by Alexis Williams
Monday night swimming lessons, Tuesday night dance class, Wednesday night run club… is this starting to sound familiar? Busy lives are common and with all these activities that support a more active life for ourselves and our families, it’s easy to forget about the long-past tradition of sitting down at the table for a weeknight family dinner. While it may seem easier to run through the drive-thru on a busy night, you’ll quickly undo the good you’re doing by being active. The good news is that there is a way to find a balance and have the best of both worlds.
Family meals are important. Whether you’re a family of one or 10, there are benefits to home-cooked meals. Nutritionally speaking, we tend to consume fewer calories, sugar, salt and fat when we cook our own meals versus eating out. It also provides a great opportunity to teach children valuable food skills. ‘Food skills’ is a bit of a buzzword in the health world these days as we’ve come to realize that basic cooking skills are not being transferred to the younger generations, leading to increased consumption of restaurant and prepared foods. Family meals also have psychological benefits, such as a chance for parents to talk about important subjects at the dinner table and to have time to share and socialize together.
So, how to we put family meals back on the table in our busy world? It is as simple as planning and using some old and new gadgets to help. We also need to cut ourselves some slack in the cooking department and keep things simple. A healthy meal doesn’t have to be prepared from a recipe or involve any actual cooking, and it definitely doesn’t have to look like if came off a television show.
Start with the basics and evaluate how confident you feel in the kitchen. Do you feel like you can creatively pull together meals without a lot of instructions? Do you have basic food preparation skills? If you don’t feel confident, consider going to a cooking class to learn some basic techniques. While professional chefs make things look easy and elaborate, don’t stress if you don’t master fast and efficient knife skills right away or your meals don’t look magazine-worthy. The most important thing you can take away from classes is to learn how to combine ingredients and simple cooking techniques. Many grocery stores offer cooking classes, or look for public health programs focused around basic cooking skills in your community.
Another way to learn about food is to look at recipes on the internet or in cookbooks. Use recipes to learn how to combine spices and flavours as a starting point—but once you have learned a little, don’t be afraid to wing it. Understanding flavour combinations is a big step in creating simple, flavourful meals.
Recipes are fantastic sources of ideas, but they can be time-consuming if they are too complicated. Every meal doesn’t require a recipe. In fact, going “un-recipe” where you look at what you have on hand and get creative is where the fun starts. It also builds your skills in the kitchen by forcing you to think about what ingredients go well together and how you are going to prepare them. You may have some disaster meals along the way, but try to make light of it and have fun. When choosing recipes, look for those with five or fewer ingredients and adjust to them suit your taste buds. Don’t feel you have to precisely measure spices and herbs (this will save you time and leave you with fewer measuring spoons to wash).
Advance meal planning is a key ingredient in successful at-home meals. Here are some useful tips:
Make it a habit
Pick a set day and time every week to jot down your meal plan and make a list of what you need at the grocery store. You can create weekly cycles if you like simplicity, or be creative each week. Keep in mind your activities as you plan. For busy nights, consider using your slow cooker so you can prepare a meal in the morning, then “set it and forget it”. You can also do bulk meal preparation if you have some freezer space. Simply combine the ingredients you would normally put in your slow cooker and freeze in one container or bag, to be pulled out the night before it’s needed. Another option for busy nights is to have unconventional dinners. Sandwiches, salads, soup, oatmeal, and smoothies can all work at dinnertime, and may actually be easier to digest than many classic dinners if you are exercising. You can also try having your larger meal (leftovers) for lunch on the days you have workouts planned at night.
Cook once and eat two or three times
Having chicken breasts on Monday night? Cook extra and have chicken fajitas on Tuesday night. Use leftover fish to make your own salmon salad for sandwiches the next day. If you have a very busy night, you can always make two lunches and have the second one ready to grab when you come home (or to eat on the go). The possibilities are endless when you think ahead.
Plan your veggies first
If half our plate is supposed to be vegetables, then they shouldn’t be an afterthought. Try planning your veggies first so you don’t get stuck in the rut of eating the same ones all the time. Many grocery stores have recipe cards or books that tell you about unique vegetables you haven’t tried before.
Keep your pantry well stocked
Mason jars are a hip and functional way to store a variety of dried ingredients you need on hand for your meal adventures. Make sure to label them with the item and date so you don’t find yourself questioning a mystery ingredient. Painter’s tape or masking tape and a Sharpie will do the trick for labelling. Keep a variety of spices, dried herbs, beans, grains (e.g. quinoa, amaranth, oats, rice) and other staples on hand. Many bulk food stores have cooking tip sheets with the bulk products so you can learn how to use new bulk foods.
Get the kids involved
Not only will you teach them valuable life skills, they will have a vested interest in the outcome and be more likely to eat something that they helped prepare. Simple tasks like peeling, washing, and helping fetch the right kitchen tools are great ways to involve children.
Go high-tech if it helps
There are many useful apps and websites that can guide your efforts.
For example, Cookspiration is an app created by Dietitians of Canada to provide recipe ideas for all kinds of schedules and taste preferences. There are a variety of “grocery list” apps that allow you to go paperless. And EatRight Ontario’s website (www.eatrightontario.ca) has a section devoted to menu planning tools.
By planning your meals and eating at home, you can make a huge impact on your health and save time, money and stress along the way. Until next time, happy cooking!
SPICE IT UP
Here are a few simple combinations to get you started. These can be used on vegetables, grains or proteins to add flavour.
Italian: 2 tbsp. each of dried basil, oregano, thyme and marjoram; 1 tbsp. each of dried rosemary and sage. Makes 10 tablespoons.
Mexican (Taco): 1 tbsp. chili powder; 1½ tsp. ground cumin; 1 tsp. each sea salt and black pepper; ½ tsp. dried oregano; ¼ tsp. each of garlic powder, onion powder, and crushed red pepper flakes. Makes one ounce.
Indian (Garam Masala): 1½ tsp. each of ground coriander, ground cardamom and ground black pepper; 1 tsp. each of ground cinnamon and ground cumin; ½ tsp. each of ground cloves and ground nutmeg. Makes 4 tablespoons.
In addition to the simple combinations above, you can purchase pre-blended spices and herbs in the grocery store. Look for salt-free versions or ones with salt listed lower on the ingredient list.
Spice mixes courtesy of all recipes.com
Alexis Williams is the Senior Director of Wellness at Loblaw Companies Limited.