuels the brain and body for the day ahead. Plus, it's a meal, so when you skip it, you miss out on opportunity to consume important nutrients, such as protein, calcium, fiber, and vitamins.

Good Breakfast Bets

Of course, what you eat for breakfast matters. "Complex carbohydrates are the cornerstone of the most beneficial breakfasts because they produce a long-lasting supply of glucose for the brain and body," Bissex says. "Breakfast should also contain protein, fiber, and some fat to help children and adults feel fuller longer."

Translation: Go for fortified whole-grain breakfast cereals, such as Wheat Chex or oatmeal prepared with milk instead of water. When topped with fresh, dried, or frozen fruit, breakfast cereals make a complete meal. And they are ready in a snap.

Time is always tight in the morning, but by keeping breakfast simple so you're sure to include it even on busy days. Here are some more quick and easy morning meals for the family:

  • Whole-grain toast topped with 1 1/2 ounces melted reduced-fat cheddar cheese; 1 cup cubed fruit
  • Fat-free latte; 1/2 whole-wheat English muffin with 1/2 cup low-fat cottage cheese; medium banana
  • Peanut butter pancake roll-ups: microwave two small frozen pancakes and spread with 2 tablespoons peanut butter; 1/2 cup grapes; 8 ounces 1% low fat or skim milk
  • Cooked oatmeal with applesauce swirled in; topped with raisins and chopped almonds; 8 ounces low-fat yogurt
  • 2 ounces smoked salmon on 1/2 whole-wheat bagel with low-fat cream cheese; 1 cup berries; 8 ounces 1% low-fat or skim milk
  • 8 ounces coffee flavored yogurt with 1/2 cup toasted wheat germ cereal mixed in; 1 plum or nectarine
  • Egg and pita sandwich: 1 egg scrambled in 1 teaspoon olive oil stuffed into whole-wheat pita pocket and topped with salsa; 8 ounces 1% low-fat or skim milk
  • Breakfast parfait: Layer 1 cup low-fat yogurt; 1/2 cup crunchy whole-grain cereal; and 1 cup fresh, chopped fruit, or whole berries

For Healthy Dinners, Plan to Succeed

For Chicago's Janet Helm, a working mother of 2-year old twins, planning is paramount for preparing healthy meals, particularly dinner. "You can't make nutritious foods without a well-stocked pantry, refrigerator, and freezer," says Helm, who is also a registered dietitian and nutrition consultant. "Knowing what you have on hand and where it is streamlines meal preparation."

"Prepared and take-out foods can serve as the centerpiece of a meal or as a side dish."

Helm notes that a well-stocked kitchen doesn't mean every meal is made from scratch. Frozen seafood, store-bought roasted chicken, and pre-cut and frozen fruits and vegetables are high on her shopping list because they are good for you and easy to use.

She tosses sauteed or frozen vegetables into store-bought spaghetti sauce for a healthy pasta dish. In a rush, she'll defrost veggie burgers, marinated meats, and frozen fish fillets for quick entrees (Tip: place individual pieces in a sealed plastic bag and immerse in a bowl of hot water. The meat or fish will defrost quickly without par-cooking).

Relying on Fast (but Nutritious) Food

When you're short on time and have not yet stocked your kitchen, prepared and take-out foods can serve as the centerpiece of a meal or as a side dish. A quick trip to the supermarket or a phone call to the local pizza parlor can be the beginning of a balanced meal as long as you include the right side dishes.