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Healthy and Inexpensive Meals for Busy Families

May 2008

Karen Ensle Ed.D., RD, FADA, CFCS
Family & Community Health Sciences Educator
Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Union County

Many families are eating on the run and losing precious moments together which bond the family and help them socialize. Ideally, mealtime should provide quality time for families to discuss activities of the day. It should allow adults to provide, not only healthy foods for their children, but also emotional and social support. Thus, time, along with money, is a major resource for healthy eating.

Keeping food costs down is important in today’s world. Food prices, especially for staples such as bread, milk, eggs, and flour, have been rising for a variety of reasons including increasing world demand, higher food distribution costs due to increasing fuel oil prices, and the ethanol boom, which has driven up corn prices 70% in just one year. In addition, higher corn prices mean higher costs for meat that comes from animals who feed on corn, as well as for processed foods (e.g., breakfast cereal) that use corn as a key ingredient.

Eating food at home is generally cheaper than eating away from home and allows families to control food preparation methods (e.g., broiling instead of frying) and ingredient selection. Meal preparation at home allows for the healthiest food choices in an atmosphere of companionship and support.

To fully enjoy family meals together, keep the television off and sit together so everyone can be included in the conversation. Establish a set time for family meals that establishes a regular meal pattern. Keep the whole family involved with planning, shopping, and preparing the meals. Make children a part of the process so they learn to cook healthy foods and understand the importance of eating and relaxing together.

Planning ahead is the secret to successful family meals. Keep meals simple to prepare in less than thirty minutes. Use fresh or frozen foods as much as possible and season them with herbs and spices rather than fat, salt, or sugar. Cook ahead when you have more time and then freeze what you don’t eat. Easy foods to prepare ahead are soups, stews, pasta dishes, and casserole type meals.

Cook using “fast” methods such as microwaving, broiling, or stir frying. To save time, buy partially prepared foods and keep staple items in your pantry and refrigerator so you only have to food shop several times each month. Every night does not need to be a “hot meal” to be healthy. Remember, variety is the key to a healthy diet.

In summary, small steps, such as eating more family meals together, planning menus ahead, and following recommendations of the 2005 Dietary Guidelines, can help families eat healthier, communicate better, and provide support for each other. As food prices continue to increase, smart shopping strategies can help ease the pain. Examples include buying nonperishable items in bulk and fresh produce in season, using generic and/or store brands, and simply eating less and buying less.