“What’s for dinner tonight?” It’s a daunting question that most busy parents face.
If there’s one thing you’d think I’d be good at, it would be feeding my family. After all, as a registered dietitian specializing in family health, it’s pretty much my job to come up with healthy, balanced meal options for even the pickiest palates. But I’m also a parent of a 3-year-old and an almost one-year-old, and I know that no one gets to escape the nightly kitchen chaos.
Getting dinner onto the table each night might as well be a video game, and I was always terrible at those. I have two young daughters and am working on getting my family health business off the ground. Blessedly, my girls are in childcare while I work, but the second they get home, the pandemonium starts. Will I need to dodge a toddler tantrum? Escape to my office for a last-minute call? Search high and low for a creative substitution for that ingredient I swear I already had? Nurse the baby while shouting kitchen tasks to my perplexed spouse?
The frustrating truth is that, short of hiring a full-time personal chef (a gal can dream…) making sure that our families eat well amid the demands of our modern lives takes a bit of trial and error and a lot of planning and patience. But the good news is that there are quite a few products lurking in the grocery store that have been engineered to aid us in this endeavor — without making us feel like we’re taking shortcuts with our family’s health. These are the ones I couldn’t live without.
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#1 Pre-shredded carrots
I truly do not know by what magic these carrots stay fresh, but I have pulled bags of this wonder product from the fridge over a month after its sell-by date and still discovered crispy, fresh carrots. Grated carrots these are not; they’re crunchier and certainly don’t turn brown after a few minutes on the counter. Toss them onto salads, into quick stir-fries and soups, layer them on a sandwich or even pass your child a bowl of them to nosh on pre-dinner.
#2 Seasoning blends
Get this: All the seasonings you need to take your meal from drab to fab…in the same jar! Okay, it’s not revolutionary but it’s definitely a time saver. With a small arsenal of seasoning blends, you will quite possibly never rifle through your spice drawer for multiple past-their-prime single ingredients ever again. If you’re overwhelmed by the available choices, start with these three: a savory blend for beef and pork, an herbal blend for chicken and fish and a Mexican-inspired blend for tacos and quesadillas.
#3 Steam-in-the-bag broccoli and cauliflower florets
Available either frozen or in the produce section, this cruciferous equivalent of bagged lettuce can be popped right into the microwave for a fast and nutritious side dish. Not into microwaving plastic, no matter how safe the manufacturer claims it to be? Just open the bag, toss the florets with some olive oil and your favorite seasoning blend and roast at 450F for 20 minutes.
#4 Frozen rice
“How hard is it to cook rice?” people will ask. “Just get a rice cooker!” As someone who has burned way too many batches of rice, let me tell you, it’s just not worth it. Cooking brown rice on the stovetop takes 45 minutes that I don’t have and I’m not willing to invest in another kitchen appliance when a product so wondrous as flash-frozen rice exists. You can either microwave it for two to three minutes to serve as a side dish or add the still-frozen rice directly to dishes like casseroles and stir-fries.
#5 Cooked chicken sausage
I’m talking about the kind that comes in appetizing flavors like roasted garlic or spinach and feta. Since this sausage is already cooked, you can quickly chop some up to add to pasta dishes, frittatas, pizza or quesadillas. And if you’ve got kids who aren’t into eating the “adult” meal just yet, you can easily serve a few sliced rounds on your child’s plate while the grown-ups dig into the main meal.
#6 Whole wheat tortillas
While I do buy bread, I prefer tortillas and always keep a stash on hand for one very good reason: they last longer! I will go so far as to say that tortillas are the single most important ingredient to have on hand for quick, low-fuss meals. Slap something into a tortilla, whether it’s quesadilla filling, lunch meat or the remainder of yesterday’s salad and you’ve got a genuine meal. They’re particularly useful for weekend lunches or when one kid needs to eat before the rest of the family due to extracurriculars or general hangriness.
