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Keep Your Family Happy and Healthy – Never Hungry

Getting a healthy dinner on the table that your family will eat can be a daily stressor – probably because we have to do it day in and day out. Even those of us who love food and enjoying cooking (that would be me) can get worn out from the constant task (that would be me, too.)

So, this past month, I was eager to work with Libby’s on their Dinner Dilemma initiative to help answer the timeless question, “what’s for dinner?” Here are a few solutions that have worked for me:

Schedule Supper: It almost sounds silly but putting a family meal (when everyone can be around the table) on the calendar makes it more likely that you will get a plan in place. Menu planning is my Achilles heel – I’m more of a “see what we’re in the mood for” cook – but I find if I schedule weekly dinners in advance, I’m less stressed and my family is, too.

Cook Once, Eat Twice: Leftovers are time savers but are even better when you can transform them into a completely new meal. One of my favorite repurposed recipes is to make a big batch of tomato sauce with extra lean ground turkey. I serve it over pasta and then the next night, add some beans and spices for a chili dinner. Or if I make grilled chicken with brown rice one night, I use the leftovers to stuff whole wheat tortillas for burritos the next night.


Do a Dinner Flip: As a kid, I loved when we had breakfast for dinner and as an adult, I realize it was my mom’s way of whipping up a quick, no-brainer meal (usually scrambled eggs with bacon.) In my house, we do multi-grain pancakes or even oatmeal for dinner, paired with cut fruit, veggie sticks and slices of cheese. Sometimes, I’ll even serve dessert first in the form of parfaits layered with nonfat Greek yogurt, sliced fruit, crushed whole grain cereal and nuts.

Upgrade Take-Out: There’s nothing wrong with pizza night (a Friday night staple for my family) especially when you load on the veggie toppings. Pair with a jazzed up salad and you got a nutritious and easy meal (plus Ieftover pizza is a great grab-and-go breakfast the next day!)

Check out Libby’s “What’s for Dinner?” board on Pinterest for more tasty solutions to mealtime.

And for more creative mealtime tips and ideas, click over to my post on Family Meals Matter and this Multitask Cooking post.

Veg Out

Let’s face it. Whether we’re facing picky eaters or we’re in a salad rut, most of us could use a boost when it comes to enjoying more vegetables.

When serving veggies to kids, it’s very important to avoid setting veggies up as undesirable– as in “eat two more bites of broccoli and then you can have dessert.” Rather, serve them and then let the kids decide how much they want (you can suggest a “try it” bite.) And remember, they need to see you eating your veggies, too. Here are some ideas on how to do just that:

Serve Them For Breakfast
Vegetables are a morning staple for many cultures around the globe. A few basic ideas to start your day with a veggie serving:

  • Cook up a mini-omelet with eggs, chopped spinach or mixed veggies. Layer with cheese on a small bagel.
  • Grab a piece of leftover vegetable pizza
  • Sauté chopped onions, bell peppers and sweet peas with scrambled eggs. Wrap into whole wheat tortilla.
  • Pair raw, crunchy veggies with a peanut butter and lowfat vanilla yogurt dip.

Make Them Sweet With Heat
Roasting veggies brings out a natural sweetness – my go-to recipe is toss raw or canned veggies with a few tablespoons of olive oil, minced garlic, dash of salt & pepper. Herbs and spices also bring out the best in veggies. Some combos for the oven:

  • Carrots + cinnamon + nutmeg
  • Green beans + ginger + sesame seeds
  • Broccoli + tarragon + garlic
  • Cauliflower + cumin + lemon zest

Give Them a Whirl
While I’m not a big fan of hiding veggies in food (again, implies veggies are the bad guys,) pureeing cooked veggies can enhance a recipe both in taste and nutrition. It’s up to you whether or not you tell the family what’s in the dish!

  • Mix pureed butternut squash or pumpkin into homemade mac & cheese
  • Puree onions and carrots into tomato sauce for pasta or pizza
  • Blend root veggies like turnips or parsnips with potatoes for a rich, creamy soup base.
  • If you’re feeling adventurous, blend spinach or kale into a fruit smoothie.

Family Meals Matter

Believe me, I get it – gone are the days of seven days a week, dinner around the table with the entire immediate family (if you do manage this, I truly admire you!) But while it may not be happening every night, nowadays with a grim economy and unemployment rising, most of us have cleaned the clutter off our kitchen table (or maybe just put it on a chair like myself) and are dining in instead of out. While the current financial picture may be motivation enough to eat at home more often, unfortunately, it doesn’t always mean we’re eating together as a family. You may be surprised that there are so many benefits, besides healthier eating habits, which can be credited to the family meal. Take a look:

OK, we’re convinced – but HOW can we make this work with our overbooked lives and truly “get back to the table”? Here are three basic tips:

Schedule Family Dinner
Whether it be a Smartphone sync, a day planner or a good old fashioned calendar, get out whatever you use to coordinate schedules and mark down “FAMILY DINNER” for at least one more night a week than you’ve been doing it. And here’s the extra challenge: besides an emergency, do not bump it once it’s on the calendar (unless you can reschedule for the very next day.)

Keep It Simple
Of course the food selection is important, but don’t let visions of a turkey with trimmings or three courses from scratch thwart your family time efforts. This dietitian says a take-out pizza, salad and pitcher of milk can count as great dinner, too.  And of course, Libby’s has you covered when it comes to convenient, nutritious and delicious recipes.

No Multitasking at the Table
Make the family dinner table a cell phone-TV-computer-handheld-free zone. Without these major distractions, it’s easier to ask about everyone’s day, share stories or even tell jokes. The key is to have an actual conversation with your entire family.

