Many families want to eat healthier and spend wiser. Parents and kids can achieve both goals with one commitment – eating at home! Fast food and sit-down restaurants may easier for busy families, but they’re not the healthiest. And they certainly cost more.
The best place to start is in your kitchen. These five easy steps help you makeover your pantry and fridge, feed your family fresh healthy meals and save money, to boot.
1. Make time for planning
Let’s get real: When five o’clock rolls around and you have no plans for dinner and aren’t really sure what’s in the fridge, cooking at home isn’t reality. That’s why preparation is key.
"Sit down on Saturday or Sunday and plan out your week," says Lynne Schreiber for Hiller’s Markets, which has seven locations in southeast Michigan – from what meat you’ll need to the vegetables and spices you’ll use.
Choose simpler meals for busy days, like soup or pasta dishes. Save more elaborate meals, such as beef and butternut squash stew for the weekend. Check out weekly circulars for deals and to perhaps guide your menu items.
Knowing what you need to purchase and writing a list will help you stay on track. Plus, you won’t have to worry about forgetting items.
2. Pack a punch with protein
Meat or some other protein takes a starring role in meals. The other ingredients and side dishes are supporting players. But as most families know, the stars often have the highest price tag.
When you’re checking out that circular, look for sales to offset these costs. If there’s a good deal on ground beef, it’s a great opportunity for you to buy more than you need, pack it in one-meal portions and freeze it for later use.
You could also mix in some onions, garlic or the seasoning of your choice and brown it all at once before freezing. It makes an instant starter for pastas, soups and stews, says Schreiber.
If you’re running late from work or don’t have time to prepare a meal, try purchasing a rotisserie chicken. They’re an economical instant meal when paired with a salad. And consider a few meals a week that include beans, tofu, texturized vegetable protein and other non-meat protein sources.
3. Stock up on healthy staples
What should you have on hand? Extra virgin olive oil to saute food: It’s the least processed, holding the most nutrients and gives flavor to many dishes. Oatmeal is healthy and filling, Schreiber adds – a great option for breakfast, and a healthier binder for meatloaf than processed breadcrumbs.
Others? Potatoes and canned or dried beans, which can be added to main dishes or served as a side. For pasta lovers, Schreiber says there are many options for healthier noodles, including whole-wheat pasta.
Low-fat milk, 2-percent cottage cheese and yogurt make good snacks to have at home. You can always mix them with fresh fruit and a drizzle of honey for yummy but healthy treat
And have fruits and vegetables in the house at all times, especially those that are easy to eat on the run. Bananas, lunchbox-size apples and baby carrots are a great pick for kids.
4. Seek alternatives to unhealthy favorites
We all have our favorite dishes and snacks, but there are usually healthy substitutions.
Many families love chips, but all the salt and calories aren’t so great. Instead, try snacking on baked chips, pretzels or veggie chips. For coffee and tea drinkers, Schreiber suggests using honey or agave nectar, which has a lower glycemic index, so it doesn’t spike blood sugar the way refined sugar does.
In addition, for cooking and baking, both whole-wheat flour and whole-wheat pastry flour can be substituted one-for-one with regular white flour. Sunflower butter is great for people who have children with peanut allergies (or your kids’ friends who may visit).
And while a lot of kids love to dip their veggies in ranch, a healthier choice is hummus. Made of chickpeas, it’s a great source of protein, potassium and fiber.
5. Allow for some flexibility
Remember: You’re not going to be to sustain this change if you don’t allow for some deviation – whether that’s letting your kids pick one "bad food" a week or factoring one fast-food or dine-out meal every other week or so.
"We really just do a balance," says West Bloomfield mom Debi Allison. While she takes her sons shopping and wants them familiar with the process of picking out healthy items, she allows them to pick one snack, such as cookies or candy.
The occasional splurge like this gives the balance that every family should strive for this year – and any year.