I’ll have the number #4 combo or who has time for family meals?!

By: Ann Condon-Meyers, RD, LDN, Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC
ann condon meyers

Spring is finally on its way. As the slow, gloomy days of winter recede, spring emerges as the time of year when our lives seem to speed up. Thoughts about time, plus the fact that March is National Nutrition Month, give me the chance to talk about a difficult obstacle most parents face regarding family meals.

A new survey, just released by National Public Radio (NPR) with the Robert R. Johnson Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health, describes the difficulties parents experience when trying to serve nutritious family meals. Researchers interviewed 800 families about their thoughts and practices concerning the health of their children in regard to food and exercise.

The good news is, most parents responded that they understand how important good nutrition is to their child’s health. They understand that obesity is a serious problem for our children. In addition, they know that sitting down to a family meal is a good predictor of positive family relationships and good health. Parents believe exercise is another important component of a healthy lifestyle for their kids. In fact, two-thirds of those surveyed thought their children got some type of exercise every day.

The bad news is, many parents admitted that they are not providing nutritious meals consistently to their families. Why? The most prevalent reason was that parents do not have enough time to prepare nutritious meals. Specifically, NPR talked with parents about the time between after school and bedtime known as the “Crunch Time” for families.

One of the parents interviewed, Paige Pavlik, said this about “Crunch Time”:

“It’s hard enough to get dinner on the table while trying to help them with homework. Once we do everything there is absolutely no time to go outside and take a walk or get any exercise. It’s simply come in, eat, sit down, do homework, go to bed…. And it makes me cry now. It just, it’s really hard. This isn’t how I thought family life was going to be.”

With parents working full-time (and more), there doesn’t seem to be enough time orMomDau_salad_148389481 energy in the day to prepare a nutritious dinner. Parents are tired mentally and physically when they come home from work, and the task of cooking a healthy meal is daunting. Along with busy schedules and homework, the time between dinner and bedtime seems short, difficult, and stressful.

So what can you change about your “Crunch Time” to enable you to fit in a sit-down meal that isn’t eaten in the car, a meal that does contain healthy foods, and a meal that is actually eaten by everyone?

There is no doubt about it: Preparing foods from scratch and cleaning up afterwards takes time. So, the first order of business is to examine what else has to be accomplished during the after-school hours.

Whether your child is in an after-school care program or simply at Grandma’s after school, make sure he or she is getting some exercise. Encourage outside or gym playing time for at least one hour. And if your child must be inside due to very bad weather or for reasons of safety, think whether about a planned activity such as dance, karate, or a sport such as basketball or volleyball, is feasible a few days a week without creating more stress for you, the parent!

It is essential that your children’s activities fit in with your family’s mealtime. Don’t over-schedule your child, and do skip those activities that demand too much family time. Unless you are raising the next Olympic athlete, allow just one or two activities per week. Too many activities and your child will not have time for play, relaxing, or homework, and you will not have time to prepare any family meals or to relax yourself later in the evening.

Next, establish when homework is to be done. Setting a schedule for homework after playtime, but before dinner, can help reduce the stress after dinner. Allow your children some screen time or more play time before they go to bed.

Since there is probably nothing you can do about your own work hours (at least, nothing less drastic than moving closer to your work for a shorter commute or changing jobs to be home earlier), accept that meals either need to be made ahead of time on your days off or be simple affairs made with nutritious foods.

Family_wPasta_125751876A frozen thin crust pizza with a salad and some fruit for dessert and a milk beverage to
drink is absolutely a healthy meal! Beyond this, you may want to teach yourself how to make a few simple well-liked meals. Remember to serve a milk beverage and water at each meal. Another general rule of thumb is to serve proteins and starches in the same amounts as vegetables and fruits at each meal.

And finally, remember life with kids is a journey full of interruptions and “roads not taken.” You don’t have to be perfect to be a good parent — just keep on trying different strategies until you find what works for your family. Recognize that not all attempts will succeed, but make them all with good intentions. Your kids will (eventually) love you for your efforts! Set your family’s priorities and stick to them. Most importantly, remember that although our children live with us for many years, the moments of happy family time are fleeting. Don’t get overwhelmed by the demands of your work or the demands of your child’s coaches and teachers.

Healthy eating is tied to family meals without interruptions, no matter how quick or simple the meal. How about a few healthy recipes to make a school night an enjoyable family night? Here are some quick dinners from mealmakeovermoms.com – a great website for busy parents.

