It’s 8 a.m. on a Wednesday, I’ve been working for three hours, I just dropped my son off at school, my partner is still sleeping, and I’m already tired. The only thought in my head is “What am I going to do about dinner tonight?”
I’m guessing I’m not the only one with a busy family of picky eaters that need to eat every day. And sometimes it’s really hard to make sure we’re all eating a balanced diet of foods we (mostly) enjoy without feeling like a short-order cook. While I’m by no means perfect, I have developed a few habits and techniques that work for me and my family, most of the time.
Before we go into it, I will say that your family is different from mine, and that you and I are different. What works for me may not work for you. Or you may have already tried all of these ideas. However, I encourage you — like with most things in life — to get a little curious.
Be open-minded about trying something new, or trying something again after a few months or years.
Even if your toddler threw your butternut squash-laden mac and cheese on the floor six months ago, they may try it again now and love it. Also, who knows with toddlers anyway? Mine could act like I’m poisoning him with carrots, and five minutes later he’s eaten them all and wants “More! More! More! Pleeeease!”
Here are three styles of dinner prep that allow you to incorporate lots of veggies, healthy fats, protein, and carbs in ways that your family may really enjoy.
The recipe links I’ve included may sound terrible to you, or wonderful. They may also not into account allergies, sensitivities, or dietary preferences you have in your family. My hope is that it at least inspires you to try something new, or sparks some creativity for you in the kitchen.
One Pot Meals, Sheet Pan Dinners, Casseroles & More
I know — we’ve all had soggy, overcooked slow-cooker meals. There are however some amazing ways you can use these techniques to your advantage. Extra bonus: less dishes! If you have vegetable-averse people in your house, you can “sneak” extra veggies into most of these dishes by dicing them finely, or even pureeing them to add to sauces.
The idea here is simple: you make one thing for dinner that incorporates protein, vegetables, carbs, and healthy fats into the same dish. Some of the ingredients might not be loved by everyone, but you can make them either too small to notice, or easily eaten around. Add a salad or an extra vegetable to round out the meal if you like.
Do note that some kids are expert detectives when it comes to food, and can become quite suspicious of these meals. My house has a pretty strict “no tricks” policy for mealtimes, so I have to provide full disclosure of all ingredients beforehand. They often try the meal offered anyway, and most of the time are surprised to find they like it, even though it has onions — somehow the most dreaded food of all time around here.
Here are a few ideas for easy dinners you can do in one easy go. Do a search for “one-dish dinners”, “healthy slow cooker meals” to find thousands more. You can also use a couple ingredients you have on hand to let Google help you decide what to cook. Search for “chicken carrots and potatoes in crock pot” and you’ll get over ten million results.
- Slow cooker oats, grains, and fruit for breakfast
- Mushroom barley risotto (vegetarian)
- Smoky beanless chili
Chicken with rice in one pot — this can be so versatile you can do:
Electric Pressure Cooker
“Cafeteria Style” Meals
For some families, the idea of making a single pot of food that everyone is going to eat is laughable. Offering many choices that family members can pick and choose from to build a meal they will enjoy can be a better recipe for success.
If you like setting aside some time each week for meal prep, this can be a great solution to the “what’s for dinner” question. It also saves you time from preparing a lot of different foods every night. Make a few protein options, carb options, and veggie options so there is a good selection to choose from. It could look like this:
On Sunday afternoon you make a bunch of food:
- Put a pork shoulder in the slow cooker for pulled pork
- Roast a big tray of vegetables
- Steam a large pot of rice
- Bake some meatballs
- Grill several chicken breasts
- Bake sweet potatoes or squash
- Make a pot of soup
Then, when it’s time for dinner, these options are available for everyone. Dad wants meatballs and rice. One of the kids wants a sweet potato stuffed with pulled pork and a little BBQ sauce on top. You have a bowl of soup. Boom — dinner is served!
Everyone Gets Their Favorite — Sometimes
If you have kids who you want to encourage to help out in the kitchen, a great way to get them excited — or at least willing to help — is to get them working on their “favorite” meals. The principle is simple: sometimes what’s served is your favorite dinner, and sometimes it’s another family member’s. We all take turns getting to eat what we like best, and know that if we don’t like what’s for dinner tonight, we can be respectful to the family member who chose it, and know our favorite is coming tomorrow.
If your teenager asks for pizza as their favorite meal for the week, have them look online for a recipe and have them help make it — or even cook it all on their own! If your partner wants grilled salmon and roasted veggies, they can stop at the store on their way home to pick out the ingredients. Your five-year-old wants chili and cornbread? They can come in the kitchen and help stir the pot. It’s your favorite? Great, you’re helping!
Of course, there are lot of things that go into good nutrition besides what you make for dinner. Instilling good nutritional habits with your children starts at a very young age — they are watching and learning from you every day!
The same way toddlers learn to use the remote control or swipe up on a phone, they are watching what we eat and the way we talk about food before we even realize it.
With this in mind, here are some further tips that can help you encourage great nutritional habits with your family.
Make Snacks Available
By that I mean “the snacks you want your family to eat”. We all tend to eat whatever is easiest. If your child opens the refrigerator and sees a bowl of cut up fresh vegetables, string cheese, hard-boiled eggs, and fresh fruit, they might just grab that instead of digging into the back for the cookies. Same for a cupboard: keep nuts, dried fruit, jerky, or whatever non-perishable snacks you want to eat in front of the cupcakes, chocolate-coated bars, candy and anything else you may not want as a first option.
Be Aware of the Way You Talk About Food
The way you talk about food is going to influence your family, period. Pay attention to the things you say regarding food over the next week. Do you find yourself talking about food being “good” “bad”, “clean”, “right” or “wrong”? Maybe you say things like “I’m going to be ‘bad’ and have dessert tonight.” Think about how that could impact your children and their friends, and if there are better words you could use instead.
We have a strict No-Ewww policy in our house. It’s OK if you don’t like something, and of course you are welcome to voice that opinion, but in a respectful way. Someone else may like it, and they may even love it, so we are mindful of the way we talk about other people’s food choices. My food, my business, so to speak.
In Erika Nicole Kendall’s article, How to Give Culturally Sensitive Nutrition Advice, you can see how discussing food is discussing culture, and demonizing cultural recipes is a great way to distance yourself from friends, family, and clients. I’ve never been in the business of telling people what foods are “healthy” or “good for you” — my goal is to empower you to make nutritional choices for you and your family that feel good, meet your unique needs, and allow you to spend your time as you choose, whether that’s in the kitchen or not.
Set (or Reset) Your Expectations
My husband straight up hates vegetables. All of them. He may eat a leaf of iceberg lettuce on a bacon cheeseburger, but that’s about it. When our relationship got more serious, as we got married, and now that our son is growing up, I had to come to terms with the fact that he may never love vegetables like I do. He may never even tolerate them. I learned to let go of expectations around how my husband eats because it really isn’t my responsibility.
My son’s nutritional habits are more of my responsibility, at least for now, and I’m doing my best to make healthy options available to him. I encourage him to try new things, and I let the rest go. He’s three: some days are better than others, and some days all he eats is fresh fruit. But I have friends who wish their three-year-old would eat fresh fruit.
The point is, the way we eat and the way our family eats will never be perfect, and it may never even be ideal. We do the best we can, knowing everyone is going to be OK at the end of the day. Even if they hated dinner.