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Harvard Health Blog
Real-life healthy dinners (for real people with real busy lives)
At the end of a long workday, my husband and I will often trade texts figuring out who will pick up the kids at my mother's, and who will deal with dinner. Thankfully, we're equal partners in all responsibilities (except spider-killing, which is strictly Hubby's job) and dietary preferences. We're both health-conscious foodie types. We want good food that's good for us.
An unvarnished look at family dinner
The kids, on the other hand… I'm not sure how this happened, but we somehow raised creatures with tastes vastly different from ours, and each other. We've never tried to cook an evening family meal that everyone would eat, because such a meal does not exist. Instead, we stock up on parent-approved kids' faves that they can essentially get for themselves, or that can be prepared with minimal time and fuss, on a moment's notice. And we try to all eat in the same room, at sort of the same time.
Do our kids eat as healthfully as we do, or we would like them to? No, but they eat healthfully enough, they're developing well, and that's fine. On a "good" night, their dinners may consist of: an apple with cinnamon/a yogurt/a bag of pea puffs for my five-year-old daughter, and scrambled eggs with cheddar/pita bread/a fresh peach for my seven-year-old son. On a "bad" night, it may be a warmed-up blueberry pancake with extra blueberries and extra butter for my daughter, and bacon (lots of bacon) for my son. This is entirely okay with us. As a matter of fact, it's incredibly liberating to let go of the idea that we always need to eat exactly the same thing, and that it has to be perfectly healthy. After all, Hubby and I enjoy pizza and wings sometimes, too!
Here's a practical approach to striking a balance
What matters is what we all eat most of the time, and most of the time, we're eating a healthy combo of fruits and veggies (we eat mostly fruits and veggies, all week), lean protein, and healthy fats.
Hubby and I rely heavily on frozen foods. Not pre-prepared, store-bought frozen meals, but rather frozen veggies galore, veggie burgers, and tofu "chik'n." The pantry is stocked with quick-cooking quinoa and brown rice, canned and bottled accompaniments for different-themed meals (like Kalamata olives, sundried tomatoes, and hearts of palm for a Greek salad; sliced water chestnuts and baby corn for a stir-fry; salsa for a southwestern meal). We always keep various nuts and seeds on hand (cashews, almonds, pine nuts, pepitas, sesame and sunflower seeds, for example), as these can be added to a salad or stir-fry for extra healthy fiber/protein/fat. We make sure we're always stocked up on condiments like sesame oil, soy sauce, ground ginger and cilantro, olive oil, various vinegars, broths, and wines for cooking. In the fridge, there's almost always romaine lettuce, onions, peppers, lemons, limes, and cherry tomatoes (all of which last awhile and can be used in many types of recipes). And of course, tons and tons of fruit, yogurts, and cheeses of all kinds.
Thus prepared, we always have ingredients for our go-to, quick and easy dinner repertoire.
Here are some basic healthy dinners we really do eat on a regular basis
So-Quick Southwestern Salad
- Two or three black-bean veggie burgers (there are several brands, usually in the frozen foods aisle)
- A heart or two of romaine lettuce
- Tomatoes (a bunch of cherry tomatoes, or a regular tomato or two)
- A lemon and/or a lime
- Salt/pepper to taste
- Olive oil
- Pepitas (toasted, or not), a good handful or two
How we do it: Get home from work, drop various and sundry backpacks and bags, ask kids to feed cats.
- Grab veggie burgers from freezer and throw in toaster oven to bake or broil.
- Wash lettuce and tomatoes, shred/cut, and throw in a salad bowl.
- Juice lemon/lime over the mix.
- Then sprinkle olive oil, salt and pepper, and pepitas over, and toss.
- Tell partner to set table and get drinks (water, wine, whatever).
- Help the kids get their dinners together and move salad bowl, kids, and all food to table.
- Pull burgers out of toaster oven (don't forget to turn it off, as we have) and either serve mixed in, alongside, or on top of salad.
You can obviously vary this as much as you like. You can top with some salsa, shredded cheddar, and plain Greek yogurt if you want, too. The point is, this meal is fast (we can get this prepared and on the table in under 10 minutes) and it hits all the high points: vegetables, healthy protein, healthy fats, no processed carbs.
Here's another idea to try:
Really Fast Asian Stir-Fry
- A bag of soy-based chik'n (many forms and brands, usually found in the frozen foods aisle)
- A bag or two of frozen veggies of your choice
- A can or two of Asian-style veggies like sliced water chestnuts
- Sesame oil
- Soy sauce
- Ground ginger if you have it
- Cashews or sesame seeds
Directions: See above about getting home and getting kids together.
- Pull out a wok or a large frying pan, set on stove, and turn on heat. Let it heat while you get other ingredients out.
- When hot, add about a tablespoon or two of sesame oil, then soy chik'n.
- Cook and stir until hot and browned, then dump your veggies right on top, soy sauce (a teaspoon or two), ginger (a teaspoon or so), stir it all up, and cover.
- Let it heat up for a few minutes, stirring occasionally.
- When hot, throw in cashews or sesame seeds (a handful or so, toasted or not), and serve.
Again, you can vary this to suit your taste. You can always use fresh veggies. You can add spicy sriracha sauce or teriyaki sauce. If you like rice with your stir-fry, there is microwave brown rice that is very fast. (Pro tip: we will often simply reheat brown rice that we've made earlier and frozen.) The point is, again, that this is a recipe that's fast as well as healthful. Make extra and have it the next night, or take it to work for lunch!
Looking for a healthy breakfast recipe? Check out my other blog post.
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