Polynesian Shrimp Tacos

Makes 6 Servings

◦ 12 taco shells
◦ 1 tablespoon canola oil
◦ 1 pound frozen small cooked shrimp, thawed
◦ 1 teaspoon ground cumin
◦ 1 teaspoon chili powder
◦ 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
◦ One 15-ounce can black beans, drained and rinsed
◦ 1½ cups frozen corn kernels, thawed
◦ One 8-ounce can crushed pineapple, drained
◦ 1/2 cup salsa
◦ 1 cup shredded reduced-fat Cheddar cheese
◦ Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
◦ Optional Toppings: diced avocado, chopped tomato, light sour cream, shredded lettuce

1. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Bake the taco shells according to package directions and set aside.
2. While the shells are baking, heat the oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add the shrimp, cumin, chili powder, and garlic powder and cook until the shrimp are warmed through, about 1 minute (if using fresh shrimp, cook an additional 2 to 3 minutes).
3. Stir in the beans, corn, pineapple, and salsa and heat through, about 2 minutes. Add the cheese and heat until melted. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
4. Using a slotted spoon to remove any excess liquid, place a generous ½ cup of the shrimp mixture into each taco shell. Serve with optional toppings.

Tip: Use a soft flour tortilla if your children find hard taco shells difficult to bite into.

Nutrition Information per Serving (2 tacos): 380 calories, 13g fat (3g saturated, 0.5g omega-3), 540mg sodium, 41g carbohydrate, 6g fiber, 27g protein, 10% vitamin A, 15% vitamin C, 20% calcium, 20% iron

Corned Beef & Carrot Hash

Makes 4 Servings

◦ 1 tablespoon olive oil
◦ 3 cups frozen shredded hash brown potatoes
◦ 3 large carrots, shredded (about 3 cups) or one 10-ounce bag shredded carrots
◦ 8 ounces lean deli corned beef, diced
◦ 1 teaspoon onion powder
◦ 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
◦ 1/4 teaspoon salt
◦ Pinch freshly ground black pepper
◦ 1 cup 1% low-fat milk or 1 cup all-natural chicken broth
◦ 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour

1. Heat the oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add the potatoes, carrots, corned beef, onion powder, garlic powder, salt, and pepper. Cook, stirring frequently, until the potatoes and carrots are tender, about 10 minutes.
2. Meanwhile, whisk together the milk and flour in a medium bowl until well blended. Pour the milk mixture into the skillet and stir until heated through and thickened, about 2 minutes.

Nutrition Information per Serving: 240 calories, 6g fat (2g saturated), 660mg sodium, 30g carbohydrate, 5g fiber, 14g protein, 220% vitamin A, 20% vitamin C, 10% calcium, 10% iron

Chicken Pot Pie Bundles

Makes 6 Servings

◦ 1½ tablespoons canola oil, divided
◦ 1 large carrot, peeled and cut into 1/4-inch dice (about 1 cup)
◦ 1/2 small onion, cut into 1/4-inch dice (about 1/2 cup)
◦ 2 cloves garlic, minced
◦ 1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breast halves, cut into 1/2-inch dice
◦ 2 teaspoons chopped fresh tarragon or 1/2 teaspoon dried tarragon
◦ 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
◦ Pinch of black pepper
◦ 1 cup all-natural chicken broth
◦ 4 teaspoons cornstarch
◦ 3/4 cup frozen petite peas, thawed
◦ 3/4 cup frozen corn kernels, thawed
◦ 2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
◦ 12 egg roll wraps (NOT the smaller wonton wrappers)

5. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Heat 1 tablespoon of the oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add the carrot and onion and cook, stirring frequently, until softened, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic, and cook 1 minute more.
6. Stir in the chicken, tarragon, salt, and pepper. Cook until the chicken is no longer pink, about 5 minutes.
7. Place the broth and cornstarch in a bowl and whisk until well combined. Add to the skillet along with the peas and corn, and bring the liquid to a simmer, stirring constantly. Continue to simmer and stir gently until the sauce thickens, about 2 minutes.
8. To prepare the bundles, use a muffin pan with 12 medium-size cups (do not coat with nonstick cooking spray). Gently place 1 egg roll wrap into each cup, letting it extend over the sides.
9. Place a generous ¼ cup of the chicken mixture into each wrap, and sprinkle the Parmesan cheese on top. Fold the corners up and over the top of the filling and press to seal the edges (it doesn’t have to be perfect!). Brush the remaining oil on top of each bundle.
10. Bake until golden and crisp, 12 to 15 minutes. Cool slightly before eating.

Nutrition Information per Serving (2 bundles): 360 calories, 7g fat (1g saturated, 0.4 omega-3), 680mg sodium, 48g carbohydrate, 3g fiber, 24g protein, 70% vitamin A, 15% iron