By Barbara Sobel.
We all want to serve our families healthy meals, but what does healthy eating really mean? The one thing most health experts agree upon is that eating at home is usually a healthier option than eating out. When we eat home cooked meals, we have control over the foods we eat. It is easier to eat fresh and whole foods rather than processed foods. Studies show that eating organic foods reduces our exposure to the harmful pesticides in crops and hormones fed to animals.
But how do we get from the idea of healthy meals to actually putting them on the table when we have no time to cook or shop?
I like to think about eating a healthy diet as a process. I set one small goal for my weekly meal plan, incorporate it into my diet, master it and then go on to the next small goal. We are all starting at different points. For you it may be eating more dinners at home, bringing your lunch to work or school or adding a vegetable or two to your daily meals. Will this be the week you shop the perimeter of the grocery store to avoid the more processed items usually located in the center of the store? Maybe you will commit to buying organic meats and dairy products this week. Will you avoid buying foods packaged in cans to avoid the bisphenol A (BPA) coating inside (even at low levels BPA is linked to breast and prostate cancer, obesity, early puberty and other diseases). Maybe you have read about the potential dangers of GMOs and will shop GMO free this week.
Preparing healthy meals for your family doesn’t have to be difficult, stressful, time consuming or expensive. It just takes some planning. Sit down at the beginning of the week and plan your meals for the week ahead. I have found that if I don’t do this, our meals become less healthy, less enjoyable and more expensive as the week goes on. I always leave a little room for a change in plan. Something unexpected always comes up.
Planning helps me get through difficult weeks. If I know one night is going to be crazy and I won’t have time to cook, I can cook something the night before that will give me a head start for the difficult day. Sometimes I will roast a chicken one night, add some salsa to the leftovers, throw it in a skillet and I have the base for really quick tacos. I love the days that I use my slow cooker. I prep everything in the morning and walk in the door after a long day to a dinner that is ready to eat.
Cook with more than one meal in mind
Think beyond making just one dinner. Almost any dinner makes a good lunch the next day. When I cook chili, soup or pasta sauce, I make enough for two nights or more and pop the extra in the freezer for those busy nights. Leftover rice or quinoa at dinner makes a delicious hot cereal for breakfast. Reheat it with some milk, fruit and a few nuts just like oatmeal. Extra salad will stay fresh for a day or two in a salad spinner or wrapped in a dishtowel and a bag in the vegetable box. When I chop onions, garlic or herbs, I chop extra so that the next time I need them, everything is cleaned, chopped and ready to go.
Long ago I learned to throw-out the rules about when to eat certain foods. Sometimes I eat left over grilled salmon for breakfast or eggs in a frittata for dinner. Nothing is better than warm chicken and rice soup on a cold winter morning or whole grain pancakes with fresh berries for dinner.
Buying organic food has a reputation of being expensive, but this isn’t always true. Studies show that fresh fruits and vegetables from the farmers market are cheaper than the same organic foods from the grocery store. I like to shop at the farmers market, but honestly I rarely have the time. I try to buy foods from the grocery store that are in season. They are often on sale. When I find a good deal on fresh organic berries at my big box store, I buy a big box and freeze them to add to smoothies and baked goods. Consider ordering a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) box. Farm fresh organic produce gets delivered to you weekly. CSAs are affordable and guarantee fresh produce is in the house. My CSA has turned my kids into vegetable lovers.
Buy nuts, beans, rice, and other organic staples in bulk. They are often much cheaper than the same staples found on the shelf. My favorite bulk item is garbanzo beans. After soaking overnight and boiling for about an hour, I serve with a swirl of olive oil and a fresh squeeze of lemon juice. The rest of the batch, I throw in the food processer with garlic, tahini, olive oil and lemon juice to make fresh hummus for snacks. Ask the butcher how best to prepare the cheaper cuts of meat. They have great suggestions. Create a meal with more emphasis on vegetables and less on the protein main course. It will significantly cut the cost.
Cooking healthy meals for my family is a long-term commitment. I look for inspiration to keep me going during those crazy weeks when everyone is going in a different direction. The Internet is a great source of simple, easy to prepare recipes. I like to get suggestions from “experts”. I ask the person at the fish counter what is good, and they suggest a fresh fish and share how to prepare it. I have been known to steal ideas from other cultures and make them my own. I make my own version of Chinese fried rice with whatever we have around the house. It probably wouldn’t make the cut at a restaurant, but my family thinks it is great. I find myself sharing ideas with friends and colleagues all the time.
Knowing that I can make positive changes to keep my family healthy has helped me stay focused on this journey toward healthy eating. At the end of the day, the last thing I want to do is think of what to make for dinner, stop at the grocery store and then come home to cook and clean up. Having a goal and a plan has made all the difference.
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Barbara Sobel is a mom who recently found herself adding a commute and longer hours to her day. Preparing healthy meals became a lot more challenging. She realized she needed to make some changes when she gave her teenage son money to stop for a burger snack on the way home from school because there was no food in the house — for the second day in a row. Barbara is communications and development consultant and a member of the MOMAS Advisory Board.