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Tips to Make Family Dinner Prep and Cooking Easier, Faster

Not smitten with the kitchen? Never fear, southeast Michigan moms and dads. Here's an alternative plan for feeding your kids healthy foods – without slaving over the stove.

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Go raw

It may sound wacky, but raw foodists reason that they're satisfied, never hungry and free of many of the illnesses and conditions that plague our society.

The basic premise to raw food is not to heat anything above 118 degrees, explains McNinch. That way, none of the natural enzymes in food disappear. And raw foodists stick mostly to veggies – though there are some that embrace raw milk and raw meat like sashimi.

Patronize local farmers markets for the freshest food around. And consider foraging – McNinch has picked grapes in her yard and seen healthy, nutrient-rich options in fields in Lapeer, Mich. and elsewhere. "There's so much growing – wild foods are the most nutritionally-dense foods on the planet," she says. "Eat a little bit of that food raw, and you are satiated for the day."

An easy way to add raw food into your diet is with smoothies. Another great way is to try a dehydrator – that's how raw enthusiasts make chips, crackers – even breads. "Raw kale chips are amazing," McNinch says.

Theme nights

Feel like a short-order cook? In today's families, one kid goes vegetarian, another is vegan, one loves chicken nuggets and French fries – and inevitably there's a dieting parent in the mix. How do you cook one meal that serves every family member? Think in terms of themes.

Here are five stellar themes that kids will love:

Mexican meal. Make-your-own tacos, with either soft or hard shells, can be filled with Mexican-seasoned ground beef, beer-battered baked fish fillets, homemade bean dip or strictly veggies, raw and pre-cut from the store or roasted in the oven. Chop tomatoes, olives, scallions and avocado, and put in small bowls. Buy a couple of good taco sauces or salsas. Grate a good cheese to sprinkle on top. A good side dish is Spanish rice. Use leftovers for a layered bean dip.
Mediterranean meal. Easy to make quickly and often, sans cooking! Make a big Greek salad or feta fattoush salad, buy whole-wheat pita from any store or restaurant, and arrange a platter of veggies and salads, including baba ghanoush, hummus, tabouli, lentils, brown rice grape leaves and Lebanese pickles. Want meat? Skewer lamb or chicken chunks with thick cut veggies (peppers, onions, tomatoes, eggplant) and grill or roast. Serve with rice pilaf.
Pizza, pasta or potato bar. For the crab base, get pre-made pizza dough or make your own, boil a big pot of whole-grain pasta or bake potatoes and sweet potatoes. Get creative with toppings. Choose a hearty, good cheese vs. processed varieties. Sauces abound, from canned tomato to creme fraiche, mascarpone or sour cream. Any veggies go: Chopped olives or artichokes, slivered herbs, a sprinkling of nuts and meat or soy substitutes. You could even open a can of salmon or tuna.
Breakfast for dinner. Pancakes, eggs, toast and more. Try a simple omelet station, says Goldberg. Make eggs, egg whites or scrambled tofu, throw in veggies – "I love chopped kale" – and finish off with goat cheese or a bit of salsa or tomato sauce. For pancakes, make from scratch or buy a whole-grain mix. Fresh fruit is a great side. Maple syrup provides a sweet touch that's still healthy. Whole-grain freezer waffles can work, too.
All things Asian. Start with a freezer bag of edamame as an appetizer (boil for a few minutes, sprinkle with salt and serve), which'll tide the kids over until dinner. That buys you time to chop veggies and throw them into a skillet or wok to stir fry with sesame oil, soy sauce and sesame seeds. Brown rice is an easy side. Choose a lean protein like salmon (a fish that most kids like) and you're set.

Any of these options provides enough variation to please every family member without sacrificing flavor, taste or creativity. Even better, all of these themes (and others, too) are easy to fill with veggies and don't have to be elaborate.

Stretch your meals

"My favorite thing is to take one dish and then, the next day, change it up by making it totally different," says Pierce. "We love to do a fiesta, a big taco bar. We always make Spanish rice, beans, guacamole – and the next day I'll layer leftovers into a dip."

Pierce is fond of hearty vegetable-rich soups, which she'll take the next day, pour into a piecrust and top with biscuit or cornbread topping.

"Even though we know it's the same chili, the kids think it's something new," Pierce says. "That works with any chili – bean, barley, lentil. Indian dishes are great for that too. They pair so well with a piecrust top."

Use your microwave

If there's one thing Busch's Fresh Food Market chef Jeff Sharrow does not want to do after a day in the grocery chain's kitchen, it's go home and cook for his family. And yet, Sharrow wants to make sure his young child eats healthy foods.

That's why he turns to the microwave for help steaming vegetables, cooking potatoes or otherwise creating a health-conscious family meal without strain and stress.

"You can steam all kinds of vegetables in the microwave by simply putting the vegetable in there and covering a little bit with water in the bottom – you retain nutrients that way," he says. Plus, you can use the cooking liquid as a soup base or to saute with.

Baked potatoes take five to nine minutes to soften in the microwave. Sharrow likes to coat with a thin layer of vegetable oil and wrap in plastic to retain moisture.

For BLT night at the Sharrow household, turkey bacon cooks in the microwave in 35 seconds. Sharrow uses individual whole grain rounds instead of bread.

He also uses the microwave to make infused oils to season meat with. Mix together olive oil, fresh garlic and dried herbs and set in the microwave for 20 seconds. Then spread on bread for garlic bread or use to season meats before roasting.

Familiar, but healthy

"You can feed your kids healthy foods that even taste like they're not healthy by switching up ingredients," says Annabel Cohen, a Bloomfield Hills caterer.

For example, make a healthier chicken nugget, suggests Cohen. Buy fresh chicken tenders, dip in egg white and roll in whole-wheat flour. Instead of coating in bread crumbs, grind up a whole wheat healthy cereal in the food processor and use that as the top coating, she says. Then arrange on a cookie sheet and drizzle with a little olive oil and bake.

Mac and cheese, a perennial kid favorite, can go healthy, too. Boil whole grain macaroni and make your own sauce. "Any real cheese is better than powdered stuff," Cohen says. "Processed cheese is not really cheese. I don't care what the commercials say."

Make a sauce out of olive oil, flour, skim milk and a hearty cheddar or fontina cheese. And you can mix in a bunch of options to add nutrients and flavor – cottage cheese for added creaminess without the fat of cream, or diced fresh ham (nitrate-free).

"You're easing kids out of really crappy food, into medium crappy food and eventually into healthy food," says Cohen. "When we were growing up, they didn't have all the chemicals that we have today, and they didn't eat the quantities we eat today.

"Some things are easy – substitute baked chips for fried chips. Are they as good? No. But they're still chips. It's important to go in stages – eventually the bad stuff is gone and you don't notice it's missing."

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