Back to the Lunch Sack

For many of us, back to school time means to back to the lunch packing grind. But before you start singing the lunch box blues, here are some ways to keep the fun (and nutrition) in your kids’ midday meals:

Beyond PB&J – While some kids prefer the same thing everyday, others may be up for a sandwich switch up. Mix it up by using different breads like flatbreads or whole wheat wraps like these Green Wheels and Ham Sammies. Try shredded carrots or avocado slices instead of the basic lettuce. Upgrade American cheese to Muenster, havarti or fresh mozzarella slices.

All In One – Think about one-dish dinner leftovers rolling over into a fulfilling next day lunch. Items such as hearty soups, chilis, leftover casseroles, or pasta salads make for easy packing and lunchtime satisfaction like Kicked-Up Mac & Cheese or Tortilla Chip Macaroni & Bean Soup.

Be a Green Packer – Say goodbye to those plastic baggies. Instead, get some hip, reusable sandwich bags like Lunchskins or WasteNot Saks – they come in a variety of cool colors and designs and are dishwasher safe. Visit for a wide selection of eco-friendly packing solutions – get your kids to pick out their favorites.

Go Bento– A longtime lunch packing staple in Japan, bento boxes are becoming more popular here and are a terrific way to pack a fun and well-balanced meal.  Some bento “friendly” foods include cut up fruit, raw veggies, bean dips, whole grain crackers, cubed cheese and mixed nuts.

Keep the Treat–As a dietitian, I’m all about packing each of the food groups but there’s always room for a small dessert – and it doesn’t have to be a prepackaged or overly processed sweet. On weekends, I like to bake with my daughter so whether it’s a simple chocolate chip cookie or one of these fun Carrot Cake Bites – the whole family can enjoy a little homemade goodness in their lunches during the week.

Picky Eaters: Tips for the Table

Even though I’m a dietitian and my 4 year old helps in the kitchen, I still deal with a fair share of eating ruts, dinner skipping and basic picky eating from my dear daughter.

So what’s a parent to do? Have faith that your kids are probably getting enough to eat but to go beyond the grilled cheese and chicken fingers, here are some ways to expand kids’ culinary and nutrition horizons:

Keep on Trying– Did you know it may take up to 15 exposures to a food before a kid accepts it? Understandably, parents often give up after a few attempts and chalk it up to something Johnny doesn’t like. Instead, continue to encourage but without forcing the issue. And avoid the “clean plate” ideal – as long as your child takes a few bites, it’s better than forcing food, which leads to a negative impression.

Rename the Plain – In a Cornell University study, four-year-olds ate nearly twice as much of a vegetable when it had a fun name like “Power Peas” or “X-Ray Vision Carrots.” Unlike sneaking veggie purees into brownies or sauces, this technique shows kids exactly what they are eating. Get creative and serve up “Dinosaur Broccoli Trees” or “Princess Green Apples.”

Dip & Dunk – It’s amazing how something as simple as a condiment gives a dish a whole new light a child’s eye. Plus, they love having command over their food.

  • Serve peanut butter-yogurt dip with raw fruits and veggies
  • Combine corn, black beans and salsa; pair with baked tortilla chips
  • Mix applesauce and cinnamon for whole-wheat toast dippers

Cook with Kids– Sure, it can be a hassle to have your children involved when you are rushing to get dinner together. But just 15 minutes of assistance from a tiny sous chef can eventually pay off into healthier eating. The feeling of control and independence often inspires kids to try new things. Here are some age-appropriate tasks:

  • Toddlers: Rip lettuce/greens; wash produce in bowl of water
  • Preschoolers: Cut fruit/vegetables with plastic knife; toss salad
  • Tweens: Separate eggs; blend a smoothie; stir ingredients for baking
  • Teens- Plan a dinner menu, grocery shop and prepare the main dish

And remember, did you like to eat everything when you were a kid?

Good Grill Hunting

As summer kicks in and temperatures soar, grilling rules. And what better way to simplify family meals while taking advantage the warm weather? Here are some tips on making it healthy but hearty enough for everyone:

Don’t Smoke – Avoid cooking on high heat for longer periods of time as this can produce carcinogens that have been linked to certain types of cancer. Cut off any burnt or black bits before eating. Also get in the habit of scrubbing down the grill rack after each use. Removing excess food prevents future charring, smoke and off-flavors in your food.

Look to Lean- The leaner the protein, the less chance of fat drippings causing smoke and burnt food. Look for cuts of loin, round or leg when selecting beef, pork or lamb. Try different fillets of fish (wrapped in foil.) Choose extra-lean ground beef, chicken or turkey for patties. Cook up veggie kabobs brushed in olive oil or grill portabella mushrooms for a rich, flavorful “burger”.

Dunk or Rub- Marinating or rubbing spices on meats and chicken before grilling adds flavor and may also reduce the formation of carcinogens. Use about ½ cup marinade for each pound of protein. Always discard the remaining marinade – never reuse after raw meat has touched it.

Think Outside the Grill – Get out of your steak, burger and hot dog rut. You can experiment with chili (place a cast iron pot right on the grill!), fruit, and even pizzas on your grill.

Portion Your Plate –Look to the new MyPlate food icon – fill half your plate with vegetables (grilled veggies, salad), a quarter with whole grains (rice, pasta, bread) and a quarter with lean protein (meat, chicken, fish, seafood, beans.)

Check out this month’s Sunshine Salsa recipe – the perfect summer side for grilled shrimp, chicken or fish!