By Guest Blogger 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.  So, 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.

As a full-time working mom, I understand the challenge of not only getting a healthy meal on the table, but of coordinating schedules to make sure everyone is present.   However, as a registered dietitian, I also understand the importance of gathering together at mealtime when it comes to the overall health and happiness of your household.  Research shows that children who eat frequent meals with their family have better nutrition, higher grades, increased self-esteem and exhibit less risky behaviors.

In honor of October as “Eat Better, Eat Together Better” month, I want to help take the stress out of mealtime by following 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 According to data from the Hartman Group, more than half of the dinners in America (53%) are planned within an hour of eating. Sound familiar?  Avoid that last-minute stress and the inevitable, not-so-healthy drive-thru by making a weekly menu and save your family money by shopping smarter using a list. Research shows that when a list is used to shop, forty 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.  Remember, when planning meals, 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 Meal prep goes beyond a Pinterest fad, it is a vital way to save time and boost nutrition. In fact, research shows the greater the amount of time spent on home food preparation, the higher the diet quality, including significantly more frequent intake of vegetables, salads, fruits, and dairy.  Take advantage of extra time on weekends that you probably won’t have on hectic week nights.  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

Pack your Pantry We’ve all been there.  Staring into the fridge, trying to figure out what to throw together for dinner.  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 fruits and 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

Ingredients:

~ 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

Directions:

~ Preheat oven to 350˚. Coat an 8-x8-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.

Also, don’t forget that families can enjoy quality mealtime together at restaurants too. If you are looking for a new or popular family restaurant, TMoM has several directories dedicated to “Favorite Dining Options in the Triad.” Click HERE to view!

Want to see more blogs like this and get notifications on local events and happenings? Subscribe to our free weekly newsletters here.