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#7 Frozen fruit
Sure, frozen fruit is a smoothie staple, but it’s worth keeping on hand for other options, too. Fruits like pineapple and mango lend themselves well to eating just as you would fresh fruit once they’ve defrosted. This is a lifesaver for me when I haven’t been able to make it to the store for fresh fruit, but I want to add something to my daughter’s daycare lunch. I’ll also add frozen blueberries to cereal or oatmeal when breakfast is looking particularly carb-heavy and have even served still frozen strawberries as a side dish with dinner.
#8 Plain Greek yogurt
Remember how Greek yogurt wasn’t really a thing when you were growing up? I’m not actually sure how my parents got by, because this is the most versatile ingredient in my kitchen. Sure, we eat it for breakfast with granola, but it also subs for sour cream and mayo, makes for a simple chicken marinade and is the foundation of fun dips for veggies and fruit – pair it with an herbal seasoning blend for veggies or a touch of honey and vanilla extract for fruit. I also often swap it for buttermilk in muffin and pancake recipes, because really, who buys buttermilk?
#9 Omega-3 enriched eggs
Okay, clearly any kind of eggs are a super convenient ingredient to have on hand. Frittatas are a quick and tasty way to use up leftovers, a fried egg can top anything from rice or grain bowls to pizza and burgers. Scrambled eggs or egg salad are also great lunch options (wrap in a tortilla if you prefer a sandwich experience) But I like Omega-3 enriched eggs because they’re enriched with a nutrient essential for your children’s growing brains and pretty good for your health, too. So if you’re buying eggs anyway, why not tack on that additional nutritional punch?
How could a list of convenient foods for families be complete without a mention of pasta? Surely this is not news to you, so I’ll share a way that you can make cooking pasta even easier. Do you know you don’t have to boil pasta separately before adding it to your dish? Try this next time: Saute some veggies in a large pot, then add about three cups of liquid (a mix of water and milk is tasty) for every eight ounces of pasta you’re cooking. Stir occasionally until the liquid is absorbed and your dish is done! Not feeling veggies tonight? The same trick works with marinara sauce.
#11 Canned beans
Quesadillas, wraps, salads, chili, soups, salads, pasta. I dare you to name a dish that can’t be enhanced with beans. Canned beans sometimes get a bad rap due to concerns over Bisphenol A (BPA) contamination but this is no reason to skip the garbanzos and pintos. The FDA asserts that BPA is safe at the levels currently used in food manufacturing, but if the prospect of any trace BPA still concerns you, many brands are now BPA-free. Stock up on canned beans of any variety and I guarantee your family will reap the benefits of this convenient, fiber-packed protein source far more often than they would if you insisted on (read: never got around to) cooking them from dried.
#12 Shelf-stable milk
If you’ve got a family of milk drinkers, I highly recommend having a carton or two of shelf-stable milk in your pantry. While it may not become the primary milk product that you buy, you will be thanking the dairy gods that it’s there when you shake your refrigerated milk carton at 10 pm to discover it’s nearly empty and you’re facing a late-night trip to the store to stock up on milk for tomorrow’s breakfast. While some find the taste to be slightly different, the nutritional value largely remains the same.
Look for the shortcuts
These 12 items serve up key nutrients, are adaptable, inexpensive, and easy to use for multiple meals. Quite honestly, they’re the only way I’d survive. Embrace the shortcuts, embrace your sanity, and enjoy a home-cooked meal.
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Diana K. Rice, RD, LD, is known as The Baby Steps Dietitian and is the founder of Diana K. Rice Nutrition, LLC, where she works with families to eat well and reduce the stress surrounding their food choices. She specializes in pre- and postnatal nutrition as well as feeding young children and is a strong advocate for cooking with kids, family meals, and body positivity. Her expertise has been featured in Fit Pregnancy, Parents, U.S. News and World Report, Today’s Dietitian, and many other publications. Follow her blog at dianakrice.com and connect with her on Facebook and Instagram.